Wednesday, May 26, 2010

With the increase in square footage that home builders are now offering, and the number of us who quickly pick up the phone or click our mouse to grab the latest airline seat sale to get a change of location and break from life now and again, having guests in our houses and a fully-dedicated guest room is more common now than ever before.  Living in southern California, we have guests often and I'm always looking for ways to make their stay even more comfortable.

It's easy to overlook even the obvious things our guests might want or need because we have everything we could need in our home, so why wouldn't they? Well, let me tell you... I have stayed in hundreds of hotels and many homes of friends and relatives over the years and sometimes the hotels provide a few extras that are often forgotten by well-indended hosts and hostesses.  Here's how to make your guest room homelike and pleasant for incoming company:

1. Bedtime Story.  Do you think you have installed a comfortable place for guests to sleep, or do you know you have? When was the last time you laid down on that bed for an hour with a book yourself, to see if the bed is free of poking springs or sagging middles? Whether it's a bed, a pullout sofa sleeper, or an inflatable "insta-bed", give it a try for yourself and be honest about how comfortable a place it is to spend 8 or so hours.   I once spent a night with relatives who graciously offered up their pullout sofa in the den for the night... all I felt were wiry springs digging into every part of my body.  I ravaged the room for all available throw pillows, blankets and other soft surfaces to put padding between me and the offending mattress, which then meant I had no blankets left to put on top of me for the night.  It was awful, so make sure you know what you are offering to your guests before assuming you are doing them a favor.

Shop for a truly soft, high thread-count set of sheets.  They are inexpensive now with so many manufacturers out there (even Costco).  Add a comforter or duvet in a cover that is cleanable (and preferably, cleaned always between guests), an extra blanket in case the night is chilly.  That same blanket is a great option for your guests to add to the bed if they find it too hot and want something lighter than the comforter.

Pillows with clean pillowcases are an obvious addition, but again, really lay your own head down on those pillows to see if they are still comfortable.  Offer additional pillows for those who like more loft under them too.

2.  Light Up.  Add a small lamp near the bed. Many people like to read in bed, and especially those who may be on a different time zone and not sleeping on the same schedule as everyone else in your house.  A small reading light and a couple of magazines (reasonably current, please - no doctor's office cast-offs, thank you!) means your guests can still rest quietly if insomnia strikes.

A television is also a fantastic option (with a local channel guide) if you have the space and the budget to add it into the room, for the same reason.  Often people will be visiting from other time zones and don't sleep well the first night or two, and a TV they can watch without fear of disturbing anyone else in the house is really nice.

Natural lighting is also a big consideration.  My guest room window is dressed with a wooden blind, a pair of sheer panels and a pair of heavy blackout drapery panels.  My guests can have full bright sunlight or complete blackout in the room as they choose.

3. Come Out of the Closet.  Closet space is at a premium for almost everyone, which means the closet in most guest rooms ends up filled with odds n' ends (true confessions: mine holds luggage, Halloween costumes, out-of-season clothing....).  Try to leave some space your guests can use, with some nice hangers for both tops and pants/skirts, and that they can access easily, which means without standing on their toes and balancing on your bowling ball while reaching into a small cubby of space you cleared in the back. If you have a dresser or nightstand with drawers, try to keep one or two empty for holidayers to use too.

Luggage racks are really a nice touch too.  It shows your guests that you welcome them and their luggage, that you are prepared for their arrival, and you have considered that they are living out of a suitcase while they stay.  These are quite inexpensive now and you can even find them at places like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target nowadays.

4.  Dirty Girls, Dirty Boys.  The first thing I usually want to do when I've been traveling and finally arrive at my home-away-from-home is shower!  Make sure your shower is clean and that all the kid's rubber duckies and other bath toys are corralled into their own storage space.  Leave at least one empty area for your visitor's shampoo, body wash and razor etc.  It's great if you can also leave some liquid bodywash and some decent hair products in the shower in case they need to share yours.

Towels are SO important!  My husband stayed with friends recently who are unmarried and a bit younger.  He really appreciated the chance to spend time with them overnight and save on a hotel room, but it reminded him of the differences between staying at a friend's house when you are in your 20's-30's, and when you are in your 40's+.   Scratchy, thin towels and sheets were more "fraternity house" than "guest house".  Really soft towels and a couple of washcloths that are free of mascara stains and years of various uses & abuses are critical to your visitors feeling like they are as comfortable (or more so, hopefully) than they would've been staying in a hotel.  Get to Target and pick up a couple of sets of fresh  bath linens for less than $20.

A really nice addition is an emergency kit of vanity items.  We recently had friends come to stay and all of their luggage was lost by the airline for the first two days.  Having a couple of new toothbrushes in packages, a clean razor, and some sample packs of moisturizer, cleanser and similar items from department store cosmetic counters was a lifesaver for them.  Travel sizes of deodorant, aspirin, antacids, lip balm, feminine products and a lint roller in a small basket or drawer just for guests will make you as hot a host or hostess as Martha Stewart in your guest's eyes.

5.  All the Rest: a few other important elements: a mirror inside the guest bedroom, which gives people the opportunity to run a brush through their bed-head hair before they see everyone else in the morning or get makeup done in different light than your bathroom mirror offers.  Making it a full-lenth mirror is even better since most of us like to use one when we dress.

An open electrical outlet or two. We all carry cell phones and cameras that require re-charging.

A clock radio.  Who doesn't want to see a clock during the night and morning hours and listen to the local radio stations?

A place for their used bath and bed linens.  Leave an empty laundry hamper or basket, or at the very least, show them where they can drop their used wet towels for laundering in the laundry room.

Bottled water.  Duh!

Now your work is done.  Open up the wine, set out some appie's, and enjoy your time together.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did I Make You Blush?

This week's lesson is about using color.  Don't shy away from it!  Be bold, be vibrant, be fun.  If any of you have been watching NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice, you know that in this week's episode, the teams were challenged with decorating an apartment-hotel suite and that the room that got the most attention was the one Cyndi Lauper decorated.  The walls were daredevil red, the sofa was in adventurous glossy black patent leather, and the accessories included a birdcage and a huge Eiffel Tower.  The choices were very daring and the result is pure rock star glam, and exciting! 
Now obviously this is not a style that suits the lifestyle or taste of everyone, but it is memorable and just plain cool.  Now imagine this same room with a backdrop of white walls.  Not nearly as interesting, would it be? In fact, it would look more like an aisel of a HomeGoods / HomeSense store with an eclectic mish-mash of furniture and accessories.  The strong red walls are proof that the whole design was meant to be eye-catching and feisty.  Cyndi Lauper may not be a decorator by trade, but her creativity and "out-there" style certainly came through in her choices for this room.

Now I am the first one to advocate sensible, somewhat neutral palettes for the bigger common rooms in your homes.  If you have conservative and classic tastes then painting the dining room purple may not properly reflect your style or the vibe you want guests to feel in your space.  But why not find one space in your home where you can go a bit wild and fun and be completely remarkable with your design choices?  Maybe you have a small home office that is used just by you where you can express something unique, or an area dedicated to scrapbooking or woodworking or fitness that will allow you to stretch your imagination?  Perhaps it's a walk-in closet, where a fabulous leopard-print carpet and baroque chandelier can be displayed as you unleash your inner Cher?

As I've said before, find your inspiration in anything that "speaks" to you - the color of a book cover, a piece of clothing, or a funky collectible garage sale lamp.... and then find a corner of your home that lets you throw "safe" color out the window and just go bananas.  Remember my design lesson in eclectic style? Things are chosen more because they "don't go" - they are collected, fun, interesting and that's what gives the space interest instead of calmness.  In this office below, I used "sangria" paint color on one feature wall and added floor-length draperies in the same color silk.  The drapery panels add some texture and depth to the wall without breaking up the impact of the full wall of punchy hot pink.  The large upholstered bulletin board gives your eye a resting point on the wall and creates some contrast, just as Cyndi's choice of predominantly white artwork did on her red wall.   Now pull out the paint chips and look at those colors you'd love to use but haven't yet!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Boston Architecture, Then & Now

For those of you who pop in on my blog occasionally, you may have wondered why there has been such a lapse in blog postings.  It's been a busy month for me, including having my mum visit me for a week (she lives in western Canada) and then the passing of my husband's grandma took us to Boston for almost another week (add to that some other out-of-town friends, a couple of unexpected and awful illnesses of people we know, and a school division strike that kept our kids out of school unexpectedly for a few more days, and you see how April suddenly got away from me).

When I first married my husband Frank, we lived in southern New Hampshire.  I had always lived in Alberta, Canada up to that point and moving to New England was interesting, exciting, and certainly offered more of a chance to see North American history than I'd ever been exposed to (as my sister likes to joke, Canada still has that "new country" smell).  When you remember back to first grade history and think that the pilgrims first stepped off that Mayflower ship onto Plymouth Rock in what is now known as Massachusetts, you can imagine how simply mind-blowing the oldest architecture in North America was for me to see up close and personal.  Admittedly, I didn't exactly love living in the countryside of New Hampshire (hello, Manhattan and central Paris are just about my fave spots on earth - so a country girl does not describe me!).  But what I did love was that my husband and I made a point of making the hour long drive into downtown Boston once a month for a fun date night, eating in the best Italian restaurant ever in the old North End, taking in an event at the local theaters, visiting various bars or restaurants or just having a drink on tony Newbury Street and watching the luxury cars drive up and down awaiting their due appreciation.  We were married in the Boston Public Gardens and had our reception in the penthouse apartment of the Hampshire House, more commonly known to most as "the building the Cheers bar is in".  So you can see why I have a sentimental attachment to the heart of Boston still today, and loved the opportunity to revisit this small yet remarkable city over the past week that is the polar opposite of my current Orange County home, which is surrounded by all new buildings and young trees.

The Zakin bridge is now the grand entrance to the city, a bridge that I saw the progress of during all it's phases of construction while I lived nearby.  That bridge is so iconic and breathtaking now; a proclamation that you have arrived in Boston that would make even Paul Revere proud.  Illuminated at night, it is even more spectacular (night photo courtesy Boston Globe).

The city has done an awesome job of maintaining so many of the original structures while still moving very much into the 21st century with modern architecture and amenities (for those of you who have traveled to European cities, the history is very much in-tact; modern conveniences are not quite so available as they are in this city).  The Old State House sits tightly against a number of modern buildings, and it's balcony overlooking a busy intersection is where the Declaration of Independence was first read on July 18, 1776.

Samuel Adams and John Hancock are buried just a couple of blocks away in a crowded cemetary tucked between tall buildings.  Today, the John Hancock Tower is now the tallest building in New England at 60 stories.

Those thought to be witches and quakers were hanged in the country's oldest public park: Boston Common.  The old brownstone buildings overlooking the Common and Public Gardens are enough to make a design-o-phile like me drool with the thought of getting into one to decorate.

(That's me standing with the tulips in the Boston Public Gardens.)

Of course, as every Bostonian will tell you, one of the most enduring icons of loyalty and patriotism sits just off the banks of the Charles River - no, not the American flag, but Fenway Park, home of Red Sox Nation and the USA's oldest professional ballpark still in use.
So if you are ever heading to the Northeast of the USA, and haven't yet spent a couple of days enjoying Boston, make sure to add it to your itinerary.  Because even if you aren't as impressed by architecture as I am, you can still make a great memory for yourself by ordering the local chowda or lobstah bisque!