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Sarah Richardson: How to take a home from dated and dark to bright and bold

Using a light neutral colour for your major furnishings allows you to add strong accent colours in fun, impactful ways.

Stacey Brandford

Many apartment dwellers dream of one day making the big jump to owning. After years of communal hallways and cramped spaces, my clients were keen to spread their wings – spend all their savings – and land in a home that was entirely their own. But which house? Part of knowing if a house is right for you comes from an understanding of how much work is required to make it suit your lifestyle. In this case, Mr. was keen to sink his teeth into a healthy list of DIY projects, but Mrs., not so much. So the home they chose was one that required work to the living and dining rooms, while most of the other spaces needed only simple fix-ups. Yours truly was tasked with turning the dated and dark principal rooms into cheery open spaces that embraced the owners' bright, bold personalities.

Get the elephant out of the room

Almost every home has a room with a major flaw. This house came with one of the ugliest fireplaces I've seen. Heavy-handed, overscaled in size, and covered in exterior brick, it had nary a redeeming feature. The good news? A few hours and a few sledgehammers allowed us to be out with the old and in with the new. Once the bricks were off, a simple rebuild of the fireplace took place with new framing. Next came concrete board and the whole thing was ready to be re-tiled. A custom marble slab surround wasn't in the budget for our first-time homeowners, so we used inexpensive sheets of marble mosaic for the face of the surround, large-scale marble tiles for the hearth, and lumber store elements to create a custom mantel with crown moulding and flat stock. What used to be an eyesore is now ready to take the chill off winter nights, and set the scene for entertaining.

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Stripe it up

My client requested turquoise as her colour of choice for this main floor makeover. Most people like to make a colour statement, but it's important not to overdo it. Bold, intense hues can energize a room, but they can also easily overpower it. In addition to being too much of a good thing, wallpapering the entire room in Farrow and Ball paper was also out of the budget spectrum, so we made the best use of a single roll and installed it horizontally across and around the chimney breast. The saturated turquoise is a welcome contrast to the crisp white fireplace below.

Leave a little white space

I love working with colour, but the secret is balancing where to use colour and where to do without. No matter how hue-filled my rooms appear at first glance, I would always encourage you to look a little closer and see how many neutral elements you can find. Since you never know if your clients' colour preferences are a lifelong passion or merely a passing fancy, it always makes sense to plan for change. The sofa and armchairs are cream leather (which is light, bright and durable to boot), the main section of the walls are painted cream, and we kept an eye on the bottom line by fashioning drapes with decorative patterned edge panels out of inexpensive ready-made cream drape panels. If you start out by committing to a light neutral for the majority of your furnishings, it's easy to have fun and inject playful accents of colour and pattern in high-impact ways.

Blur the boundaries

When we started, the living room and dining room were small rooms that felt cramped and out of sync with my clients' desire for open entertaining space. If you are trying to mindful of your budget, major structural changes are out of the question, but small modifications may still do the trick. Widening and raising the archway between the two rooms proved to be money well spent as the living room furniture was able to edge into what was formerly the dining room. Widening the doorway also provides better traffic flow, makes the room feel more contemporary and brings in more light from the west-facing front of the house. Treating both rooms to a single paint and decor scheme has the added benefit of making the spaces seem bigger since the eye reads them as one.

Fix the squeaky wheel

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Prioritization of renovation dollars is a tough exercise, but an important one. Getting the fundamentals of a room right before you move in should always be top of the list. You'll always be able to swap out furnishings, accessories and artwork for better quality in the future, but replacing floors, smashing fireplaces and demolishing plaster walls should always jump to the front of the line. Moving out to refinish or replace your floors at a later date is just a bad (and dusty) idea that will cause too much disruption once you've settled in. If squeaky, splintered floors annoy you during a house tour, imagine how much you'll grow to loathe them once you've settled into your new digs. Replace them now, not later.

Save time and money

If time is of the essence and you need the dust to settle so you can move in ASAP, you'll be glad to know that pre-finished floors have come a long way and now include exotic and eco-friendly woods. After discovering that eucalyptus is a fast-growing renewable resource that is just as hard as oak and comes with a lovely mid-tone colour and a reasonable price point, I knew I'd found the right floor choice. We got rid of the squeaks and creaks, with a bit of an exotic tropical touch as an added bonus.

Sarah Richardson's Real Potential can be seen Thursdays at 9 p,m. on HGTV.


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Leather sofa and armchairs, velvet pillows, dining room rug, picture frames and ivory drapery panels: Ikea

Engineered hardwood flooring (Wheat Eucalyptus 70799): Strategis Flooring & Décor Inc.

Fireplace tile: Saltillo Imports

Josephine chairs, custom ottoman: Sarah Richardson Design Inc.

Dining chairs, wood accent table: Chatelet

Spraying of dining chairs and lamps: Benjamen Furniture Refinishing

Dining chair upholstery: Windsor House Furniture

Fabric on chair, ottoman and dining chairs, drapery detail: Designer Fabrics

Wall screen, lamps, ottoman base, candlesticks, vintage accessories: Around the Block

Living room rug, basket, graphic pillows, teal dishes, cutlery, glass tumblers, silver bowl on sideboard, vases, wine glasses, bowls: Homesense

Teak side tables: Zig Zag

Pendant light in living room: Home Depot

Green table lamp, teak sideboard: Green's Antiques 416.925.1556

Dining room chandelier: Douglas Poole Antiques 416.368.1818

Vases on fireplace mantel, pillows, throw, napkins & bud vases on dining table: Indigo

Teal ribbed glasses: Urban Barn

Wood trim: Brenlo

Paint Colours, Wallpaper:

Ceiling - Cabbage White 269; Trim - All White 2005; Walls above plate rail - Green Blue 84; Walls below plate rail - White Tie 2002; Wallpaper - Plain Stripe ST 1159. Farrow & Ball

Dining chairs, lamps - Regal Wave 70BG 09/171 Dulux Paint

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