Home Decorating Secrets of a Great Room: Erin Kesetenbaum

Secrets of a Great Room: Erin Kesetenbaum

The Connecticut-based interiors photographer and blogger breaks down the formula for her cozy & classic dining room.
What makes a room more than just pretty, what are the elements that make it memorable? In our Secrets of a Great Room series, we ask designers to tell us how they created their signature rooms. From decorating advice to the practical nitty gritty of furnishings, we get their insider advice on crafting rooms to remember, like this timeless and welcoming dining room by Erin Kesetenbaum.
A professional photographer specializing in interiors, Kestenbaum found an outlet for her lifelong interest in design when she bought a home in Connecticut in 2016. As Kestenbaum and her husband remodeled their 1940s colonial, she documented the process online, and a side hustle as a blogger and a designer for hire was born. Kestenbaum’s signature is breathing character and charm back into a home that had been stripped of its personality. Using old and new, she creates layered, modern-yet-timeless rooms. Kestenbaum describes how she decorated her delightful dining room:

Create cohesion between rooms.

Kestenbaum’s living room and kitchen are both open onto the dining room, so she used repetition to make the rooms feel of a whole. For example, the living and dining room’s window treatments are the same fabric done in a Roman shade in the dining area and full drapery panels in the living space. Accents of black and brass appear in all three rooms, including the same knobs on both the kitchen cabinets and the dining room’s built-ins. These common threads “make the spaces link together,” says Kestenbaum.

Find a palette touchstone.

Kestenbaum says it is important to clearly define your color scheme. For her kitchen, Kestenbaum drew from the colors in an antique painting. “It fit so perfectly with the cabinetry colors, so I just kind of kept referencing it,” she says. When she started designing the dining room, Kestenbaum says it was so helpful to have the palette predetermined by the painting. “Because it is such a big open space, I felt like I needed more guardrails for the design than I necessarily might have in an individual room.”

Add millwork to elevate your home.

When Kestenbaum and her husband bought their 1940s colonial home “a lot of the charm was stripped away,” she says, “There was a lack of definition in the spaces.” Kestenbaum’s solution was to bring in lots of millwork, molding, and trim to elevate the rooms. In the dining room,  “the bare walls across the entire room were a little bit intimidating,” she confesses, “I wondered, ‘How do I make this feel cozy and warm?’” The answer was recessed panels of applied trim.

Choose jute as a foil for antique rugs.

“I love the texture and the natural color of jute: It is such a good, neutral base,” says Kestenbaum, who also has a collection of vintage rugs, and notes, “Finding a good match for vintage rugs isn’t easy, but a natural fiber rug woven in a graphic pattern pairs really with vintage. I wanted a rug that could hold its own and look cohesive, but not compete with the other rugs.”

Don’t skimp on a dining room rug.

Kestenbaum says she often sees people choose a dining room rug that is too small. “In a dining space, the rug needs to be big enough to allow for the chairs to be firmly on the rug when pulled away from the table,” she says. Kestenbaum notes that you want to plan for the table with all of its leaves inserted, so guests don’t end up half-on and half-off the rug.

Every room needs a little black.

As a photographer, Kestenbaum is particularly sensitive to the visual balance of a room. “Contrast is so important to decor, and black is my go-to,” says Kestenbaum “Even in small doses, like the black in the Kuba Black Woven Jute rug, helps to add contrast and interest.”

Use secondhand scores to experiment.

Kestenbaum loves shopping vintage for the thrill of the hunt and the unique pieces she finds, but she also points out that when you buy something locally off of Craigslist or at a flea market, you get it right away, rather than waiting weeks for a delivery. And because secondhand finds don’t immediately lose their value like new furniture can, Kestenbaum says she feels free to play with pieces because she can easily resell something for the same price if it does not work out.

Even low ceilings deserve crown molding.

“People often ask me if you use crown molding with low ceilings,” says Kestenbaum, whose 1940s home has eight-foot ceilings. “I always say, ‘yes, please. Please do!’ Everything can be done to scale.” Kestenbaum chose a simple crown molding to use throughout the house, but she varied the scale using a chunkier version downstairs and a slightly smaller one upstairs.

Look for a wall color with range.

Finding a wall color that was neutral yet colorful and complemented the kitchen’s blue cabinetry was something of an odyssey for Kestenbaum, who resorted to painting swatches onto plywood and moving them around the space to see how they looked in different lights. The extra effort helped her find a color that looked good all day long. She settled on Cromarty from Farrow & Ball, a light greyish green. “In some lights it is a mint green, in some lights it is almost gray,” she says.
When painting her dining room, Kestenbaum painted everything—walls, molding, built-ins—the same hue and finish. She says doing so creates fewer visual breaks in the room. “Painting it all in one color, really allows the walls to feel taller than they actually are,” she says.
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