October 17, 2018

Design lessons from Oscar-nominated movies

This year’s crop of Oscar contenders is filled with memorable performances, meditations on life and death, nail-biting suspense and, yes, valuable decorating lessons. If you’ve ever sat through a movie and wondered not whether the butler did it, but where the butler bought that sofa, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Color is a storyteller. It sets the mood. It stirs our emotions. And “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — both the movie and its titular hotel — is drenched in delicious color. From the bubblegum pink exterior in the hotel’s heyday — with the peacock blue rooftops (swoon) — to the glossy red lacquer inside the hotel elevators (double swoon), the movie’s color palette tells its story as much as the script. We know immediately that the Grand Budapest is a place of luxury and whimsy. And when the hotel becomes dilapidated in its later years, the colors turn muddy shades of olive and amber, as our hearts sink a little at its decline. 

What is the lesson here for our own homes? Color, baby! A $20 gallon of paint can transform the mood of a room even more than an expensive piece of furniture. This doesn’t mean you have to paint your walls pink like the Grand Budapest. We’re all different, and we react to colors differently. Any color you choose — even white — is fine, as long as it makes you happy. (OK, I take that back. Swiss coffee is not a color. Don’t pick that one.)

“Gone Girl”

At first, the home of the characters played by Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike seems absolutely perfect. The patrician gray walls, the ebony hardwood floors and the oh-so-tasteful furniture look straight out of a design catalog. But director David Fincher’s lens has purposely drained the interiors of life. The perfection is sterile. There is no soul, no blood. Well (spoiler alert!), except, that is, for all the plasma Pike throws all over the kitchen floor. 

Gone Girl shows us that when it comes to home decor, perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. Making your home look like a model home without showcasing your own unique personality results in a hollow shell. Fill your home with things that reflect the real you, and don’t worry whether it would be approved by the editors of Architectural Digest. Mismatched furniture? A-OK. Flea-market finds? Yes, please. As with people, a home’s personality is much more important than perfect looks.


There is not a lot of interior design to get excited about in Richard Linklater’s critical favorite. In fact, the director shows the passage of time not through furniture styles, but through the electronic devices used by the protagonist, Mason. One design element that really struck me, though, was the film’s use of children’s art — from the art taped to walls when the characters are younger, to the photographs and abstract paintings the older Mason exhibits. 

When the film begins, Mason and his sister share a room with a bunk bed, with murals painted next to each of their respective bunks. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on Hulu, Oscar-nominated Patricia Arquette, who plays their mother, reveals that she and the young actors actually painted those murals together. So it’s particularly heartbreaking when she has to paint over them when their fictional family has to move. 

Your home might feature many notable pieces of art, but the most valuable could be your child’s. A child’s artwork offers a snapshot of a particular moment in time. Collected through the years, they represent milestones captured in pencil, crayon and tempera paint. Honor the art. Frame it. Display it. Archive it. I wish my mother had saved all my drawings through the years. Boyhood doesn’t last, but the memories created by art can last a lifetime.


Almost the entirety of “Birdman” takes place in the dressing rooms and narrow hallways of the St. James Theatre in New York. In fact, however, it was not filmed in the actual backstage area, but on a set so realistic, you can smell the greasepaint. This serves as an apt metaphor: Your life is like a movie, and everything around you is the set. 

Although we probably don’t live this fantasy to the extreme that Michael Keaton’s character does, the concept offers a great brainstorming method for decorating. For example, if your home were your movie set, what kind of scene would you want to live in — a Jane Austen comedy of manners with English antiques? Or a sleek, modern penthouse à la Christian Grey (with or without the Red Room)? Using a movie as a guide can give you ideas on everything from furniture to flooring to accessories.

Perhaps that’s the decorating lesson in all these movies. Create a space for yourself that will make you look and feel inspired — like a winner. You may not win an Oscar, but in a home that’s comfortable and stylish, you’ll certainly feel like a star.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on