Jolene Streiff

An interview with Jolene Streiff, Founder of Designing Life, LLC

The transition from campus living to a grown-up life-style requires many changes─clothes, makeup, and not least, one’s living space. The young and sometimes not-so-young can often find themselves surrounded by a bewildering and disparate array of hand-me-downs, orphan furniture left by departed roommates, and well-used campus gear. And that first apartment─shared or not, is usually, well, small. We asked Jolene Streiff, Founder of Designing Life, LLC, for her best tips on living small, and on decorating your first home.

In a small living room (which may or may not double as a sleeping space), what is the single most important piece of furniture to replace?

The living room is a semi-public space where friends and visiting family gather to converse and relax. For this reason, the most important piece of furniture is the sofa. Proper seating for friends means a sofa, not a kitchen chair. The sofa alone can “make” the room. Nice hard wood floors, a great sisal rug, and a tuxedo style sofa are about all you need. Pull up a leather ottoman, add a serving tray to set your wine glass on and you’re set for visitors. If your living room also serves as a bedroom, you may want to invest in a sofa bed that has clean, modern lines. A good quality sofa is an investment, but it’s worth spending the money because it’s the piece that gets heavy use and it needs to stand up to many a party.

How can disparate styles of furniture be unified, if they cannot all be replaced at once? 

First of all, it’s important to have dissimilar pieces of furniture. How you mix pieces that may not perfectly match is where an eye for design is needed. The way you connect different pieces of furniture is not in the style of the piece per se but in the elements of that piece: color, texture, size and how it takes up the space in a room. Pieces that don’t seem to match can look perfect if the placement is spot on and the piece makes some connection with the accessories and artwork throughout the room. What will never look right are damaged, uncared for pieces that need to be dumped on the street. I wouldn’t be too concerned about matching furniture: just look at the rooms in any modern interior design magazine and you will see lots of unlike objects happily co-existing in the same space.

Should I purchase small furniture for a small space? Or is it better to have some larger focal pieces? How does one decide?

Every room should have a focal point and purpose. A great piece of furniture can be the focal point and give definition to the room. That particular statement piece should be noticeable—and that means it would be a good size. But generally, you would choose slightly smaller and fewer pieces in a small room. Measure your room, draw a room layout, and then figure out how big you can go with various pieces. Perhaps one big ottoman will be a better look than two small end tables on the side of the sofa. Be willing to experiment. General rule—go a bit bigger than what you think is appropriate.

How can one change the look of one’s living space to reflect the change of seasons without storage space to keep a lot of seasonal decorations and extra sets of accessories?

The easiest way to change the look to reflect holiday time or a special celebration is through a few accessories. Pillows on a sofa and a sofa throw can be changed twice a year: winter/fall and spring/summer. A collection of white dishes and serving pieces is a great “neutral” background for dressing up a table. A festive holiday centerpiece, and a few smaller dishes in accent colors can give the impression that you are celebrating something special. Pine cones in a big round glass vase could look great on the dining room or kitchen table, then toss the pine cones out and replace with pastel ceramic eggs for Easter. Decorating a mantle with a few sprigs of garland and a few shiny ornaments might do the trick. Hanging festive hand towels in the bathroom is another idea. Just make sure things are clean and in tip top shape. You don’t need much to have people notice there is something special going on.

Paper clutter can quickly overrun a small space. Aside from throwing out junk mail as soon as it arrives, what are your best tips for controlling, containing, and organizing papers?

I suggest a few nice wicker baskets with tops and a file cabinet in a great color. Spend a weekend preparing file folders and putting all those bills and important papers in their own file. I have one good-looking leather box for ALL my receipts. I keep all receipts for a year and then toss and start over. Everything needs a place, the trick is to have a system for getting things there!

Colors that I love but can’t wear, colors that are in style, neutral colors that “go with” everything (but I’m not a neutral kind of person)─how do I chose the best color scheme for my living space?

Don’t be afraid to paint strong/deep colors on your interior walls. Even black walls are very appealing in a home. The main point is to have continuity of color tones between the rooms so that the spaces and the hallways that connect the rooms have a unified color palette. In other words, if you walked around your apartment and peered in each room, would you see homogenous tones of color? Are the tones in the same family: warm or cool tones? Colors in a space should transition effortlessly room to room. If you are doing neutrals, you can do a striking deep taupe or mushroom grey—neutrals do not have to be light colors. If you’re into lots of fun splashes of color, a safe way to show your passion for color is with accessories: pillows or artwork.

I have lots of windows but not lots of money for custom window treatments. What is the best way to ensure privacy and “dress up” my windows on a budget?

Window treatments have come a long way. There are some great floor-length window panels at places like Home Goods, World Market, or Target that are lined and give a look of elegance as well as privacy. Install your curtain rod high—above the window molding and have the rod reach out beyond the sides of the window molding. Hang your drapery panel so it touches the floor and is not too short. The fullness of the panels should be about three times the width of your window. Make sure the curtains are pressed well. Another option is wooden blinds, which can give a nice finished look to a window. There are affordable custom-looking wood blinds at home improvement stores such as Lowes or Home Depot.

My apartment kitchen is small and unbeautiful, with older appliances. How can I make it look homey and bright?

First off, scrub the kitchen down. A good cleaning will make a huge difference. Re-tiling the floor will not cost much if it’s a small space, or get a good size rug to cover ugly flooring. Paint the walls, add a tiled back splash—again, inexpensive if it’s a tiny kitchen. Hang colorful, non-conventional art in the kitchen. Think about installing wall shelves to display a unique assortment of dishes. These accessory tricks will draw your eye away from the old and mundane.

I have one closet for all my clothes, and I can’t afford one of those expensive closet organizing systems. What to do?


If you can rearrange the poles in your closet that hold the hangers, install two poles, one higher, to hold your blouses and tops, and another, lower, one for slacks folded over a hanger. If you can’t do a double clothing rod, utilize a shelf or two above the closet pole. Plastic bins filled with scarves, handbags, and sweaters will look a lot neater than just piling your belongings on the shelf. If plastic bins will fit under your bed, load the bins with seasonal clothing or all your handbags. Hooks over the bedroom and closet doors are a great way to add additional storage.

Is it better to wait until I have enough savings to totally re-do my place, or should I do it little by little? What is the single best thing I can do now to make my place guest-worthy?

Don’t wait to do everything, although you should have a realistic budget if you are serious about redecorating. Before you start purchasing furniture, draperies, and more expensive items, have a fairly complete picture of what you want your room to look like, including paint colors. Plan the design, choosing the type of sofa, chairs, coffee table, bookcase, artwork, wall colors. Making a design board where all your picks are posted helps ensure that everything you are planning to buy goes together and works towards agood design goal. You can always start by painting the room, if it needs it. Then begin your purchases, perhaps starting with the sofa and adding the rug a few months later. Try to get your main pieces in the room first. Then, fillin with accessories from an inexpensive home goods store; these can be upgraded later on when your budget allows.