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Seven Layers of Design  

Relieving Design Overwhelm

My Seven Layers of Design was developed over a six-year period in workshops with average Americans from all walks of life.   It started out as 168 layers and over time we whittled it down to seven simple phases that would become the centerpiece for the thousand hours of original lifestyle TV programming that would follow.  It’s goal is to get you through the design process while staying on budget and out of emotional overwhelm.  Below is a VERY quick overview to show you how a room is built from the outside onward.  Enjoy the flash from the past videos too!


This episode was taped in 2005 after we finished my first series, "Interior Motives."   In fact this was recorded just weeks before The Christopher Lowell Show made its national debut.  Again, even then, we were determined to never show anything that would date a room. That way it was far more cost-effective and remained classic forever.

I've tried to break this episode into various acts or segments according each layer.  

Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

Layer # 1 is paint and architectural embellishments: Paint is the cheapest way to transform any space and well worth the effort. The right paint colors will not only add great warmth and richness to any space but will help to visually tie together everything you own into a more cohesive look. Paint is also the great disguiser that can make unsightly things blend into the background or disappear altogether. I can use paint as a color-sculptor in your room to make them feel taller, shorter, more intimate or more spacious. In most cases you'll note I always include not just trim and wall colors, but the ceiling color too.


What we designers know is that the ceiling is really the third wall which can't be decorated with anything but paint and shadow. Also once having added rich color to the walls, leaving the ceiling white actually makes it look lower and totally unfinished like you've spread a bed sheet over the top of your walls. Architectural embellishments are moldings that add value to homes, but also a ton of charm and substance to any space. They, of course, go up first before painting commences. If I know you're a total novice, often I will recommend that you just put molding up on one wall end-to-end, so you don't have to do any intricate mitering. 

Now normally choosing paint and fabrics is the hardest and scariest part of the whole design process.  But thankfully you now have my Room Recipes where I've already pre-coordinated the paint colors and fabrics for you.  You can download them right to smart phone and always have them with you when you shop.  How cool is that?! 

Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

Layer #2 is installed flooring: This is wall-to-wall installation, not area rugs which come later in the accent fabric layer.  In general, remember it's a background color and after you add the next five layers of stuff, how much of that floor are you really going to see? The same with tile or stone. Keep it SIMPLE. If you can't carpet or have nasty looking floors, try paint. A few coats of a smart color underfoot can be quite chic and cover a multitude of sins.


This completes the shell of the room. So if this exhausts your budget, this is a good place to stop, clean up and look forward to the real fun to begin next. While you wait to build up capital, this is an excellent time to really purge your environment of anything you don't use or that no longer applies to the life you'll be living in your new space. Remember if you could drag it in, you can drag it out. Rule of thumb, if you haven't used it in a year, you won't. Pay it forward to someone who could really use it. .

This is actually an entire episode of The Christopher Lowell Show.  I know, it's 45 minutes but I decided to post this off my youtube site because it had a ton of great content that will be invaluable to you.  It will not only explain the 7 layers but also give you a whole bunch of important tips --critical to getting your project done on budget and out of emotional overwhelm. When you think that this episode was taped way back in 2007 (when I was in my 40s with a 29" waist) it's just proof that what I try to teach is design that will never look dated and thus is considered forever classic.  That's code for: "You get a lot of bang for your buck and only have to spend once!"

Best viewed full screen.   

Layer 3-of Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design.

Layer #3 is high-ticket upholstery items: These are basically any oversized fabric covered pieces. In short, these are the room essentials. You can live without a doodad or an ottoman, but not a place to sit or sleeps. Yes, the bed is included here too since, once dressed, it becomes the biggest fabric-coverd thing to go into any room. It's why I like to keep spreads more texture driven as well. Things in this layer (even if they're stock items) generally require a longer lead time from store to space because of delivery so best to get the orders in early. When you choose your 'cover' for sofas and beds, and it looks too boring to you (especially with solid walls too), that's because all of them are backgrounds to which accents will be added later. Don't worry you can punch it up visually with accent fabrics, but that's the next layer. Right now it's best to focus on solid and textured fabrics rather than prints which are the first thing to date a room. So if they're already locked into a major investment piece, versus a smart throw pillow you can easily toss, you're screwed. Stay clear of too much embellishment. On sofas, for instance, too much contrasting piping, tassels, skirts, etc., can often date or earmark an item for use in only a particular (or themed) room. You want to be sure that if you move, that item can go into ANY room of the next place you call home.

This segment is all about working with fabric.  It's essential that you understand the difference between a base fabric (that has to live forever), an accent fabric (that can easily be replaced as your tases change) and a transitional fabrics that bridge the gap between the base and accents.   This information is also included in every one of my Room Recipes so it's with you as you shop.  


When you understand the basic principles of working with fabric you'll never have to worry about locking trendy fabrics in to items that need to last you a very ling time.  Get it?  


This segment is all about how to not only identify and use accent fabrics, but also how to disperse accent fabrics evenly around a room so the space has visual balance and is therefore more restful on the eye. 

Also, pay close attention to how I've placed the seating furniture in the room. Because of this, we've been able to double the seating in the space because it's clustered into conversation groups much like you'd see in a public hotel.  And all the furniture gets lined together with what I call "a cross-linking devise." 

Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

Layer # 4 is accent Fabrics: This is where we can have fun with pattern. Graphics oversized prints. faux hides and textures for pillows, curtains, runners ect., knock yourself out! Because these statement fabrics will be confined to elements that are easily changed out, you can be as bold and dramatic as you'd like. The key here, is to make sure the pattern is balanced evenly throughout the space because it's the first thing the eye will go to as it surveys the room. It's why I'll often tell you to use, say the same fabric from the drapes, as additional throw pillows on chairs, beds or sofas, to bring the pattern from the shell of the room into the midsts of the room.


Statement area rugs fall into this layer too. They're just like accent fabrics just put under foot. While a bit more pricey, they're still cheaper to replace than flooring or wall-to-wall carpeting. Still if budgets are tight, it's best to stay a bit more muted but at least if you gotta have it big and bold, it's portable. Right? Even so, remember that by the time you pile furniture on it, what happens to the pattern?  

For more answers to frequently asked questions on this topic check out our Viewer Mail page, right here.  If you have a question too, you can email me in the form right on that page. 


This segment is all about probably the most important layer of all.  It deals with open and closed storage and those vital surfaces that make a room actually live better and be far more comfortable.  


Without the "workhorses" of the room in the proper places, well, the space just isn't livable.  Period.  


For more on the topic, you can check out our Viewer Mail page. 

Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

Layer #5 is non-upholstered furniture (or what I call the workhorses): Without coffee, end and side tables, or bookcases and chests, a room simply doesn't work. If you have no storage or surfaces, it's just not livable. This layer also includes accent chairs where there's little fabric other than seat covers. One of your main concerns in designing your room, is that there is enough surface where you need it. My rule of thumb is just within arm's length. So furniture placement here is key. One should not have to lunge forward to set something down. Rooms that work well need as much closed storage as open (or display) area. Some things should never be seen while others, displayed well can turn "organization" into an actual design element. In the accessory layer I'll talk more about containers.


The biggest mistake folks make with things like coffee tables they're never big enough. Even in small spaces, a few over scaled things work better than many smaller, light weight things. Remember the eye always sees what's in the room versus the size of it. It's why rooms always look bigger with furniture in them. Who knew? Right?


So if you scale everything down to elf size, you'll feel like you're living in the land of the Lilliputians. Often I suggest overhead shelves in tiny bathrooms or one wall with floor-to-ceiling shelves (just done with standards and pine boards painted the same color as the walls so they look built-in). If so then this goes in layer number one as part of the architecture. To make a room really work hard, there are a lot of issues in this layer which is why it stands alone. 


This segment is all about what I call the merchandising of a room.  It's a retail term but it amply applies to your own home too.  When the human hand deliberately touches an object with artistic intent, it "smiles" and tells a better story about who you are.  Remember, just because you won it, doesn't meant you have to show it. Lean how to edit a room piece by piece until it tells the narrative you want.  More great rooms get killed by too much stuff or too many ideas all in one room.  So pick a theme and stick to it.  


Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

Layer #6 is accessories: This is my favorite. It's where you can inject personal items like photos, books, and other icons that mean so much to you. This layer also covers all wall art, and that includes mirrors which are the great space stretchers of all time. Here the key is restraint. Less is best, and the art of good display is mostly about editing. Integrating the old and the new is the most artful part of the design process since it's where you really tell your personal story. I will say, it's a fluid process you'll be engaged in for the life of the space. You'll tweak, you'll reposition and in the end, you'll re-edit until you get down to the essentials you care about most. Over-accessorizing just to fill space is the amateur's insecurity. Rooms need to breath, and the eye needs to lite and rest. TMI can kill a great space.


Often just the new beautiful wall color is all that's needed and in your first phase will do more visual furnishing than you might think. Here, it's not what you pay, but how you group that makes all the difference. Remember just because you own it, doesn't mean it should be seen. Here "organization" as actual "design" comes into play with decorative containers that can elevate the most mundane of items into eye-candy. However, they are not to hide stuff you don't know what to do with. That's just making landfill.

This segment is all about the importance of light and shadow is a room.  An overlit room can be cold and charmless.  A well lit room can be charming, alluring and magical.   

Often it's the lighting that can take an inexpensive and disjointed space and turn it into high seductive drama that looks like you paid a fortune.   Think of your room like a theater set where the lite is focused only an what you want your "audience" to see.   


Christopher Lowell's seven layers of design

Layer # 7 is plants and lighting: Shadow is an important, if not a critical aspect in creating an inspiring mood in the room. Sculpting with light can make cheap things look like museum finds and turn not so great stuff into dynamic silhouettes and shapes that can be poetic. Pools of light just where you need them, arcs of light on yummy wall color, and the flicker of candle light are what create spaces you and guests want to linger in. Today, it's a very inexpensive proposition to add this theatrical element to every room without ever calling an electrician. What makes the best ambiance is when as much light is shooting up from the floor as down from overheads and lamps. This can be achieved with a twelve-dollar can up-light available anywhere. That's where plants come into play.


An up-light placed below a small tree is what can furnishes your newly painted ceiling with soft shape and shadow that umbrellas you. Tabletop dimmers allow you to control lamps so the atmosphere day or night, reflects your mood. Faux plants today (thanks to digital reproduction) are no longer considered a no-no. Even of not real they still give a space the impression of something living and growing with fresh possibility.

Christopher Lowell's 7 layers of design

The Seven Layers Of Design literally revolutionized how the do-it-your-selfer looked at interior design.  It took me 6 years of working with everyday students in my studio, to get down to the most critical layers of design.  Those moments when you start to doubt yourself can bring a project to a screeching halt. So, that's want I focused on.  


We taped every class and when we went to edit the presentation we were stunned at the remarkable transformation each and every student went through.  But then that's the power of personal creativity once it's reignited.  It has the power to change lives.  


Well, 5 minutes into the presentation to The Discovery Channel, there wasn't a dry eye in the house and when it faded to black, I was offered my own TV show.   The Seven Layers Of Design became the most important new book on the topic and even I was blown away at its global popularity and multiple reprinting.  


More importantly mine was the first program in the genre to be built around a solid teaching philosophy that became our production bible with each and every show.  It would later change the very how-too genre itself while launching a brand new channel called HGTV.  Who knew? 

So my point here isn't to brag, but to assure you that The Seven Layers has been successfully implemented by literally millions of our viewers and readers. So, I hope that gives you confidence and that you'll take advantage of it in the videos above.  If you're interested in the actual book, I'm told that they're still available on Amazon almost 20 years later and they're super cheap. But I'm not here to sell books I'm here to get your creativity juices flowing.  


The perfect way to prove to yourself how creative you really are, is under your own roof in your very own home. So get busy!    

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