Book Review: Elegant Rooms That Work: Fantasy and Function in Interior Design

We all love our shelter magazines. They arrive in our mailboxes each month with the promise of a glimpse into a pristine nirvana of design, where the mess of sticky little hands, office work brought home, and the other anti-aesthetic inconveniences of living seem not to exist. Even the most exquisite homes have to deal with life, traffic, and stuff.

Is there a way to make your home worthy of being a photo in a coffee table book if the home is actually inhabited by humans? I’m not sure that I’ve attained the kind of organizational skills required for such a feat, but there is one person out there who certainly has. Interior designer and bon vivant Stephanie Stokes has an obsession with beautiful rooms that is only matched by her intense concentration on making a place for everything. Her book Elegant Rooms That Work: Fantasy and Function In Interior Design will be released by Rizzoli New York on Mar. 26 and is all about creating spaces that are both functional and alluring. Stokes is a world-traveler who can rope a steer and has worked in jobs as varied as financial analysis and photojournalism. It’s probably safe to assume that along the way she’s accumulated a lot of things—beautiful and otherwise. Such traits make her a dream designer for clients who love to collect, such as her friend Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, who wrote the forward to her book. In his piece Guerrand-Hermès details how Stokes carefully arranged his collection of painted panels of flowers and birds from Marché Biron in Paris in a way that is not overwhelming, yet a pleasure to live among.

In the book Stokes doesn’t only focus on how to arrange and display all of the accoutrements we’ve acquired while traveling through life. She also concentrates on how to store the things we need (or don’t) on a daily basis so that we only notice them when they are required. While she has done excellent work for her many clients, the best examples tend to be those from her own home. One of the most original sections of the book highlights the author’s first studio apartment in New York. In order to make the most of the stingy space of this type of residence, the decorator built a complex system of cabinets in the walls, including two-inch wide vertical pullout drawers used for hanging jewelry.  In another, Stokes’s library is shown to pull extra duty as an office, guest bedroom, and entertaining space. I have never been fond of the use of faux books in a decorating space, but Stokes makes it work in the bar area of this room, where the false volumes conceal the shelves that store flutes, goblets, and highballs.

The advice that Stokes gives on approaching a dining room is the best I’ve heard yet: “I think of dining rooms as theaters. They are stage sets for dinners with table settings as decoration. It is important to have all those props—centerpieces, napkins, candlesticks, salts and peppers—close at hand.” 

Of course. Where do we do we do our most dramatic entertaining? Where does the spotlight shine the most when we host cocktails, dinner parties, and even casual dinners? It all takes place in the dining room, the mood of which sets the tone for the entire affair. I’ve been struggling with my own dining room lately. It is blessed with built in cabinets at one end and a fireplace on the other, but until reading this book it hadn’t occurred to me to set the room up for “production”. Now I’ve set my “props” up so that they are in groups and stored closest to where they will be used. This may be common sense to some, but these types of organizational ideas don’t always dawn on me until I’ve seen an ideal example.

Creative organizational skills don’t come naturally to everyone (especially the person writing thing post!), so the tips and tricks that Stokes includes with her words and pictures are sure to spark inspiration and action for ridding ourselves of the file piles and wrinkled table linens that we sheepishly wave our guests past when they visit.  The person who buys Elegant Rooms That Work is not just buying a pretty book to adorn their cocktail table. This person is purchasing a wealth of advice from an author who has made her compulsion to organize into a career of creating beautiful spaces.

Photography by Michel Arnaud. Images courtesy of Rizzoli New York.