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How To Decorate When You’re Clueless

Posted by on August 16, 2011

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Fish and visitors smell in three days.
Benjamin Franklin

An ugly couch can stink up the joint, too.
Old School Rules

The Old School Guide To Decorating When You’re A Clueless Old School Man (abridged)

Ladies, forward this to the Old School Men in your life

As I begin writing this post I’m on the road in Arkansas staying at my buddy Scott’s place.

A bedroom is a room with a bed. Unfortunately a jail cell fits the same description. My host knows the difference. I walk in his guest room. The air conditioning had been pumping and the room and fresh sheets on the bed were cooooooool. Very important in Arkansas summer heat.

A book on the nightstand.
Too tired for reading, but it was a nice touch.

And then there were pillow shams.  Yes, pillow shams. Had to be at least half a dozen which, if I’m up on my nomenclature, constitutes a herd of shams.

herd -noun 
1. a number of animals kept, feeding, or traveling together;drove; flock: 
a herd of cattle; a herd of sheep; a herd of zebras.
2. six or more pillow shams

Yep. Herd’s the word. Let me explain something. Scott is a single, very conservative Old School guy; during our down time we compared firearms (Nice Colt, bro.) And yet somehow he was made aware of the power pillow shams to make a bed look like a sultan should be sleeping in it. I asked, “What woman picked out this stuff for you?”

Did you notice that?? I did not ask, “How did you do such a good job with the place?” I know him and I know life way too well to ask that.

He replied, “Jessica, Step’s wife.” (Step is a mutual friend. Step, Jessica and Scott are in the same church.)

“She does nice work.”

#1 Outsource brains

During the Great Depression my dad left school after the ninth grade and began working full time. A few years later, when he was in his early twenties he sees one of his former teachers in a local tavern. By this time Dad had worked, sacrificed and now owned a successful trucking company. The teacher says to Dad, “I wish you didn’t quit school. You had brains.”

Dad replied, “I can buy brains.”

Dad didn’t mean education wasn’t important. His life was one of continuous self-education. He meant there’s more than one way to become educated. Brains (knowledge) can be bought. Or in the case of this post, it can be borrowed, as in a single guy saying to a good friend’s wife, “I’m clueless. Would you help me decorate my new home?”

The Four Levels of Competence Applied To Decorating

  1. unconscious incompetence — You’re not good at decorating but you think you’re good. You bought a beanbag chair.
  2. conscious incompetence — You’re not good at decorating and you know you’re not. You almost bought a beanbag chair.
  3. conscious competence — You’re good at decorating and think through the right choices. You won’t buy a beanbag chair.
  4. unconscious competence — You’re good at decorating and it’s effortless. What’s a beanbag chair?

Scott is at level 2. Jessica is at level 4. When a person “buys or borrows brains” like my bud did, he gets nearly all the benefits the highest level of competency with virtually none of the work.

Old School men know men and women are different. Most guys don’t have interior design as a strong suit. Many women do. And here’s an unexpected upside. During the visit I said to Jessica, “You did a great job decorating. That was very nice of you.”

She laughed and said, “It was a lot of fun. Especially because I was spending his money!”

#2 Let your personality come through

If your home looks exactly like a page out of Architectural Digest, that’s good and that’s bad. “Good” because the magazine features beautiful homes. “Bad” because those homes are not your home.

Even though you’re getting guidance, you must let “you” come through. Whatever you’re into should be into your house. Have a collection of 19th century gambling paraphernalia? Display it. Love the Rat Pack? Prove it. At the very least let your personal library say something about you.

In our front window sits a leg lamp.  Yes, the leg lamp from the classic holiday movie, The Christmas Story, you know, “you’ll shoot your eye out”. This lamp is guaranteed to put a smile on the pizza delivery guy’s face and every first time visitor.

#3 Decorate with guests in mind

This story is not for the faint of heart. A friend told me, “I stayed four days at Chuck’s place. Chuck’s not a coffee drinker. So every morning I woke up and… there was no coffee.”


While it’s not exactly decorating, equipping your home with a few extras to make things easier for your guests is a necessary idea for any Old School decorating scheme. Why? Because hospitality is always Old School.

#4 Ride the wallets & good taste of the rich & famous

When you think of used furniture, you usually think of a 1970s futon in a 2008 college dorm. Used furniture is considered the one stop shop for the poor and not-too-demanding.

Think again.

Combine the good taste of your decorating consultant (friend with taste and style) with the discount power of Craigslist, but do it the Old School Way. Get awesome furniture at a fraction of the normal cost. There may be hundreds, if not thousands of people within an hour’s drive of you that are making five to ten times your income or more. (If you are so wealthy this statement does not apply to you, congrats! But the other 99.99% should listen.) Like everyone else, even millionaires occasionally get rid of their furniture. And some will post on Craigslist. Slightly used, very high quality furniture at a fraction of its new price is waiting for you to buy for a dime on the dollar.

The frugality of  buying high quality used items, whether it’s furniture, tools, cars or fillintheblank, is Old School. Unlike some environmental global warming politically motivated pseudo-science, this kind of recycling always makes sense.

#5 Hire a housekeeper

Why go to all the work of having a great looking homestead if you’re hiding it under a layer of dirt? Hiring a once-a-week-housekeeper to come in and do the nitty gritty work of bathroom cleaning and floor mopping can be surprisingly inexpensive. For the price of two to three deluxe delivered pizzas, a pro will come to your home and leave it with that sparkling, “Hey, the joint even smells clean” impression.

#6 Don’t forget the outside

Along side your grill (You do have a grill, don’t you? You don’t? Scott swears by this one.  OK, you may continue reading.) get some great deck chairs, tables, etc. Whatever. It’s not brain surgery. Too many people think decor ends at the front door. It shouldn’t. Do it up right. Consider a fire pit for all the reasons described in this previous Old School Rules How-To post. Plant some flowers. Plant some berry bushes.

Here’s an outdoor decor “trick” I used in my front yard. Ninety-five percent of my lawn mowing is done in a lawn tractor. Pretty easy. I just sit, drink a cold beverage and mow. The last five percent is too steep of an incline for the lawn tractor. That means if I mow it I have to push a mower up and down and up and down and… you get the point. Here’s what I did with a good size patch of the incline section of my front yard.

  • Tilled it.
  • Laid down landscape fabric.
  • Cover it with mulch.
  • Planted about fifty everbearing strawberry plants.

Results? I’ve got a few hundred square feet of strawberry patch that looks good and is virtually maintenance free — no mowing. Plus, fresh strawberries on the morning oatmeal before sunrise is a quintessential Old School indulgence.

That’s it. So if you’re an Old School Man and want to dress up your homestead, start with “outsourcing brains” and go from there.

Keep it Old School my friend,

The Old Man, Chris Dixon

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