HGTV’s Tommy Smythe on Mirrors, Lights and Eclectic Design Mixes

Smythe says learning to recognize quality and how to mix and match styles are two key skills everyone should have in their design arsenal

Credit: Courtesy of HGTV

Smythe uses a mirror in every room to open up the space and enhance the light

Tommy Smythe is the indispensable design partner to Sarah Richardson featured on HGTV’s Sarah’s House, Sarah’s Cottage and Sarah 101. Here he shares his views on the importance of mirrors and lighting, and how to solve a variety of design challenges

Q: How do you strike a balance within understated eclectic decor so that it’s timeless but not commonplace?

A: Make sure that every piece you buy, when standing alone, is interesting and compelling, with no filler pieces. This factor makes eclectic decor work. You can’t usually put a very expensive antique next to a knockoff or less expensive piece. The further the price points are from each other (reflecting quality) the less likely it is that they will live well in the same space.

Q: One of your kitchen designs was inspired by a Michael Jackson Thriller jacket. What other pieces influence you?

A: I am inspired by fashion and nostalgia. My favourite reaction when a person walks into a room is that moment of joyful recognition when an element reminds them of their history. I have a Rubik’s Cube on my table, for example, that many people pick up and comment on. Or, it may be a piece of furniture reminiscent of a person’s grandmother’s home. It would be reupholstered in a contemporary fabric that reinterprets it in a way that doesn’t take away the nostalgic element, but makes it look so great that you want to live with it today.

Q: When Sarah was asked how she makes a room look like it’s pulled together without looking overly matchy, she recommended grouping like wood tones and colours together, but using a variety of materials, patterns and textures. How would you answer that?

A: We haven’t worked together for 10 years because I think Sarah is a no-talent hack. Her recommendation was important. I would add that it is also helpful to have one or two through lines. These can be accomplished with an accent colour: a touch of red on the lamp shade, on the sofa cushion and in the patterned carpet so that your eye automatically recognizes the same reference throughout to tie things together. This is less about grouping and more about sprinkling around a room. You can both sprinkle and group in one room. This can be done with artwork too.

Q: When Sarah was asked how to combine old and new styles, she advised mixing equal parts of each together like a recipe. Every time you add an old piece, you balance it with a new one. How would you answer that?

A: Sarah was offering the Design 101 approach. If it’s a 50/50 split, a novice will do fine. An advanced approach is to do a 60/40 or 80/20 split. This requires more skill. An environment that has just a few hits of contemporary furniture – like a severe coffee table, two disciplined lamps and modern artwork – and the balance antiques, can work well if done right.

Q: What two pieces of furniture make a home?

A: Mirrors and lights. I put mirrors in every room. I sound like a narcissist, but they’re used for reasons other than looking at oneself. I place them opposite a window to reflect light and the view. People hang their most prized painting above their sofa but that means when seated, they can’t look at it. Placing a mirror across from the art allows you to view it from both sides of the room. Mirrors have been created in every era so no matter what your decor, you can find one that fits.

Lighting is important for utilitarian purposes but just as vital for sculptural beauty. Overhead lighting is never flattering, so the less the better, and keep most at human level. Place decorative lamps on tables and have pendants hanging down to accommodate the volume of the space. This is critical because 90 per cent of the room’s furnishings will be highlighted at that height.

Q: What’s your design challenge?

A: Nurseries. It is bizarre that rooms are decorated for little beings completely unaware of their surroundings. It’s the mother or father that has to stare at all the little bunnies and cowboys, often in the wee hours when exhausted. They get no amenities. Why isn’t there cable TV, a wine/beer fridge and a lounge chair? I don’t get it.

Q: How do you narrow your furniture choices for an eclectic look when you’re exposed to hundreds of choices?

A: Experience, experimentation and gut feeling enables you to know what works. When done right, eclectic decor is magnificent. When done wrong, it’s a disaster. Not every furniture period or style goes with every other. Educate yourself about design enough to know why your interior designer recommends one particular piece over another. The more decisive and adventurous you are, the better the result.

Q: The designer furniture and antiques that you like are out of reach for most of us.

A: Yes, but not browsing high-end retailers is dumb. There, you’ll learn what makes that $6,000 chair so expensive and how to recognize quality. Know what you are looking at, rather than just seeing something and thinking that it looks nice. I saw a Persian rug bundled up and thrown into a garbage can. Since I recognize the difference between a good one and an imitation, I took it. After a $400 cleaning bill to get the dog pee out of it, I ended up with a rug worth $10,000.

Q: Can we discuss trends?

A: As always, last fall’s fashion trends translate into this fall’s decor. Camouflage prints are hot in furniture fabrics. Due to the weak economy, antiques are making a resurgence as traditional investments.

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.