12 essential books for home design inspiration

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

When it comes to design inspiration, I’m kind of old school. I love all the beautiful spaces I scroll past on Pinterest and Instagram, but there’s something about a book that I find so much more conducive to my creativity. Maybe it’s because a book has a point of view: instead of a pastiche of disconnected images, books give us a lens through which to view our homes. They take us into a world where the rooms and objects are part of a bigger story. The accompanying narrative tells us not just about the finished spaces, but the challenges the designer faced and their aspirations for the life that will be lived there.

At the same time, I’m careful about the books I let into my headspace. A lot of home books can be a bit… dictatorial. They declare that there’s one right way to hang a picture or choose a sofa, and make you feel like if you don’t (or can’t) do it that way, your home will always be uncool or subpar.

For example, one book I recently read declares that you must paint a new home entirely in white before you can paint it any other color (because I definitely have budget and time to paint my house twice), that a bedroom be used only for sleeping (pity us poor fools who live in spaces where we might need to multitask), and that plastics of all kinds should be banned from the home (sorry kids, those Legos gotta go!). When I was younger and took books like this seriously, I’d look around at the beige linoleum kitchen counters and my tiny bedroom / office / craft room and feel hopeless. Why even bother redecorating? My efforts were doomed from the start.

My Design a Joyful Home students know that I have a strong aversion to rules and formulas when it comes to decorating. One reason is that I refuse to be convinced there is one right answer for how to create a home that feels good. There are different approaches for different people, different times in life, and different spaces — and how boring to insist that everyone do things a certain way. Second, most “rules” break the second you get into a real space. Unless you are building a home from the ground up , you’ll never have a perfectly ideal space to work with. (And even then you’ll have to contend with zoning, siting, climate, and budget.) But I firmly believe that’s a good thing! Real spaces lead to ingenious solutions that make a space charming and memorable.

So, I avoid books that frequently use the words always, never, should, and perfect. Instead, I prefer books that offer a range of ideas that inspire me and help me solve the problems I’m facing in my own space. I tried to winnow this list down to my absolute essentials, the home and decor books that I can’t live without. These are my very favorites.

A Pattern Language

Understanding space

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al is one of the ten most important books on my shelf, and even if you have just a passing interest in any aspect of design, this book will make your life better. The book is broken into small sections called “patterns,” each of which details an observation about the way that people relate to space, and how space can shape human life and interactions for the better. The patterns begin at the large scale, with cities and downs, moving down through neighborhoods and streets, and then into houses, yards, rooms, and furnishings.

It’s from A Pattern Language that I learned that people will congregate in the sunniest parts of the home (regardless of what those rooms are designed for), and that rooms with northern light can sometimes feel flat and in need of a lift. It’s also where I learned about the universal love that children have for “secret places” — cupboards or attics where they can hide and play.

The book is a doorstop, but you don’t need to read it cover-to-cover to benefit. Skim the contents to find patterns that catch your eye. These will help you better understand your home (and neighborhood, city, or town) and the way you live in it.

Remodelista: An Organized Home

Organization

Remodelista’s An Organized Home is the simplest, most helpful organizing book I’ve come across, and I’ve read a lot of them. While Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up is an important foundation for decluttering, this book helps you figure out what to do with the stuff you still have in your home.

We’ve put so many of the strategies in this book into use, like using trays to corral disparate items (which taps into the gestalt principle of grouping) or using organizational tools in ways they weren’t intended (paper sorters for pot lids, for example). And in the back is a list of 75 beautiful organizing products that can help keep you from aimlessly wandering the Container Store.

My Bedroom is an Office & Other Interior Design Dilemmas

Problem-solving

I love this little book because it offers a myriad of practical ways to deal with common home frustrations, like how to keep the TV from dominating a space or how to make a windowless room feel brighter. My Bedroom is an Office never makes me feel bad about the space I have, but always makes me feel confident I can make it better.

How They Decorated

Design history

From Pauline de Rothschild to Babe Paley to Georgia O’Keeffe, P. Gaye Tapp’s How They Decorated looks at famous women of the twentieth century and how they decorated. I love how this book weaves together biographical details with style choices, and offers a peek at design history but with a contemporary enough lens that the designs still feel relatable. (Or at least as relatable as the homes of women so glamorous can be.)

Absolutely Beautiful Things

Layering

Anna Spiro is one of my favorite designers, and her first book Absolutely Beautiful Things is a masterclass in creating a vibrant, layered home that really feels lived in. Spiro is joyfully unafraid of color and has a casual way of designing that really works for the kind of life that has kids and pets and you know, life happening all the time.

Spiro also has a new book called A Life in Pattern — it’s out in the UK but in the US it comes out in February. Her style has evolved a lot since this first book, and I’m excited to see what the new book contains.

Living With Pattern

Pattern

Both of Rebecca Atwood’s books (Living with Color is her newest release) have a prominent place on my shelves, but if I had to play favorites, Living With Pattern is the one I couldn’t live without. Atwood is a textile designer and a friend of mine, and her style highlights a beautifully understated kind of joy.

This book takes you inside real homes and gives tips for finding patterns you love, making patterns work together, and using pattern in unexpected ways in your home. There are also a number of simple DIY projects that allow you to dip a toe into the world of pattern without investing a lot of time or money. This is a treasured resource I come back to again and again.

Every Room Should Sing

Composition

I’m breaking my “no shoulds” rule here, but with good reason. This relatively recent book by designer Beata Heuman has been an instant favorite for me. I think it’s because Heuman truly understands the notion of designing for joy. When she says a room should sing, she really means that it should shine on its own merits, inspired by the life of the person living in it. She mines unconventional sources of inspiration and brings together unlikely styles, objects, and ideas to create rooms that feel unique and personal. Heuman is a master of composition, and every time I think I know what to expect, I flip a page and find something different.

Every Room Should Sing walks through ten projects, and I find it incredibly useful to hear about Heuman’s creative process and inspirations. A wealth of irreverent quotes helps inspire me to not take things too seriously and stay true to my own intuition.

Maison: Parisian Chic at Home

Joy over perfection

Yes, this book by style icon Inès de la Fressange and artist Marin Montagut is eye candy for those of us who adore French interiors. But the real reason I love this book is that it’s one of the few home books that shows us interiors that haven’t been overstyled. Having had my home photographed for a magazine, I know how great it is to see the space cleaned up, with thoughtful props added and the dish soap hidden and a bowl of fruit placed just so. But that’s what it looks like about .01% of the time, so it’s more important to me to make my home joyful for everyday life.

The interiors in Maison are beautiful without being obnoxiously tidied. I can see that someone lives there, that the well-worn pillows weren’t replaced with fresh ones, that the books on the nightstand are the ones the the homeowner is actually reading. And maybe this only works because French dish soap is prettier than the supermarket bottle of Dawn, but it feels closer to reality. It’s like the authors believe that real life itself is beautiful, more beautiful than the sanitized, styled version we see all over Pinterest, and seeing it here helps me believe it too.

Making Living Lovely

Risk-taking

Russell Whitehead and Jordan Cluroe, aka 2LG, are known for their fearless designs and their unabashed use of color. I love Making Living Lovely because it provides inspiration for finding freedom in design: from rules (”rules are bullshit” is a real sentence in this book), from norms (see p. 40 on breaking gender codes in design), and from your own fears.

While 2LG’s style is really different from mine, their fearless approach contains lessons for anyone, and their light-hearted tone is always supportive, never judgmental.

Decorating is Fun! How to Be Your Own Decorator

Having fun in the process

Joyful readers know how much I love Dorothy Draper, America’s first interior decorator, and this 1939 classic was her guidebook to help women of that time create a joyful home working with what they have. Yes, some of the advice in Decorating is Fun! is dated, and yes, Draper can be a bit bossy at times, but if you look past those things, this book offers a wealth of ideas for how to make a home feel lively, personal, and creative, and how to have some fun in the process.

Hill House Living

Lifestyle

Paula Sutton was a city-loving fashion executive living in London before decamping to the country with her husband and three kids. Hill House Living shares her discoveries about the joys of country life and her tips for furnishing a house slowly and affordably using vintage finds. Her style is whimsical, her tone relatable, and it’s fun to see how her design and lifestyle intersect and overlap.

One thing I love about this book is Paula’s frank discussion of race in country house style. As a Black creative and author, she is both cognizant of the associations that country style has with a colonialist past and the stereotypes that some people carry around Black design styles. At the same time, her thoughtful work disrupts these stereotypes and points toward the importance of finding style that you love, no matter what others might think.

More than Just a House

Collecting

This book full of creative interiors really speaks to the Collector side of my design personality. Alex Eagle lets you peek inside some truly unconventional homes where the art takes center stage. Whenever I feel like I’m seeing the same trends repeated over and over again, More than Just a House reminds me to come back to what I really love, and build from there.

Do you have design books that help inspire you to create more joy at home? Please share them in the comments!

January 29th, 2022

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Make your home a haven!

Learn to trust your intuition, find your style, and confidently create a home that gives you more peace and joy, every day.

    Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Heidi Hooten on January 29, 2022

    I’m not a designer, but I really loved Soul Space by Xorin Balbes. It made me think about what I really want in my home, and what reflects my taste and passions. I’m a homeless shelter manager, and we are in the very beginning stages of building a new 20-bed shelter in our little town and have been casting around for what would make it feel cozy and welcoming. Any suggestions would be welcome!

    Reply
  2. Erin B on January 29, 2022

    Justina Blakeney’s books are gorgeous yet grounded and always inspire me!

    Reply
  3. Kameela Hays on January 29, 2022

    A great selection but please check details before posting. It’s Paula Sutton not ‘Pamela’

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on January 29, 2022

      Oh my goodness, working too quickly over here. Fixed! Apologies for the careless error!

      Reply
  4. Divya Muralidhara on January 29, 2022

    I have been reading “Maison” recently and it’s refreshing. Another book like that is “Life Unstyled,” by Emily Henson. I have been enjoying and getting a lot out of “Vivid: Style in Color,” by Armelle Habbib and Julia Green, a photography book about color in design. “Hill House Living” is on my list to read as well. Thanks for such great suggestions!

    Reply
  5. Rona on January 30, 2022

    Coucou Kameela! I agree, lovely selection presented by Ingrid, I must check them out. And I have been thoroughly enjoying Paula’s book–so so love her insta posts. XO Rona

    Reply
  6. Claudia on January 30, 2022

    Thanks Ingrid, love all your suggestions and the freedom that drives your choices, how refreshing!

    Reply
  7. Carrie on January 31, 2022

    I really like “It’s Beautiful Here*” by Megan Morton! Lots of variety of styles, and everything looks achievable. The write ups are fun to read too.

    Reply
  8. Heather on January 31, 2022

    A book I’ve found to be a wonderful companion read to Joyful (which I’ve loved and gifted!) is My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation by Donald Rattner. I love how the author, an architect, draws on science (just like in Joyful!) to provide practical tactics for using design to stoke creativity in your home. Perhaps it’s because I think creativity and joy go hand in hand! 😉 

    Reply

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