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The first phone call I get from new clients is often a puzzled one. They've just finished decorating their living room - and gone to great expense doing it - and yet the overall feeling is flat. "I feel like it needs something," they say. Or: "I don't know how to bring it to life."

"Bam!" yells the celebrity chef Emeril, throwing down a fistful of pepper. Kicking it up a notch is the right idea. But while a detonation of chili might make vivid a gumbo, breathing life into a living room requires more nuance - and can't be done in a single stroke.

That's because your living room is a complex ecosystem. Its elements, large and small, depend upon each other for life and - cue the Discovery Channel voiceover - upsetting this delicate balance brings only chaos… or death.

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The chaotic interior, like a kindergarten in early September, is all colour, clamour and competition. It teems and overwhelms. But it's the lifeless interior - that field where no crop grows - I want to address here. It's much too common in Canada today. The reason? Oddly, too much coherence.

The error begins when people purchase their furniture in sets, often from just one or two stores. And it lurks at every price point, from the aisles of the Brick to those of a higher-end retailer, like Restoration Hardware.

The look is likely familiar to you. Boxy sofa, boxy chairs, square espresso coffee table with matching side tables, glass lamps. There's nothing wrong with any individual piece, except that none is really an individual. Instead of a good cocktail party, with distinctive personalities and a natural flow, you have a good conference, with qualified speakers and competent PowerPoint.

Let's run with the cocktail party analogy a moment. In preparing a client's home for sale, we've just decorated a living room at 88 W. 18th Ave. in Vancouver. I think it's a good example of how to pull off a great party - all on a short timeline and without exploding your budget.

Ensure harmony between the hosts

Ever arrived at a party whose air is frosty with discord? Thin-lipped smiles cannot disguise the couple's tension, and each newly arriving guest is chilled by unease.

Take care not to cultivate such awkwardness between the hosts of your living room, the sofa and chairs. The biggest pieces, they set the tone for the furnishing plan. And like a good couple, their ability to support each other depends on being complementary - not competitive or identical.

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One piece should be quiet, steady, substantial; the other, bright and playful. If it helps to think of them as masculine and feminine, go ahead, but it's possible to take the idea too far. You don't want your couple to be a union of opposites.

On 18th Ave. we avoided sofas with any puff or chunk to them, which would have been too dominating - a beer-bellied A-type with a tin ear for conversation. Instead we chose a squared-off model with slender arms, graphite upholstery, and an even temper.

In our citywide hunt for great chairs, then, we put swoop and sparkle before restraint and angularity. A delightful find: two curvaceous slipper chairs in a pale-blue zebra stripe, studded with silver upholstery tacks. Their whimsy had great chemistry with the sofa, forming a stable foundation for the room. We were off to a good start.

Don't forget to invite the wacko

My friend Dan is a master at throwing parties. He curates his guest lists carefully, and his philosophy is essentially catholic. While you don't want a wild array of animals, you do want a dog from every pack.

With the foundation of your living room in place, it's the smaller pieces that contribute the poignant hits of personality. A rusted wire lantern here, a framed series of antique letters there. The best pieces are beautiful ones with history. After they're made, furniture and people are really just collections of stories. Those lead to memories, which elicit other stories. And before you know it, a glow warms the room.

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The secondary furnishings are the room's most dynamic - and potentially volatile - so it's important to think about how they'll interact. Our plan involved a scavenger hunt around Vancouver, with a view to populating our room with an eclectic cast. We kept our eyes peeled for our wild card, the wacko.

In this case, it was a spindly accent table with a rose-shaped tabletop. Unexciting in the original finish, her charm came out after two coats of spray-paint, like the tiny woman who goes from harmlessly crazy to hilarious after champagne. Even if she gets out of control, she's too small to do much damage. Every living room needs one.

Let the hosts determine the theme

A well-selected theme can make a good party magical. "Cinco de Mayo margaritas" or "Roaring Twenties dressup" serve as a reminder, the idea around which your guests rally. The same is true of your living room. It's accomplished with decorative details. And they must extend from the personality of the hosts.

Once we'd collected our furnishings - the Asian-inspired tables bookending the sofa, the metal coffee table with its rustic wood top - and set them on a quiet ivory rug, we went looking for the last ingredients to bring the room to life.

We looked to the character strengths of the hosts for inspiration. In a house whose appeal was largely architectural and monochromatic, the feminine zap of the zebra print was an obvious choice. Its blue had emotional vitality, and so we sought to echo it in the drapery panels of azure dupioni and sofa cushions of sapphire velvet.

A subtle charge connected the room. The scene now appeared to me one of communion: guests in refreshing combinations, conversing, united by a sense of why they're there.

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About the Author

Kelly Deck has been advocating for West Coast design since 2002, when she 
 opened an interior decor boutique on Vancouver's Main Street. Since then, 
 Kelly has immersed herself in the lifestyle and community that makes West 
 Coast design unique. More

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