Designer works to give home ‘something special’
By Stacey Wiedower
Originally published 12:00 a.m., August 23, 2013
Updated 12:16 a.m., August 23, 2013
One of Sara Walden’s biggest design secrets came not from school, not from work in the field, but from life, pure and simple.
“We used to move a lot. We moved eight times in 10 years,” said the Memphis-based interior designer. “I had to learn to make generic spaces look like they had a designer touch to them.”
That’s why all the doors in Walden’s East Memphis home are painted a deep, rich “coffee-bean black.” The house was newly built when Walden and her husband, Bill, bought it. At the time the doors, like the rest of the home’s millwork, were white.
“The builder wouldn’t paint them at first,” Walden said. “He asked, ‘Are you sure?’,” she said, laughing. “That’s something that has worked for me to make a space look like something special was done to it. It really gives a regular room presence.”
Walden also worked to give the home “something special” by creating a neutral base and layering it with soft colors, natural elements and furniture and accessories culled from around the world.
“I like an edited look,” said the Iran-born designer, who has also lived in Singapore,Atlanta and Santiago, Chile. “I feel that simplicity is the most sophisticated thing. I like a very neutral setting.”
She said working as a designer — whether in her own house or for others — is a lot like being a curator. In her travels and her time living and working in other countries, Walden has collected an armoire with
hand-forged iron details from Singapore, a tapestry from Asia and a coffee table made from a reclaimed door from Bali, among other treasures.
She advises clients to choose pieces they like because they like them and then work to incorporate them into their homes — not the other way around.
“You have to collect it and then marry it together and make it look like something that was meant to be put together,” she said. “Then it doesn’t come out looking manufactured. But in the same hand, my job as a designer is to make it look that way, like it’s taken time to come together.”
Her own home is a study of precious and store-bought, of high and low.
In the family room where Walden, Bill and their 15-year-old son, Griffen, spend much of their time, the Singaporean armoire rests across from a Macy’s sofa. In the hearth room, the table from Bali sits before a fireplace topped by a deer head sculpture from Restoration Hardware. And in the two-story entryway, a pedestal table that’s followed Walden from house to house rests beside candle holders from Pier 1.
“It can be a mix of things,” said Walden, who recently worked as a designer with Germantown’s Post 31 Interiors and is now joining the staff of Chestnut Hall. “Everything doesn’t have to be over the top, but you have to have good pieces as well as other things. It doesn’t have to be perfection.”
In fact, the messiness of life and family and history is part of what makes a house feel like home in Walden’s view. But that doesn’t mean the house itself has to be messy.
“I want my house to be warm, inviting, comfortable,” she said. “But being pretty is important — that’s something that matters to me. I’ve had friends who say to me, ‘Seriously, you live like this all the time?’ And I do.”
And Walden’s family appreciates it — even her son, who’s accustomed to walking in after school and finding furniture or art or accessories moved from one room or space to another.
“I think that it takes an effort, and if that’s what you want, you can create it,” Walden said.
In her years in the design field, Walden has learned secrets to creating a space that is both functional and beautiful. When she moved into her home, she puzzled over the floor plan until she had the arrangement just right. Rather than using the hearth room as the family’s main hangout, as the builder intended, she turned the formal living room into a cozy nook.
She did it by employing another of her favorite design tricks.
“You would think the hearth room would be where we would hang out, but it doesn’t lend itself to that,” she said. “The walls were uneven, and there was no place to put the TV and sofa that would work. So I had to reinvent this room to be the room we hang out in.”
The configuration of doors and windows in the living room still didn’t provide an obvious spot for TV viewing. To solve the problem, Walden used an oversize piece of art — a sepia-toned horse painting — above the sofa to balance the large armoire and “center” the room.
“It’s an uneven space, but you don’t notice,” she said. “The two big pieces across from one another create balance and fix the flaw. It’s creating illusions when there’s a flaw in the structure to make it look right.”
Walden has other go-to fixes she employs in her own home and in clients’ houses. When she designed her current space, she worked with Heavenly Rugs in Germantown to trade in a collection of colorful Persian rugs for rugs in softer hues. Now, a sisal rug in the dining room and a Tabriz rug with muted shades of brown, sea glass and gold complement the home’s restful color palette.
Also in her home, Walden invokes the five senses. When her family entertains, she plays soft music through speakers in the family room. She bunches candles on a tray to form a glowing centerpiece on a glass-topped coffee table. And in the dining room, where a sideboard from Asia rests beside a dining table she’s “had forever,” she arranges a bursting vase of hydrangeas.
“That’s my only go-to look when it comes to parties,” Walden said with a laugh. “Everything, the same color, the same look, bunches of it. When you find something that works, do it. Don’t over-Einstein it.”
This story is part of an occasional series that will take a look inside the homes of local interior designers.