This column is part of a series on design for the The New York Times. Readers are invited to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: We moved into a new place in March, and our plans to furnish an extra room were waylaid by the pandemic. Is it a good idea to get a pullout sofa bed for guests, given that we don’t know when we’ll be able to host anyone? Day to day, we use the room as an office.
A: Choosing a sofa is tricky even without adding a bed to the equation. Will it fit through your front door? How can you gauge its comfort level without sitting on it first? What if the upholstery gets stained? (Short answers: Measure accurately, check out the cushion composition and consider Crypton fabric.)
Keep in mind that a good sofa will last a decade or more, and hopefully you’ll be able to have guests over before then. Solid wood framing, sinuous spring suspension and durable upholstery fabric with a high-performance rub count will increase the life of a piece, though they will also increase the cost. In the sleeper category, sofa beds with a pullout mattress are more carefully engineered than futons on platforms.
If you can’t decide how much to invest, consider your target audience: Older visitors might appreciate the memory foam mattress on one of Clad Home’s fully customizable sleeper sofas (I like the Agoura style — from $2,045 — which has a thick base that conceals the sleeper mechanism). If your guests are young and resilient, something like the Oxford Pop-Up Platform Full Sleeper Sofa from Room & Board ($2,399 for the queen-size model) should work just fine.
Finally, working from home affects everyone differently, but remember that a sofa in a home office does tempt one to take a postprandial power nap.
Q: We bought a condo last year with a functional but badly outdated kitchen. We thought we could make do until we saved up enough money for a full renovation. But three meals a day for six months have taken their toll, and we’d love to fix up the space starting now. What are some immediate improvements we can make on the cheap, and which can we put off?
A: I used to work at a shelter magazine dedicated to architect-designed homes for wealthy people. I’d estimate that half of the kitchens in those homes disguised Ikea cabinet boxes with custom door and drawer fronts. My point is that everyone’s working within some kind of budget, and custom fronts are a smart idea if you can’t commit to a full remodel.
Companies like Semihandmade, Reform and Scherr’s sell ready-made doors and drawer fronts specifically engineered to fit Ikea cabinets. You just pick the style and color. Some also offer an unfinished option that you can paint yourself, saving additional money upfront.
If replacing doors is too much, too soon, consider repainting your existing cabinetry and adding new hardware. Try out a bold color now (deep yellow?) while you plan for a more significant overhaul a few years down the line.
Other medium-term investments that don’t require a professional include hanging removable wallpaper, putting down peel-and-stick floor tile, incorporating butcher block countertops, mounting a sheet-metal backsplash, painting the ceiling, affixing a pegboard to the blank side of a fridge or upgrading your lighting by installing a dimmer switch.
Plan for upgrades that add functionality, not just beauty. Ryan Hines, a Los Angeles architectural designer, told me he added a whole storage wall to his loft when he bought industrial storage shelves from Uline (from $136 per 6-foot-tall unit) and had them powder-coated in Kelly green. HAY sells a similar version of metal shelving, painted in either pale blue or deep green, for $275.
As for appliances, wait to replace larger pieces like the refrigerator or range, since anything you buy now may not fit into the permanent cabinetry you eventually spring for. Instead, Hines recommended painting cabinets a similar color to your outdated appliance fronts for a monochromatic effect: “If you create less contrast, a lot of people won’t notice the difference between old and new,” he said.
Q: How do I decide what color to paint my front door? We live in an off-white Cape Cod and are planning to tackle the project ourselves.
A: Painting a front door is relatively straightforward: Get that thing off its hinges, strip the old paint, sand the wood, prime, repaint it with a few coats for even coverage, reattach the hardware, then remount. The fun part is researching what hues make the most sense for a given architectural style.
Start with Virginia Savage McAlester’s “A Field Guide to American Houses,” a no-nonsense visual encyclopedia of home types. Try not to get too distracted by all the vocabulary for describing house parts (gambrel! muntin! quoins!) and skip ahead to the Colonial Revival chapter for inspiration on Cape Cods, a style popular in the 1930s and ’40s.
You can go in any direction on the color wheel, but I’d err toward the less flashy hues. Consider New England-appropriate blue-green rather than the saturated lime green you might find on a midcentury rancher in California.
But don’t box yourself in. We’re pretty staid compared to the homeowners of yesteryear, what with our insistence on white trim and on matching our front doors to our shutters. Historically, house painters diversified their color palettes on ceilings, baseboards, trim, columns and floors. So who knows? Your front-door project might jump start your own polychromatic vision.
Q: I’m paralyzed with indecision as to how to hang art. I have about 15 pieces of varying sizes and can’t decide whether to focus on a couple of main walls, or space them throughout our entire two-bedroom apartment. Where do I even start?
A: Kudos to you for having enough patience not to throw spaghetti at the wall as soon as you moved in. You’ve given yourself the time and space to intuit where artworks naturally belong. Where is your eye drawn when sitting on the living room sofa? What do you see upon entering the front door? Focus on these areas first and don’t worry about leaving a few walls unhung.
Next, tackle your groupings — a three-step process. Start by isolating any hero pieces: oversize paintings, anything dainty or detailed, or art with strong sentimental value. These you can display on their own.
Second, take everything else and lay it out on the floor. Group things in pairs, trios and quartets to see what connects visually. (This step is the most involved, and the most creative, as you’ll want to combine pieces that cohere but allow for differentiation.)
Third, sketch elevation drawings of the walls on which you want to mount your art, then rearrange your hero pieces and groupings on paper before committing to hammer and nail.
Spatially, you’ll need to tether your artwork to something (a piece of furniture, an architectural feature, or in the case of a gallery wall, other pieces), or it will seem to float in a sea of drywall. You also risk the untethered effect by mounting artwork too high. Standard practice puts the midpoint at 57 to 60 inches from the floor.
I can’t tell from your question whether you share your space with a partner, family member or roommate, or whether the art was jointly or independently purchased. Advising you on how to navigate that scenario is a whole different column! My best counsel is to make vignettes so compelling that your loved one will forget all about that atrocious college-era band poster.