Sarah Peake of Studio Peake's dos and don'ts of decorating

In the latest of a series on interior designers' decorating principles, Sarah Peake shares her top tips for creating characterful interiors

Sarah Peake in a Fulham townhouse she designed

Alexander James

Do buy what you love

As a rule, it is almost too simple. It is easy to get distracted by the latest trends – social media can make an innovative piece of design ubiquitous within weeks. It is also tempting to buy something because it fits in the rest of a scheme, even if it’s not something you’re mad about. I always choose things I love in their own right – where they fit in comes later. Over a lifetime you accumulate a trove of unique pieces, each of which has a place in time – you always remember where and why you bought something you love. The result is an eclectic home, bursting with personality and memories.

Do be a magpie

There is a time and a place for caution – for the judicious pause before a purchase. But sometimes you just need to throw caution to the wind! Mostly, if I see something I love, I buy it – whether that’s enamel kitchenware in a flea market or artwork by an unknown artist in a lighthouse. Once, on holiday, I saw the perfect armchair at a night market in Italy. We just about managed to fit it in our hatchback! Trust your instincts.

The kitchen of a Chelsea house by Studio Peake


Do live in your house before you do it up

You never know how you are going to use a space until you live there. You also won’t know how the light lands throughout the day. Delay work – especially structural – until you’ve had a chance to really get to know your new home.

Do try before you buy

Nothing beats seeing a sample piece of furniture, or the real thing, in situ. Many furniture makers and antique dealers will only be too happy to lend you something if you cover the cost of delivery.

Do consider line of sight

The dressing room looking into the bathroom and bedroom beyond in the Chelsea project


What can you see from each point in a room? What is the view through the doors and windows? Each room tells a story, and your home should reveal itself incrementally as you move through – site lines down corridors, up staircases and through doorways are key. The colour, texture and material of the walls, architraves, stair runner etc. should all work in harmony.

Do mix antique furniture and modern lights

This is a simple and low-risk way to create aesthetic contrast – the clean lines of an angular, modern desk lamp go well with the stately gravity of a Victorian pedestal desk.

Do layer texture, colour and pattern

For a room to have definition and personality it needs layers – a hint of tension between texture, colour and pattern. I always try to incorporate at least two or three patterned fabrics of varying scale and design, along with a couple of different textured fabrics in most rooms. This adds real depth – the best rooms entreat our eyes to zoom in and out, flitting between the inventive little details. Details are the essence of design.

Do count your shoes and measure your clothes

A walk in wardrobe in a Fulham townhouse by Studio Peake

Alexander James

I am a huge fan of bespoke cabinetry, particularly wardrobes – it makes all those clever storage solutions possible. It’s so important to get the basics right – how much long hanging space do you need, how many shoes do you have / expect to have? To get the most out of bespoke furniture, you really have to get into the details.

Do play around with scale

I love to put something oversized – a lamp or large scale pattern – in a small room. Counterintuitively this can make a space feel bigger as the size of the furniture or pattern implies a larger room.

Do buy at auction

If you have time and patience, there is no better way to get a really good deal. The out-of-London auction houses are best, but is a fantastic online resource.

Antiques and modern pieces mingle in the London pied-à-terre

Alexander James

Do support artists and makers

Yes, commissioning a totally new piece is a leap of faith – you won’t be able to view it online or go to a showroom to see a sample. But there is nothing like having something made for you, something unique. The process of working with the maker is also fascinating and makes the piece that much more meaningful.

Don’t be too ‘matchy matchy’

For a room to really sing, it needs an element of discord and chaos. You need a clash – something that subtly jars. Have fun!

An antique cushion adds subtle contrast in the same bedroom in the London pied-à-terre

Alexander James

Don’t buy suites or sets

Anything that ‘comes with’ anything else should be left alone – sofa and chairs, bedside tables etc. Everything should have individual value in its own right.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind

Avoid the sunk costs fallacy at all…costs. If you realise that the rug you had set your heart on, and which you built an entire scheme around, just isn’t right, much better to start again then persevere – after all, you’ve got to look at it every day!

Don’t try to live in the future

Smart home technology has come on in leaps and bounds – but think twice about embedding it throughout your home. Many clients are now opting for low tech solutions, e.g. simple hand-dimmable lights over complex centrally managed lighting systems. The software for an integrated sound system may no longer work one day. Ironically it is the latest technology that can quickly become outdated. It’s all about finding the right balance and not becoming depending on complex, embedded hardware.

Don’t buy colourful bed linen

If you want to add colour to your bed, focus on the embroidery detail on the edge of the pillowcases, the bed cushion, the headboard and the throw. But the main bed sheets should be white.

Embrace a generous curtain: a bedroom at the Fulham townhouse

Alexander James

Don’t make your curtains too short

Ankle swinging or window sill-high curtains come across diffident and ineffectual. Curtains should rest on the floor.

Don’t short circuit the lighting design

Bad lighting can ruin an otherwise beautiful space. Use dimmable wall lights and standing lamps for a warm glow throughout the room – spot lights can be used sparingly to light artwork. The lighting layout should be done in tandem with, and be tailored to, the furniture layout – it should not be an afterthought.

Don’t be shy about rugs

Nice rugs aren’t cheap – but don’t be tempted to buy small as these are guaranteed to shrink the size of your room. A large rug feels extravagant, generous and cosy. You need the rug to pull together all the disparate elements on the room.