5 Rules Of Decorating From Scratch

Designer Donna Mondi helps a Chicago couple embrace their second act and imparts some essential decorating wisdom in the process.

downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography

The beauty of a blank slate, can also be the biggest challenge, which is precisely where designers like Donna Mondi come in.

For her latest clients — a pair of empty nesters making the leap from a "dark, very traditional" home in the suburbs of Chicago to a new build with modern, clean lines in the heart of the city — vision would prove vital, as would a professional touch and these 5 tips for how to get your decorating game plan started.

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downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography

1. Identify things you love.

While Mondi admits that her design instincts typically kick in once she's chatted with a client and scoped out the space they're working with, she adds that concept images play a big role in fine tuning the design. "It could be projects that we've done before, it could be things that we found on Pinterest... we learn preferences by showing [clients] visual cues," she says. Those cues range from paint colors to fabrics, and sometimes entire rooms. "We want to infuse our style into it so there’s a common thread between our projects, but lifestyles and preferences are all different, and we embrace that."

downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography
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2. Don't forget your lifestyle.

Moving from a suburban home with kids to an empty nest in the city, was no small shift for Mondi's clients. "This is the first time in a long time that they really get to make decisions about the two of them and how they want to live versus how you have to live with children," Mondi notes. "At that point, you're ready to live a cleaner life, where it’s much more edited. That means the pieces you do have become a little bit more important and significant."

downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography
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3. Start with a neutral palette.

"Neutrals can quickly fall flat," Mondi warns, though she typically starts off most of her interiors with a palette of "black and white and everything in between" for longevity sake. "Those colors don’t go out of style," she says.

The key to keeping things interesting? Adding color in places that are easy to replace. "You can get a lot of color of out coffee table books, floral arrangements, or small accessories."

And even if you’re not adding in color, textured pieces "keep [a space] looking dynamic." Think: Leather mixed with woven mixed with richly textured things like faux fur. "I’m big on velvet and mohair," Mondi says.

downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography

4. Add in a pop and then replicate it.

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Pro tip: "When you’re popping in something that’s a bold color, repeat it ideally three times," Mondi recommends, pointing to the living room's sunny yellow console. "[The homeowners] made that decision with the builder before we were hired, so we built everything off of that and brought the yellow in, in different ways throughout the space."

Replicating the look, helps the eye accept it as normal, Mondi explains, which is especially useful in these open spaces, where you want to create a cohesive feel (in this case, the kitchen, breakfast nook, and living room). "If it’s just one element, your mind can’t process it, and your mind is like “why is that here?” not connecting it to anything.

Even a detail as simple as lemons on the kitchen counter helps connect the kitchen to those pops of yellow in the living room.

downtown chicago apartment
Stoffer Photography

5. Think vertically.

With views like the ones from this apartment, the instinct may be to forgo drapery panels and let the skyline shine, but Mondi chose to break up the long spans of glass, treating the vertical spaces in the window niches with striking sculptures. "I like height differentials. It brings your eye up so everything doesn’t stay at that sofa-table level."

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