Style counsel: Design expert Harpur's decorating tips
STYLING is to a room as icing is to a cake. It's the final touch, once all the basics are in place, and it can make all the difference in the world. Some people make it look effortless. They throw a rug over the sofa, carelessly toss a few cushions into the mix and the room looks amazing. I envy their talent. When I try the same thing, it looks like the dog has rolled on it. I just don't have the styling gene.
For those like me who are daunted by styling, it's sometimes an idea to ask an expert. The stylist Eleanor Harpur has worked for Habitat, Brown Thomas and Avoca, as well as styling numerous magazine shoots, and first thing that she admits is that interiors photography doesn't reflect how people actually live.
For every flawless room you see in a magazine, some hardworking stylist has spent hours tidying, hiding belongings and arranging everything to its best advantage.
"Styling a magazine shoot is quite different to styling a room that you actually live in, but you would use more or less the same checklist at home," says Harpur. "You want to create a focal point in the room, like a piece of art or a piece of furniture, and work around it. Then you mix and match colour and pattern in small doses to give the room a bit of character."
A lot of it is about being able to group accessories together.
Her next point is a surprise. "Over the last ten years people have got very frightened of clutter, whether it's a pile of objects on a shelf or a wall full of photographs. If you like them, keep them. Living in a house that looks like a show house is not conducive to ordinary living." I'm with her on that one.
"I would never have something in my house unless I really liked it - if you don't love it, there's no point in having it," says Harpur.
It may take her weeks to choose a set of cutlery but she feels it is important to make the right decision about something that you use every day, even if it's a small item.
And she reckons you get a better result with styling a home if you approach it slowly, and let the look build up over time.
"I'm a bit fussy," she confesses. "We've been in the new house three years and there are still no floors in the bedrooms. I haven't found something I like yet. We've just repainted the concrete!"
Harpur recently styled her own home for an article published in House and Home, Ireland's biggest interiors glossy. Her efforts were photographed by Neil Hurley Photography. "There's a lot of bright colour and mismatched pattern," she says.
The basics, like the kitchen, the floor and the main pieces of furniture are very neutral and gives her a blank canvas to work with. "Apart from the children's bedrooms, all the rooms are painted white. It makes it very easy to slot in new purchases."
Most of the colour and texture in her home come from the accessories, which include several nice pieces of craft. "I borrowed some of these for the shoot, but they're all things that I would like to have," she says. It's like I said - the homes that you see in magazines are aspirational!
Harpur was curator of home and giftware at Showcase, Ireland's biggest trade fair, which took place in January 2015. This gives her an inside track on what's current in Irish-made accessories. Many of these are small companies making most of their work by hand so if you're looking to accessorise with style, here are some home-grown ingredients.
"I really like the ceramics from Arran Street East," she says. "They're well designed with a really beautiful colour palette and they're not too expensive." Prices start at €15 for an espresso pot, a mug costs €15 and large jug costs €75 (www.arranstreeteast.ie). She also picked out BTU (www.btustudio.com), an Antrim-based glass studio, which won the best new product award for their glass-pouring vessel (around €79) and the table linen from 31 Chapel Lane (www.31chapellane.com) where a table napkin woven from Irish linen costs €13. "I'd love a full set of 20 napkins," she says.
These companies are relative newcomers, but Harpur also praised some of the older craft producers like Cushendale (www.cushendale.ie). "They've just done a massive edit of their selection. Their rugs and throws have always been good, and the way they're presented is becoming more contemporary."
If you're not used to buying craft, she suggests that you start with something that gets a lot of handling, like ceramics or textiles.
"People have a perception that craft is twee and that it's expensive. It is more expensive than mass produced items but if you choose wisely, it is something that you'll enjoy every day."
She's right. A few handmade accessories will add character to a room, in between the rug from Ikea and the cushions from Dunnes. If you buy something that you really love, you won't regret the purchase.
But it would take more than a hand-woven throw to make my sofa look classy. I reckon styling is a natural talent, like being able to sing in tune. I can't do that either.