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Barbara Hill on Designing Creative and Comfortable Rooms

The Texas designer shares how to create spaces that simultaneously stand out and stand the test of time.

On open-plan living spaces, like Hill's own bedroom in Marfa, Texas, the designer says: "You can create different seating areas. If you can't create one big one, you create separate ones that flow together." Photo by Misty Keasler.

A Dwell favorite, Texas-based architectural designer Barbara Hill creates comfortable, clean spaces that beg to be lived in. Here, we asked Hill to share her tips for creating cozy rooms, and her design motto: "My formula is, don’t have one. And if you have one, break it."

Click through the slideshow to see her advice in action in some of our favorite Hill-designed spaces.

How do you approach a living room?

I usually start with an important piece like the sofa. I recently had clients that had Barcelona chairs, which are very square and kind of serious so when we started looking at sofas, I wanted them to have something that was more rounded.

I think contrast keeps the room from being boring. Contrast in fabrics, contrast in shapes. So everything is not square or round. If there’s leather, I like to have something like velvet, or something tactile.

For a living room, do you think there are essential things that people may have?

It really depends on the lifestyle. If they tend to have a lot of people over, they’re going to need more seating. Some people don’t even like sofas and then I do just chairs. So there’s really no formula for that, just make sure you have enough seating for your lifestyle. And comfort.

If someone were to entertain a lot, what would you recommend?

Sometimes a space wants a big sofa. But as far as people sitting and conversing, really only two people can talk to each other on a sofa. I actually have to go to the house or apartment and feel the space because just looking at photographs doesn’t do it. And it will hit you on how it sort of wants to be arranged. Or wants to be filled. That, plus, the house will speak to you, and then the clients. But most people that want me to help them are minimalist anyway so that’s not a problem.

How do you evaluate whether a piece of furniture is good quality?

I’ve bought sofas at IKEA for beach houses that hold up pretty well, plus you can replace them down the road. But I seem to buy from companies that are beautifully made. Gerosa and B&B Italia and all those things. And I do think that’s a good place to put your investment. And I also use mid-century furniture that’s second time around. If its in good condition, you can tell by looking. It's already held up for 30 or 40 years. I think its nice to mix in a few old things so your house doesn’t look like a brand new showroom. 

How do you accomplish the right level of contrast in a room?

The key is not looking too busy. Less is more. Keep it as simple as you possibly can and edit. It really is about the editing. We all have too much stuff. If you can't bear to part with something, put it in storage or loan it to someone.

How do you typically design bedrooms?

I think a bedroom should be restful. It should be your go-to place for getting away from all the craziness. It should be very simple and warm. I just think: cozy warm romantic. Even if you live alone, why shouldn’t your bedroom be romantic.

Do you ever work on designing spaces for kids?

Where people may want the rest of their house to be a little more quiet, the kids room can be a lot of fun and have a little more energy. It can really bring out the owner’s personality. I think every room should express the owner’s personality.

What about selecting types of furniture that may grow with a child as they get older?

You buy something at IKEA that you just give away when they change. Or you buy a nice, little more expensive—maybe a very expensive—bed that they keep until they leave home. I’ve been in children’s rooms that had very high-end furniture and they just keep it until they grow up and it doesn’t have to look too adult. That’s a very personal choice there.

What light sources should people consider?

And I love unusual lamps. It’s much warmer [than overhead lights]. It gives you a coziness and a warm and romance. There are so many lamps that are just pieces of art. There are chandeliers that are just pieces of art, too. I think if you’re going to use a chandelier and a lamp, you have to have a very grand house. The biggest mistake for me is contractors and lighting contractors that insist on filling the whole ceiling with lights. It's very busy and it's too much light. Unless you’re going to like shave, I don’t know why you need glaring lights. I like indirect lighting.

How do you create distinct areas in open-plan living spaces?

You can create different seating areas. If you can't create one big one, you create separate ones that flow together. I do like continuity. Although I said I like the unusual, I do like certain threads of continuity in a house, whether it's the color or the type of furniture. Things can be repeated in a certain way. Sometimes that keeps it from being too busy. 

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