My five favorite secrets to good styling and full decorating.

Trays, footed things, books, stools and benches.  

I bet you thought i was going to tell you my favorite thrifts stores in the valley, right? And what, have EVERY Designer in Los Angeles tar and feather me? Nope.  


There are some random things that make a huge difference in styling. It’s like the ‘belt’ in fashion – you forget about it until you NEED it to really make the outfit pop, but it isn’t the most fun things to buy. They are the things you don’t think about and you don’t know you need, but then you look at your space and you can’t figure out why you aren’t satisfied.

They may not be the amazing sofa or chandelier, but these things are what makes your house (and photo) look so full of life, layered, collected and personal.

1. TRAYS.  Sounds so boring i know. Like what do you think i am, a butler? Is this a 1910 English Tudor? Am I Mr. Bates during teatime serving Mary and Matthew Crowley? 

Ah, but trays are a secret problem solver.  They are good for every surface; coffee tables, consoles, nightstands, vanities, barcarts, buffets, entrance tables, etc, etc, etc…. 

And I simply can’t get enough of them. 

Not every surface needs a tray. But every surface likes a tray, every surface can USE a tray.

Here’s what trays do:

1. They corral many things into a single pretty. simple shape, making something that could be messy now visually neat. 

2. They create seperation between surfaces and objects which adds texture and depth.  Sometimes just objects on a table (especially if they are similar in finishes and colors) need a layer in between to create some contrast.  

3. They function as mini tables or large coasters.  A tray on a pouf? Boom, thats a table.  A large tray on an ottoman? Boom thats a table.  

On a nightstand? Yes.   

Nightstands are full of a lot of little things – necklaces, glasses of water, alarm clocks, etc, and these things need a home.  


Sure. Even on your VERY well and possibly over-styled toilet.  But she looks good….

2. Footed Things.  WHY? Why things that are footed? They are the perfect curvy answer to all the square or rectangular like books, boxes and yes, trays on coffee tables, shelfs or consoles.  

Footed things add feminine curvy shape to counteract all the squareness of those oh-so-masculine shapes.  Just when your eye is all tired of looking at squares, you give it a curve.  It’s the perfect contrast. 


Footed things (vessels, bowls, vases or compotes) add vertical space as well as horizontal.  Very technical, i know. But its not just a tall vase or candlesticks – its visually more well-rounded and does two jobs at the same time, whilst still letting the eye be guided slowly instead of quick jerks.  (i should write style porn, i know).  Count how many footed things are in my shelves above. Lots.  

3. Books  Oh you think its weird to buy books for styling and in a way it is. But every client i have shows me interiors of fully styled rooms and one of the reasons they feel so personal and so finished is because they often have really pretty books. I’m not saying to go out and spend $1000 on art books, but when you see them, like them and can afford them, BUY THEM.  It will only make your house more interesting and more full. You’ll notice that catalogues rarely have books and thats one of the reasons that they don’t necessarily look like someone lives there.  Books make a space look lived in. So just start collecting and don’t stop. You’ll never have too many beautiful big art books, i promise. 

a brave little mix

.pretty nook

4. Stools.  There is always a place for a stool.  They can act as cocktail tables as well as extra seating and can be placed a lot of different places or strewn around to look effortless. 

Under consoles – often this space can look really empty, so stick some stools under there.

Extra tables next to seating:

Next to a vertical piece to guide the eye up.  Often the space next to larger pieces is empty and can feel lonely, so by sticking a stool there with maybe a stack of books on top, the transition from the floor to the top of the larger piece is smoother, your eye isn’t forced to make this big jump.  



5. Benches.  I’m ALWAYS looking for benches. It’s become a thing where if they are vintage and attractive i buy them no matter what because we ALWAYS find a place for them and they only stay in storage for a few days. What’s good about them is that they are narrow so in general they don’t take up a lot of actual space, but they do occupy a lot of visual space.  All those empty areas that you feel unfinished can be easily filled with a bench with some books on top.  boom. 

Here’s where i put them:

Under a wall of art.  Art can hold a wall on its own sometimes, but a bench underneath the art fills that low horizontal space that is empty as well as giving the art a visual platform or pedestal:

Jean Louis Deniot's Apartment in Elle Decor; art, gold bench, marble



At the foot of a bed, duh. A bench, two x-benches or two chairs at the end of the bed means luxury.  In New York we would never have been able to fit it, so to me having actual furniture in your bedroom means that you’ve made it….or left New York.  


No one likes the end of the bed on its own (unless its a beautiful bed). It’s like walking into the back of a sofa – sure, it can be pretty but in general you want to distract from it with a prettier piece of furniture – like a bench. 

In front of a fireplace.  I love a low bench in front of a fireplace, especially if its a non-functionaing fireplace.  

Or even more importantly across from a fireplace.  In general the fireplace is the focal point of the living room so when you walk into the space you want to actually see it and often when we put a huge chair across from it it obscures the view of it. So a low bench is the perfect piece of furniture to be placed opposite the fireplace, while still provide seating.  

Sometimes the best secrets aren’t the ones that are juicy or shocking, but instead its the things you don’t think about, that can be actually very inexpensive and simple yet make the biggest difference.  Don’t think you need a new sofa to fix all your problems, add layers, texture and depth with my five secret ingredients: trays, footed things, pretty books, stools and benches. 

This post was in partnership with smartwater

smartwater, simplicity is delicious.

  1. Love, love, love this post. I so agree. Definitely great tricks of the trade. I have trays everywhere!…& wish I had loads more beautiful books. I'm a huge fan of layered interiors. THANKS FOR THE INSPIRATION…and lots of fabulous images! Visit me, I'm a fellow stylist & brand-new blogger. Have a great weekend!

  2. Cheryl

    All to the good, now to find the 'just right' benches, trays. Books we have — all over the place! Missed your sunburst loveliness on OKL sale — that was gorgeous but someone snagged it and never let go! Looks like you did very well in that sale, most items disappeared in no time.

  3. THIS is the stuff I can't wait to buy! Right now, home is filled with just basics (couch, tv stand, desk…), granted I think they are all fabulous, but I'm missing the laaaayers =)

  4. pattyblaettler

    What a wonderful post! I feel smarter!
    I think it's great that you share all the knowledge you've accumulated through the years. Thanks!

  5. Bookmarking this! You always have the best advice. I've recently purchased a few trays and have begun curating my coffee book collection! Good to know I'm on the right track!

  6. Kiira Ratia

    Gosh, you are so generous with your advice and info, and I love that you break it down so scientifically. Sometimes rules/guidelines are nice! Now if you could only advise on how to style a dining room table (without resorting to setting the table for a fake dinner party), I would love that!
    Congrats on the OKL sale! I was able to snag a lamp but lost out to others on some of my favorite pieces. Can't wait for your store to open.

  7. I love your blog because of posts like this. They're so helpful and enlightening!

  8. Lucy

    Great post! You are preaching to the choir here. I have a serious tray habit and don't get me started on my obsession with footed bowls. I always find it frustrating when I style a space for a client and the only books they own are paperbacks or college textbooks.
    Congrats on a successful sale, looking forward to the treasures you will unearth for your online store.

  9. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Your OKL sale was amazing and sooooo much fun!! I'm so happy that I snagged the Ceramic Midcentury Yellow Stripes Lamp and the Asian-Inspired Hexagonal Brass Box. I really wanted those Brass Antelope Bookends and either of the Brass Lamps but someone else got hold of those.. and the bunny with the brass ears (wanted that too)…hmm…the brass trunks were gone before I got a chance to get to them and the campaign dresser…I just couldn't believe how fast everything got scooped up.

    My biggest problem now is trying to decide what lamp shade to pair with the lamp I purchased. So happy and can't wait for it to arrive!!

  10. sarajane

    Wow! Thank you for writing this JUST FOR ME! I have lots of interesting "stuff" but it never looks "quite right". I just started collecting trays – watch out footed things- you are next!

  11. Jennifer

    OMG! I love this post! I am a self taught decorator, actually a 'decorating addict':), and it is so heart-warming to know that I was already doing this, and have for years. Thanks for the confirmation:) Also thank you for the 'permission' to buy cool books whenever I want (even tho I may not 'need' them;))

  12. Rebekah

    So kicking myself right now over the cutest blue and green flowered melamine tray that I did not buy at Goodwill yesterday.

  13. Mary

    Love it! Thanks Emily for sharing your secrets.
    For me the best deco blog!

  14. these are some great tips! I love trays too and find them so useful. They instantly jazz up any room. I have one on my kitchen table holding salt, pepper, and sugar, it makes mundane everyday things look cute.

  15. QuinnCooper

    Great post. Thanks for the tips!

  16. ellis

    Love this! I'd been thinking how much I like trays and benches lately and you helped me define exactly what I like about them and why I need more of them immediately. :)

  17. Michelle H.

    I LOVE the martini side table from West Elm (photo 11). I have one in black and I'm soooo tempted to buy it in at least one other color. It's so versatile — I just pick it up and carry it to the porch, the TV room, whatever. I also really love the WE lacquer trays. I have a raffia one, which isn't really lacquer I guess, but I want more of them! I'm not a WE plant — it's just that these are great items, classics I think, and a very good value.

  18. Sheila S.

    Really, really great food for thought here. Thanks so much for parsing it all out in such a thoughtful way.
    That "bench across from the fireplace" thing really hits home. Makes me think I should have worked harder to come up with a bench/daybed solution for my long, narrow living room – fireplace on one end and a wall of French doors to the courtyard on the opposite end of the 15.5' by 26.5' space.
    Easier to deal with is the serious lack of "footed things" that I didn't even know my poor rooms suffer from. More shopping for me!

  19. great post, very informative. Thanks!

  20. I keep all the toiletries I touch daily on a footed tray on the back of my toilet and I feel so chic now!

  21. Ana

    Could anyone tell me the name of the photograper/photo that's in the first "Benches" picture, please?

  22. Huma Z.

    Great post filled with great tips, enjoyed reading bit of it. "In New York we would never have been able to fit it, so to me having actual furniture in your bedroom means that you've made it….or left New York." My heart swelled while reading this line. Someone understand the pain of living in the apartments of New York! Thank you. :)

  23. Megan

    No matter how often I reorganise it, my dresser is perpetually messy. I tried the tray trick today – it worked like a charm! Thanks so much.

  24. NicSanc

    Love your style and the Blog, so inspiring! Can you tell me the blue/turquoise paint color on the walls in the Bench Section please? Thanks

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