St. Louis Magazine - At Home

Clash Course

At Design Guy University, an artist turned interior designer offers master classes to the uninitiated

Photography by Whitney Curtis

Week One: Introductions

I keep looking up involuntarily, waiting for a bolt of lightning to crack open the coffered ceiling of our meeting room. D. Scott Tjaden of Tjaden Interiors is revealing the gnostic secrets of his trade, week by week, to a group of eager laypeople—all of us in love with our houses but not sure how to express it. Betty Sproule wants to honor the shape and feel of her 1903 Flora Place house without defaulting to Victorian frippery. Joyce Piper says she’s been in “an arranged marriage” with her house for two years: “My husband picked it out when we moved here. Now we’re meeting with a contractor about making a few changes—so both marriages may improve!”

Marlene Becker says she needs help choosing colors for her Arts & Crafts bungalow, and Mr. Tjaden—who teaches color theory—fans a swatchbook. Dragon’s blood, star fruit, root, khaki … “The dye of the truest red lipstick, carmine, contains the blood of insects,” he tells us, “and so does Cherry Coke. A lot of Michelangelo’s paintings are unfinished because he couldn’t afford to crush lapis lazuli for his ultramarine paint.

“Colors that come from the earth are in now,” he continues. “Darker greens, aspen pine and midtone green as neutrals, with clear blue or aqua. Sand, off-white, brownish greens. A very dark navy is the new black, paired with these colors. Also, with the return to interest in crafts and home cooking came crewel colors: rich cranberry reds, warm browns, pumpkin orange.” Even metallics are earthy: bronze kitchen appliances and hammered copper tables, sometimes surrounded by Moroccan reds, sunny golden yellows, turquoise.

Paint is, of course, the cheapest, most dramatic way to transform a room, but choosing, uninformed, from hundreds of paint chips is a surefire way to erode sanity. And that’s before you even start thinking about finish, reflectivity, environmental factors and overall quality.

“Farrow & Ball paint has more pigment, so deeper colors,” Mr. Tjaden notes. “When you paint a red room, if you use gray as a base, you’ll need fewer coats. That’s true of any dark color but especially red, which has a tendency to turn pink.” He likes color on ceilings, he tells us: “White is just too stark; it creates a line that makes it look like the room has been cut off at the top.” We grab for the swatchbook.

Week Two: Lighting

Today we start with a quiz on the four types of lighting (answer: natural, ambient, task and accent). Then we do geometry: To avoid glare, a lamp should be tall enough for the bottom of its shade to reach the eye level of the person sitting next to it. Wall sconces are most effective hung at eye level and softened by small shades. If two sofas face each other, recessed overhead lights should be above the arms of the sofas, and the lights should be truly recessed, not flush with the ceiling the way the cheaper fixtures can be. “Recessed light comes down in a V; you want the fixtures close enough for the light to overlap,” Mr. Tjaden says.

Accent lighting can spotlight a treasured oil painting or piece of art; you can even use a light strip at the top of ornate molding to reflect light onto a coffered or cove ceiling, he says, diagramming for us. And for ambient light, there are entire systems to consider, like the one that uses a wireless remote so you can avoid tearing up turn-of-the-century plaster. Even bulbs get complicated: “Halogen’s so bright, you put it on a dimmer; dimming it just 10 percent doubles its life. The new compact fluorescents are energy efficient, but they contain mercury. They warn you to open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes if one breaks.”

Aesthetically, the problem with the new bulbs is that their light can be colder and dimmer, and it doesn’t diffuse easily—that awkward spiral’s an attempt to spread out the light. Pricier alternatives like IKEA’s are coated with rubber instead, to soften the light. “Make sure the box says the bulb’s dimmable,” Mr. Tjaden adds. “Most compact fluorescents aren’t.”

Pay attention to the color of light, he urges. “Sylvania bulbs are more expensive, but the light is purer,” he says. “Metro Lighting has specialty bulbs—but I’ve even used a cloudy amber bug light to warm a room. Gold light is, contrary to rumor, far more flattering than pink light. Leona Helmsley had great light in her hotel rooms for a reason.” More practically, if you have Labrador retrievers—or kids who are always knocking things over—safety-guard bulbs don’t shatter as easily.

“People think they only need two lamps in the living room, but in a 12- by 20-foot room, you might need five,” Mr. Tjaden notes. “Wall sconces are good—they don’t clutter the room, and there are cord covers you can paint the color of the wall. A lampshade should reflect the shape of the lamp’s base: If it’s curvilinear, use a round or oval shade; if it’s angled or square, a square or octagonal shade.” He spins a silk oval shade, and we watch, charmed.

“I don’t think you can ever have too much light,” he concludes.

Week Three: Furniture

Today Mr. Tjaden shows us how to graph a floor plan, using one square for every foot of actual space; measure the furniture and cut out a shape for each piece to scale; then color them and move them around on the paper—which beats moving a 200-pound armoire back and forth. “Place your sofa, bed and desk first,” he suggests, “because they need the most space. Make sure all the tall or heavy pieces don’t end up clustered together—but don’t put a dainty table next to an oversize bulky armchair. Mix color and pattern throughout the room, and avoid leaving pieces of furniture sitting alone; connect them by placing lamps or tables nearby. Use different heights of furniture and accessories; you want the eye to move up and down. Add interest by pulling furniture away from the walls.”

A few students look alarmed. “You could put a table behind the sofa and pull the sofa into the room,” he explains. “Or use sofas, open bookcases or screens to divide a large room. In a bedroom, a headboard can divide sleeping and dressing areas. Use rugs to define areas within a room.”

“Is it OK to put area rugs on top of carpet?” someone asks.

“Oh, I fully believe in that. Carpet is a neutral, and sometimes you need that burst of color. It’s like a painting on the wall.” He passes out a glossary of terms, from cartouches and caryatids to pie-crust tables and plum-pudding mahogany. Then he pulls out books of upholstery fabric: “Estimate at least 30 percent more fabric with a big repeat, to make sure your design’s properly placed.”

Ms. Sproule smiles wryly. “I had some beautiful upholstery fabric, and I wanted the pattern centered, so I ordered plenty, very carefully marked the center with a red thread and took it to the upholsterer. When I went back, he said, ‘I barely had enough’—and the pattern was not centered. I found out later that red thread is the universal symbol for a flaw in the fabric.”

Mr. Tjaden waits out the sympathetic groans before switching the subject: “People make the mistake of buying oversized furniture for these atrium ceilings,” he remarks. “You don’t have to; you can just have more furniture. Look at the queen’s study in Buckingham Palace: It has a 22-foot ceiling, but it doesn’t have gigantic furniture. History’s full of solutions.”

Week Four: A Trip to Mecca

Field-trip day. We meet at the KDR showroom, normally barred to laypeople unless you make special arrangements to be nannied by a designer. First there’s a little trade gossip, as Mr. Tjaden tells us about the genealogy of top fabric and furniture sellers and the politics that dictates which showrooms get which lines. Then he explains the tags, some labeled Quick Ship—guaranteeing arrival in less than a month—and the cryptic abbreviations for style options, fabrics, fills, finishes and price. We’re listening, really we are—but eyes keep wandering, caught by a Curry & Co. sconce with antique glass; a Jonathan Charles cubbyholed desk made from the ends of logs; a big, chunky, almost primitive Taracea painted-wood cabinet from Mexico. Tjaden gives up and starts the tour, pausing in front of a massive, heart-stoppingly expensive Bau buffet. “You only need one elaborate piece,” he reassures us, “not a roomful.”

In the wallpaper, trim and fabric workrooms, he shows us paper covered with ivory beading so tiny it’s just a shimmer, like breath on a leaf. Embossed Cortina leathers that can cover a wall. Raw silk that moves from blue to green as fluidly as the waters of the Caribbean. “I have accounts in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas, and I’m going to have to start looking at Las Vegas; they have the largest showroom in the country now,” Tjaden confides, unfazed by the sheer number of samples and possibilities already overwhelming everybody else.

Week Five: Kitchens

“How are you going to use your kitchen?” Mr. Tjaden asks. “Will you really cook, and if so, what do you need—a prep sink? A dishwasher drawer that’ll handle fine china after a dinner party?”

“I have a Viking professional stove,” Ms. Sproule says.

“She cooks,” Ms. Becker says dryly.

“The mover said, ‘Lady, that stove cost more than my pickup truck,’” Ms. Sproule laughs.

“I have a family of six, and I need a refrigerator that will make it 15 years,” Ms. Piper says. “What are the classics?”

“White and black and stainless steel,” Mr. Tjaden says. “Is stainless traditional or contemporary? Commercial kitchens have always been stainless. Terrazzo is considered modern, but it’s ancient. You could have beautiful mahogany cabinetry and steel appliances.” He pulls out samples of new tiles, pointing out that you don’t need to use the same material as your backsplash; you can go for contrast, like the sleek amber strip of glass he’s holding against granite. He emphasizes the importance of molding: “Trim out your doorway to match your cabinets, trim the top of the cabinets to finish them out and, above all, put molding below the top cabinet; it helps it look finished and hides your under-cabinet lighting.

“What about the flooring?” he asks suddenly. “How does your kitchen blend into the next room?” Cork’s becoming popular: It’s quiet, and things don’t break as easily if they fall. “Be careful of high heels, and make sure it’s sealed properly, so it doesn’t absorb smells,” he says. The discussion travels to bamboo floors and then bamboo towels: “They crush up the fibers and weave them with cotton; they’re soft, and they won’t trap the germs. A lot of man-made stuff is just not as good, because nature is not involved.”

Reviewing old material, he brings up accent lighting, maybe spotlighting a huge French poster to “break up the hard edges so it’s not cabinet-cabinet-cabinet.” For ambient light, maybe alabaster pendants that glow at night or a chandelier over an island. “Position lights on either side of where you will stand, so you are not blocking the light.

“Brunschwig & Fils makes the best bar stools in the world,” he informs us. “But for something more casual, try Peerless Restaurant Supply. Counter height—think of yourself. My mother made all the counters higher than standard because we were all tall. A lower counter can give the leverage someone shorter needs to open a bottle of wine. The classic material’s granite, because it can take abuse and be repaired. You can face a counter with granite to make it look like a thick slab. A new material, IceStone, wears like terrazzo and is made of recycled glass and concrete, available only to the trade.

“Knobs,” he says suddenly, “can be a problem if you’re left-handed; you’re always unscrewing them. Try bar pulls instead.”

Ms. Piper asks about farmhouse sinks—again, both new and ancient. “I grew up on a farm,” Mr. Tjaden says, “and you know what was great about those sinks?”

“You could wash the baby in them?”

“Yeah, or immense pots and pans.” He switches to storage: “How much food do you want to buy and store? Build in the storage. You can put a horizontal panel in front of the sink that holds scrub brushes—it looks like a drawer but tilts open—and a thin drawer that slides out and holds your cutting board. And plan where you’ll keep mixers, toasters, blenders—even if it’s in an appliance garage, like a little roll-top desk with drawers you can pull up and slide out.”

“Oh my God,” Ms. Becker says. “I might cook.”

“Don’t count on it,” Patricia Byrne retorts.

Week Six: Draperies

“Some of us are going to be courageous and purchase the material first,” says Mr. Tjaden, scanning his class, “and others are just going to make a call or write a check. But let’s talk about measuring—”

“Oh my God,” Ms. Becker blurts.

“The wider the window, the longer the projection should be,” he continues calmly. “Adding width can make your room look much bigger, and curtains can make the ceiling look higher—especially if you ceiling-mount them and go all the way down to the floor. Decorative rods don’t have to be pricey; they’re high and mainly covered. But with heavy fabrics, you need the expensive rods for substance. With expandable rods, don’t get the smallest one and extend it way out; you want the doubled strength. With colored sheers, you can paint the rod so it blends right in.

“A width of fabric is how wide the bolt is,” he continues. “You need a certain number of widths, each the length of your draperies (with allowance for hemming) to span the window with the right fullness. And silk you have to underline, or it doesn’t lay right.”

“Do you still use pinch pleats?” Ms. Byrne asks.

“I do, because I think they look nice. We are going to more simple drapery now; it’s just less fussy. But pinch, or French, pleats always look very tailored, and then you can do things like add a little button to the French pleating.”

For Ms. Becker, who has a small bedroom with a large bed, he suggests draperies behind the headboard, on a wooden dowel rod. “Curtains give flow; it would balance out your room.”

The question of length furrows several brows. “We all have different ways we like the fabric to come to the floor,” Mr. Tjaden says. “I like to have a break like a man’s pant leg; others like the drape to just skim the floor.”

“What about puddling?” Ms. Byrne asks.

“It’s like Shakespeare: It’s either really bad or really good. The problem is, people don’t know how to fold it. You turn these edges under and then play with the pleats. I have a client, she has a staff of eight, and there is one person in charge of puddling the drapes. They go up 25 feet—it’s a huge puddle—and she does it once a week. They’ve just got to be artistically placed.”

“And you lift from the middle,” Ms. Byrne says.

“I need to get out more,” Ms. Becker mutters.

“Maybe you are OK,” Mr. Tjaden suggests gently. “There might be things like world hunger that are more important. But the point is that the edge looks sloppy, and sometimes the lining shows. Now we’ve had a little puddle lesson.” He opens The Encyclopedia of Window Fashions. “I’ve scanned these into Photoshop and then dropped in the actual fabric so clients could visualize. Then I did a mechanical drawing on the computer. Mistakes are expensive: measure, measure, measure. And speaking of measuring, when you use an eyelet heading with grommets, make sure you use the right size pole. They need to be loose, like rings, so they slide.”

“Those rings you open up and clip your drapery to? Tacko, tacko,” he says. “Your drapery can’t even be supported by that.” The big dilemma is where to put the pullback: “A lot of people will pull the draperies back right where the cross comes in the window mullions—and that’s wrong. It should be at the skirt of the sill or dead center between the cross and the skirt. Or the other trick is to put it high, between the top of the drapes and the first cross, and let them fall.”

“Do you still pair sheers with draperies?” someone asks.

“Yeah you do. ’Cause it’s practical. We’re going for beauty and practicality.”

Next Semester

Check or call 314-761-5740 for details about the next course, May 20–June 17. Tuition is $98 for five workshops, held at the Clayton Community Center and at area vendors. For a list of Mr. Tjaden’s favorite books and resources, visit


Mr. Tjaden provided us with a list of his favorite resources:
  • Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
  • for instructions on safely disposing of compact fluorescents
  • The Essential Guide to Upholstery by Dorothy Gates
  • The Encyclopedia of Window Fashions by Charles Randall
  • Curtains: A Design Source Book by Caroline Clifton-Mogg
  • Interior Graphic and Design Standards by S. C. Reznikoff
  • Residential Lighting: A Practical Guide by Randall Whitehead

Math Checklist

  • Pull out the calculator. Great design comes in inches and square feet.
  • A chandelier should be about 12 inches narrower than the dining table’s width and hung 30 to 32 inches from the top of the table.
  • Front door light fixtures should be about one-fifth the width and height of the doorway.
  • You need one light source for every 40 to 50 square feet.
  • Desk-lamp shades should be at least 16 inches across the bottom. Reading lamps: 100 watts minimum.
  • Leave 14 to 18 inches between the front of the sofa and the coffee table.
  • Leave 2 feet between the back of a dining-room chair and another piece of furniture or the wall.
  • Leave at least 2 feet between the edge of the bed and a bedroom wall.
  • To ensure comfortable chair depth, measure from the back of your knee to the back of your behind while you are sitting.
  • Kitchen counters should be 34 to 36 inches high; dining tables 30 inches high, bar counters 36 to 42 inches high, work surfaces 42 to 48 inches high and storage access 15 to 48 inches high.
  • Multiply your window width by 2.25 to 4 inches to get your draperies’ finished width. (You’ll need less fullness for heavy fabrics and grommet or tab-top treatments, more for lighter fabrics and fuller treatments.)




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