A life-long interior obsessive, stylist and author of her latest book My Bedroom is an Office, Joanna is an expert in transforming spaces. Joanna’s knowledge and years of experience shine through in her latest book, providing answers to help you conquer the decorating dilemmas in your life, no matter the issue.

Joanna Thornhill

Can you talk us through what your career as an interior stylist entails?

I work with various brands, magazines, designers and trend forecasting agencies to create both visual or written content to help them promote their work, or to provide content for their own platform. This can range greatly from writing get-the-look trend features for magazines, to styling editorial photoshoots around a certain trend or theme, to helping brands work out the trends and style direction their photography should take to meet their end goal, whether that be to gain press coverage or help sell their products to customers.

Although the general process is the same, the approach can vary greatly depending on what you’re producing for who; if you’re creating imagery for marketing use, your clients’ product has to be the star of the show. The images need to be styled sympathetically to this whilst still having a discernible look or trend to them.

Whereas for magazine styling or creating a brand’s ‘press’ images (the photographs that they will distribute to journalists for them to use within their magazine features, rather than advertising), the approach is very different and it requires a much more trend-led, lived-in and creative style. This can be really fun to produce but also quite hard work as these type of shoots generally require a lot more props and planning.

I also work as a contributing editor to the trend forecasting agency WGSN, where I write two reports every month on emerging trends within interiors and craft. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now after starting as a runner and art department assistant within TV production, and I love how varied the work can be and getting to work with all sorts of different clients.

What inspired you to write your new book?

My publishers, Laurence King, actually approached me with the idea: they’d seen a copy of my previous book, Home for Now and liked my no-nonsense, practical approach to interiors. They felt it could work well with a concept they had for a new book, which turned into My Bedroom is an Office and Other Interior Design Dilemmas.

We agreed that there was a real gap in the market for a book that straddled the areas between pretty, aspirational coffee-table style books vs practical how-to manuals.  As a growing number of us are renting for longer and then moving into their first homes with no real practical skills to speak of, a book which holds your hand through the process of setting up home, particularly for people who’d perhaps never really thought about interiors before, could be really useful.

The idea was to cover a broad range of topics, from wider issues such as how to make a north-facing room feel warm and cosy, to more niche dilemmas like what to do for storage if you can’t/aren’t able to fix shelves to your walls. As such, the entire book is set out as a range of self-contained spreads that tackle each dilemma independently, so you can dip in and out of it rather than having to read through it chronologically.

How has your own style evolved over the years, and have you made any personal design mistakes?

I was a serial renter until we purchased our little house almost seven years ago, and the renter’s mindset is still very much ingrained in me even now. I’m always thinking of how I can add updates to my home without necessarily doing anything permanent, in case I later, change my mind.

While most people think that in rentals you’re really limited in what you can do to decorate them, I always saw it as something of a challenge, as it forces you to think really creatively in how you decorated. For example, one of my favourite tricks was decorating cheap furniture with wallpaper, stuck on with double-sided tape so I could easily change my mind again if I wanted to switch things up.

As I was generally limited to decorating with things rather than doing anything to the spaces themselves, I was often drawn to bright colours or busy patterns. Whereas now, with the freedom to do as I please (within my budget, at least) I’ve been able to finally add colour and wallpaper to walls, meaning there’s perhaps slightly less wacky furniture in the house now.

I also seem to have organically moved towards a calmer, more tranquil palette at home of mainly blues, greens and greys. I still love colour and pattern and am definitely a maximalist, but as I spend so much of my working life immersed in coming up with trends and colour schemes, it’s nice to be surrounded by something a little more soothing at the end of the day.

Although some of my earlier decorating endeavours wouldn’t be choices I’d be likely to repeat again now (my university bedroom, featuring faux fur cow-print fabric stuck to doors and alternate walls painted in turquoise and fuchsia springs to mind!) it was all a learning curve and I’m never too precious to redo things if I change my mind further down the line.

My most recent ‘mistake’ was opting for bog-standard silver tile trim in our newly renovated bathroom. It’s just a tiny detail and at the time my builders rushed me into getting it so I didn’t have time to shop around, but from the minute it was installed it just felt ‘wrong’ to me within the overall scheme. Taking it out wasn’t an option so I decided to painstakingly paint it all in black Hammerite, which took about 14 hours but cost me just £7 and I’m infinitely happier with the new look, which matches my Crittall-style shower screen to perfection.

What are three common design mistakes people make and how can they be avoided?

  1. Firstly, I’d say it’s with wall art. Often, people hang their pictures either too high, or too far apart (and often both!) leaving things looking cluttered and disparate. In my book I discuss the best ways to hang art as well as the ‘rules’ for successfully creating a feature wall. In a nutshell, follow gallery rules and hang larger artworks at eye level (around 130cm) and for walls with multiple smaller artworks hung on them, keep some consistency in the spaces between each frame.
  2. Secondly – another topic I discuss in the book – is painting or wallpapering a chimney breast in a darker or bolder colour to the rest of their interiors. As the chimney breast already protrudes into the space, by highlighting it like this it can make it feel too dominant in the space, especially if (another ‘design crime’) there are no other elements in the room that tie into it. A far more sympathetic option is to go darker or bolder in the alcoves either side, instead – or be bold and decorate the entire room with the same tone or design, for maximum impact.
  3. Thirdly, I’d say it’s being afraid of mixing different types of furniture together for fear of things not ‘going’. Most successful interiors schemes contain a mix of styles and looks. So although it makes sense to pick one predominant element to stop things looking too eclectic, opting for mainly mid-century style furnishings or the bulk of your wooden furniture being one type of timber, the key to bringing it all to life is to add something unexpected. Be it an ornate Victorian sideboard in amongst an otherwise contemporary scheme, or combining natural woods with painted.

What design tips can people try out if they’re on a limited budget?

If you have limited funds, or are renting, then it’s likely you won’t be able to physically alter the space you live in with regards to extending or completely changing the layout, so think creatively about how your existing space can work best for you. Follow these tips:

  1. If you’ve got an odd-shaped room, for example, could you use an awkward niche to create a cosy sitting or dining spot, or maybe even hang a curtain across it to create a concealed storage area?
  2. Paint is one of the most cost-effective ways to make a big difference to any space, and as long as you use the right paint (and primer) you can use it to cover all sorts of surfaces, as well as walls. Think about using it to transform some tired old kitchen cupboards, floorboards or even grotty tiles.
  3. Throws and rugs can also hide a multitude of sins and are a great way to add colour and pattern that you can easily remove if you get bored.
  4. Finally, if you’ve got very limited budget for furniture, prioritise: getting a decent sofa and bed are wise investment pieces so it’s worth paying more for good quality there. You can always make do with a clothes rail until you can afford a proper wardrobe, but you won’t want to sleep on a cheap lumpy mattress.

Find out more about Jo Thornhill’s latest book, My Bedroom is an Office and Other Interior Design Dilemmas here.

Interior Design Dilemmas Book Cover