Home & Design

A Happy ‘Habitat’

October 21, 2015


IN THE INTRODUCTION to her new design book, Habitat: The Field Guide to Decorating, Lauren Liess describes how she and husband David were just casually real-estate browsing online one Saturday when a tempting listing popped up. How could they even think about it: They had just finished HabitatWEBrenovating their house. Plus they had a newborn. And this tempting new house needed a lot of work.

Two months later they had moved in and were doing the house over, room by room, piece by piece, their five-month-old son nestling amid the dust and debris. But once the house was finished, it all seemed worth it.

But when I telephoned Lauren the other day to talk about the new book ($35, published by Abrams), she warned that the conversation would have to take place amid chaos. “I’m in a construction zone (our house),” she emailed.

Say what? I thought the house was finished. That’s what the book says, and it certainly looks finished in the pictures that dot Habitat.

Lauren: We’re in exactly the same place we were in back then–but with four kids now! The baby was five months old then and my new daughter is five months old now.

MLB: And you’re in a new house, in a new neighborhood!?

Lauren: Yes, we moved a month ago. The Catholic high school was moving and we wanted to stay relatively close by. I miss the old house already, but I’ll be over it soon. The old house had only two little bedrooms for the kids. This house is much bigger.


A family room designed by Lauren Liess. Natural elements and casual linen slipcovers set the tone. / “Habitat” photo by Helen Norman.

The new house won’t be the same. This is more of a New England Cape Cod style, more traditional; the last house was contemporary.

MLB: But the pictures of the old house make it look rather rustic.

Lauren: Yes, and I’ll make this a little bit rustic too, but it’s more traditional. It’ll be more New England–I’ve already painted the floors white. But we have the same furniture.

MLB: One thing I noticed in your book–and this may be a silly little thing–but you say “don’t go pillow-crazy” when setting up a guest room (or any bedroom, for that matter).

Lauren: I think beds should be kept simple: sheets, duvet cover, maybe a blanket or throw at the foot of the bed. Maybe the pillows have shams, maybe one decorative pillow.

[She laughs.] The state of my bed is a microcosm of my life. When I’m feeling settled I might have a decorative pillow, but in all this craziness right now, not even that.

MLB: I saw two pictures of your bedroom. One side looks almost funky, with lots of pictures and things hanging on the wall over the bed. In the other picture–the other side of the room, I guess–the setting was quite plain.

Lauren: I like to have energy in a room, so when I walk into the bedroom I am energized by the art on the wall. But when we’re lying in bed, I like to look out on nature, on something soothing and plain. Helps me clear my head.

MLB: And I saw maybe one room in the book where the TV is hung over a fireplace mantel, which I kinda consider a mortal sin of decorating.

Lauren: I tend to put TVs inside things [such as built-in book and media shelving]. But you also do what your client wants. Where TV-watching is the purpose of the room, like a family room, I think the TV can be right out in the open, the focal point of the room.

MLB: I also noticed really comfortable-looking window seats. Most times, window seats are uncomfortably shallow. And because there’s a built-in storage structure beneath them, just putting a thin cushion on top doesn’t mitigate the fact that they’re very hard. They’re more a nice idea than a real place to nestle (although captions in decorating magazines would have us think all homeowners sit for hours in their windows reading books or napping). Your window seats have thick, almost futon-like cushions.

Lauren: I love to make them three or four feet [from the wall to the window]. There you can go a little pillow-crazy! I even used multiple mattresses, layering one on top of another. But that was for a show house.

MLB: What I really loved about your book is that it’s not just a book of glossy photos. You talk about adding architecture to an existing house, about making floor plans before you start decorating, figuring out traffic patterns. You talk about the width of pathways through the different rooms, about whether the house is essentially a “curvy” house or a “straight” one, what the “pace” of the room is, the ratio between furniture and empty space in a room. You really articulate things that are going on in these rooms. How did you learn to do that?

Lauren: I’ve been writing my blog [Pure Style Home at laurenliess.com] for seven years now, and when I’m writing I have to solidify my language. Also, working with an assistant, the more specific I am about things, the better she learns. I break things down, explain every decision.

My language has evolved. With every job I keep reminding myself what kind of house this is, what is right for it.

–Nancy McKeon

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