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How to create a whimsical and welcoming guest room

Splurging on custom drapes and vibrant accent cushions gave the small room visual energy.

Barry Calhoun

If I had to call to mind a guest room from my past, it would the one belonging to an old family friend who lives on Vancouver Island.

If I concentrate, the memories come back as snapshots. A queen-size bed that sags in the middle, retired after years in the master bedroom. A dusty bedskirt in a deep burgundy. Doilies, a glass-topped bureau, six rabbit figurines. The faint pong of mothballs from the closet.

The memories are wonderful, in their way, but staying in that room was never entirely pleasant. For one, it was so full of personal items, I felt as though I were sleeping in another person's room. Then there was the last-stop-before-Sally-Ann feel to the furnishings.

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The guest room has a bit role in most homes, and this makes it a great place to take decorating risks – and move away from hand-me-downs and potpourri. That's what we did recently for clients in Vernon, B.C., who frequently have guests stay with them during ski season.

The big idea

We wanted freshness and whimsy to animate the room. Amid the elegance and sophistication of the rest of the home, the guest room gave us space for some irreverent play with colour and art, the kind that would have upset the balance elsewhere.

The challenge was the bedroom's position on the home's lower floor, adjacent to the games room. It received little natural light, and felt isolated from the higher-traffic areas.

The big spend

When a room is small, so is your window of opportunity. Making an impact requires the confidence to load up one or two punches and connect.

Here, wanting visual energy, we settled on our targets: the drapes and custom cushions for the bed.

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The great advantage of custom drapes over their store-bought cousins is the way they hang – in perfect, tailored folds. In the guest room, the plan was for velvet in a high-voltage apple green. This elicited a squeak of hesitation from the clients, who worried that the room would seem too outré.

After a few moments' soothing, they gave in and the green carried the day.

Gaining confidence, we selected two vibrant designer fabrics for the accent cushions on the bed. The bright chartreuse European shams – to say nothing of the bold zigzags on the lumbar cushion – make the room fizz with youthful energy.

Together, our big spend rang in at about $2,000.

The big save

Every diva needs a chorus. Having committed to exuberant drapes and cushions, we took a muted approach to the rest of the room.

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The case goods (side tables and dresser) were our greatest area of concern. Too often in secondary rooms the furniture is cheap or generic. Prettier pieces are more expensive – no surprise – and flea-market finds often have broken or sticky doors and catches.

We wanted furniture that brought character to the room but didn't break the bank. We chose mid-century-inspired pieces for their unique profiles and the warmth of their wood finish. The dresser and two nightstands set us back about $1,600. Cheap? No, but excellent value for the money.

The twist

Often, people choose mass-produced artwork for a guest room – canvases screened with black-and-white shots of the Eiffel Tower and the like. Even worse are collections of second-tier family photos, the teenagers and uncles and infants peering out, unnervingly, promising to watch you as you sleep.

Art should equal impact, wherever you deploy it. A good rule for every room is to avoid the scenic, the mist-shrouded, the romantic. In a guest room I think playful artwork is best. Your guests will take an interest in it, and may ask you about it at breakfast.

First, choose a theme anyone can identify with – I'm fond of funny text and cheeky pictures. In the Vernon room we went with a print series of nine pop culture icons, including Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol (we ordered them from Judy Kaufmann's shop on With our local framer, we matted and framed the prints identically. This allowed us to hang the nine in a perfect – and painstakingly measured – grid.

Now, looking back at the finished work, I love the insouciance of the prints and how they seem to be kibitzing back and forth with the drapes and cushions.

Kelly Deck is the creative director of Kelly Deck Design, a residential design firm in Vancouver.


Side tables and dresser

Crate and Barrel,

Table lamps

Crate and Barrel

Owl lamp

West Elm,


Custom by Van Gogh Designs,


Judy Kaufmann on Etsy,

Paint colour

Pratt and Lambert, Ever Classic 32-24

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