Million Dollar Decorators Share Their Best Design Tricks

Updated 09/23/16
Nicole Franzen

While we all want a designer home worthy of a magazine cover, not all of us can afford the price tag of a Million Dollar Decorator. These design a-listers, who famously never get our of bed for under a million dollars, can transform any space into a veritable décor wonderland filled with important antiques, luxe furnishings, and impressive art collections. But as anyone who's watched the now-defunct Bravo TV show knows, these decorators also have a few tricks up their sleeves to make their dollar go farther.

When we found out that the cast of the beloved show would be re-united once again on Snack Chat, a new show newly launched on The Design Network hosted by MDD favorite Nathan Turner, we had to get the group back together to share their best kept design secrets with us. Mary MacDonald, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Jeffrey Alan Marks made us laugh and cry in the hey day of every design lover's television, but they also taught us much that we know about decorating. We weren't disappointed: get ready for a treasure trove of design knowledge from our favorite million dollar decorators (and a few more).

Courtesy of Carrier and Company

There is an art to making a lighting plan, and it involves more than simply purchasing lamps. "To determine the best scale of a light fixture in a room, add the length and width of the space. That will give you the diameter in inches" says Mara Miller, principal at Carrier and Company.  For example, in a 15' x 15' room, a chandelier with a 30" diameter would be perfect (because 15 + 15 = 30).  "If there are multiple fixtures needed for the space, like in a hall, divide that diameter by number of light fixtures to get the right size," she adds.

Million Dollar Decorator Mary MacDonald, who will guest star on Snackchat alongside her longtime pal Nathan Turner is a fan of creating the perfect ambiance through lighting: "When you don't have dimmers and are planning on entertaining, try 15 Watt bulbs and candlelight," she says. "It creates instant mood."

Pelle Jumbo 36 Bubble Chandelier $7600
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Courtesy of Ann Hepfer

Interior designer Jessica McClendon believes in making a statement through art: "A large piece of wall art always elevates a space, makes a statement and is practically impossible to mess up," she says. "I know the gallery wall is trending (I love it, too) but it’s a lot harder to do well than one big, dramatic piece." Her tip for keeping costs low when buying large-scale art: Have your own photographs blown-up. "I have a huge blow-up of a Paris metro station that was taken with my regular old camera," she says.

Heather Day You Were Saying 2 Painting $9200
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Courtesy of Amber Interior Design

Nearly all the designers we tapped for this challenge agree: repurposing existing or vintage furniture is a must for creating a layered look on a budget. Designer to the stars Martyn Lawrence Bullard suggests changing your furniture’s hardware to make an old piece of furniture interesting and fresh again. "I personally love Lucite knobs," he says. "I love how they look like something expensive from the '70s!"

 Up-and-coming designer Sasha Bikoff suggests reupholstering old pieces. "Upholstery is a sure way to transform an old hand-me-down into a statement," she says. She also recommends not beig afraid to opt for fabrics with a lot of personality. "To create harmony, study the shape of the piece and pick a print that mimics its design, or recover a classic with a strikingly modern print to make it pop," she says.

Interior designer Ann Hepfer shares a similar sentiment: "DIY may send you running for the hills, but re-purposing wood and furnishings can be really beautiful and not at all kitschy," she says. "Having a great upholsterer is the key when it comes to home improvements, and by using a boldly patterned fabric you can make a piece of furniture look brand new."

Vintage mastermind Amber Lewis had even more tricks up her sleeves: "Want an upholstered chair but with a sculptural vintage vibe? Add a custom leather seat pad on top. We’ve been doing this lately and it’s definitely one of my favorite touches," she says. No vintage textile is too thrashed for her either: "Just because that vintage textile is thrashed, that doesn’t mean kick it to the curb. Give it a second chance and turn it into an upholstered ottoman or cube!"

Jayson Home Vintage French Chair $695
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Courtesy of Space Exploration Design

Color-phobes, rejoice. Ann Hepfer knows your pain: "If color isn't your thing, there are a few simple rules for rocking the neutral look," she says. "Mix it up with texture. Play with varying shades to create depth." In spaces like bathrooms and kitchens, she suggests playing with metallics, and texture curtains to add warmth to a neutral space.

Jayson Home safi rug $65
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Courtesy of Carrier and Company

We all want to know how interior designers mix ad match patterns so effortlessly, and luckily for us they had great tips to share. "I love pattern on pattern," says Nathan Turner, host of Snackchat, "but it can get busy and go wrong quick! The key is to stay in the same color palette and patching grounds helps as well. If you do that you can mix away!" Interior designer Max Humphrey agreed: "One good trick to give your room a designer look is to limit the color palette and use patterns that vary scale," he recommends.

"If you have a large scale print for your drapes and rug you can use smaller scale patterns on upholstery and pillows and textiles, so it won't look like you've gone overboard. Once you've got that down you can bring in some contrasting colors (in art, accessories, and small pieces) to make the space pop," he says.

The other key to the art of the mix is to start with a neutral base: "I recommend choosing a solid color sofa, which you can inexpensively change the look of by switching out your throw pillows," says Martyn Lawrence Bullard. "I often use linens and floral and geometric designs for my pillows in the summer, and switch those out for velvets and faux fur in the winter." Caitlin Murray of Black Lacquer Design also recommends painting your walls white: "It creates a clean canvas that allows for bold hue choices in unexpected areas, like green kitchen cabinets or a peacock blue sofa."

St. Frank Huipil Pillow XCII $145
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Nicole Franzen

"Not everyone has a mega budget to work with," says Nathan Turner. "So it's important to allocate what you have in a smart way. He recommends splurging on special pieces that will stay with you throughout your life like antiques, art or custom-made handcrafted items. "I like how a good antique, whether it's from the 18th century or a good midcentury piece, can take on different lives as you move from house to house," he says.

Conversely, Million Dollar Decorator Jeffrey-Alan Marks likes to splurge on upholstery: "Keep upholstery in clean tailored lines, and always buy the best quality you can," he says.  "I've had well-made furniture pieces upholstered six or seven times over the years.  Good furniture always works in any situation." To stay within budget, he saves on smaller accents: "I love high-low and I'm not afraid of catalogs or natural elements from the woods to add texture to a room," he says. "My favorite art is a driftwood sculpture I made on the beach after a storm."

Pierre Paulin Small Yellow Formica Desk and Drawer $4295
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Courtesy of Space Exploration Design

Interior designers love to mix periods and styles. "Introducing one or two pieces into unexpected company changes everything, and it's okay to mix different design decades," says Sasha Bikoff. "Mixing styles can be tricky," adds Nathan Turner, "but it's my favorite way to decorate. I find it helpful to look at the lines of pieces. Sometimes you'll find an odd pairing that woks because they share a simplicity, like a clean directoire console flanked by two mid century chairs."

Jeffrey Alan-Marks, who was trained in Britain, thinks they hold the key to mixing color and pattern and layering art. "I love watching a lot of young up-and-coming LA decorators that are developing their own style of mixing eras in brave individual ways."

Jayson Home Ikat Throw $595
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Courtesy of Sasha Bikoff

It's easy to only look at eye-level when decorating, but talented designers know the importance of looking up. "Painting a ceiling is a great way to make a dramatic change," says Sasha Bikoff. "You can also go bold: bright hues of blue, green and maybe lacquer paint, or something that's more subdued but elegant like a metallic leaf."

"A painted ceiling is a game changer," agrees interior designer Sara Gilbane. "Whether it is pale blue, pink, or grey, it sets the mood and allows the entire room to feel finished.  A stark white ceiling is blinding, but a lacquer finish adds a whole other dimension," she adds. Mary Mcdonald, who is also a fan of painted ceilings, tells us that painting a ceiling in a soft pink creates a beautiful glow in your room. Get ready to look glowing!

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Nicole Franzen

Before there is form, there is function, and Caitlin Murray cautions to pay attention to the three feet rule: "Always account for at least three feet of space between pieces of furniture," she says. This create a more easy flow around the house. "I can think of very few exceptions to this rule."

Hans Wegner Easy Chair $3610 $3249
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Courtesy of Carrier and Company

This should come to no surprise to MyDomaine devotees, but hanging drapes as high as they’ll go is a cardinal rule of décor. "It draws the eye up," says Caitlin Murray, and makes ceilings feel higher. "Make sure drapes only barely graze the floor," she adds. Otherwise, it might look unpolished and unprofessional.

Serena & Lily Palmer Linen Window Panel $348 $262
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Courtesy of Space Exploration Design

Beauty is in the details, especially when it comes to décor. sara Gilbane suggests making custom lampshades, or adding tape or fringe to existing shades to add flirt your room. "Typically the lamp shades sold with the lamps are not lined properly, but the correct lining lets the shade glow rather than creating a bright spot in the middle where the bulb is," she says. "Flattering light is everything!" she also suggests to get creative with your upholstery. "Use a second fabric as a contrast on the edge of a cushion," she says.

"This creates visual interest and adds that custom touch."

Kelly Wearstler Linden Table Lamp $840
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Nicole Franzen

Tiny homes are a topic of interest at MyDomaine, so we love getting expert advice on the matter. "When it comes to small spaces I'm not a believer in plain white," says Jeffrey Alan-Marks. "I tend to lean towards highly colored and reflective paint surfaces in these spaces to add a glamorous touch of luxury to the space. Mary Macdonald agrees: "When a room is dark don't go lighter. Go darker and don't fight it," she says. "Lighter hued upholstery will pop and you will have a fresh jewelbox."

Ralph Lauren Paint Mademoiselle $38
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Courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

At the end of the day, paint will always remain the most cost-effective way to transform a space, and our designers agree. "Give tired looking cabinetry in your kitchen or bathroom a fresh coat of paint rather than stain," says Sara Gilbane. She also recommends sanding down a sad parquet floor and painting it with marine paint for a hard wearing finish.

Martyn Lawrenc Bullard suggests faking trim with a coat of paint: "While wainscoting is typically created with wood paneling, painting is an inexpensive way to add architectural detail," he says. "Measure 36 inches from the floor and apply painter’s tape across the room. Brush a rich color (think red or blue) below the tape.  This method is a low-cost way to add depth and space to smaller spaces."

Ralph Lauren Paint Governor's Blue $38
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What is your best design secret? Share your wisdom with us.

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