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Designing Simple Sophistication at Home


Sara Shalls, principle designer at the award-winning interior design firm Jennifer Adams Design Group, and recently seen on HGTV’s DIY Dominator, shares her take on creating elegant environments tailored to make you feel right at home.



“In small spaces, scale is everything. For this living room, we mixed large and small pieces to get just the right balance.”  >>

<< Sara Shalls in her Boulder, Colorado, office at Jennifer Adams Design Group

Long before interior designer Sara Shalls joined the ranks of the award-winning Jennifer Adams Design Group, her formative years were spent very much like the rest of us: as a young child under the steady mentoring arm of a mother who provided opportunities to let her talents and gifts shine.

And as Shalls honed and developed those skills over time, she experienced success in the interior design world. Her 13-year career has included earning her bachelor’s degree in interior design from Brevard College of North Carolina; working with brands of distinction, including the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons Resorts; leading luxury residential projects in cities like New York City and Portland, Oregon; and even appearing on HGTV’s wildly popular DIY Dominator.



“In small spaces you want to be sure your furniture is the right scale. For this living room, we mixed large and small pieces to get just the right balance.”


While many of us share stories from the setting of a single-address childhood home, Shalls’ narrative is one of an on-the-go family moving from home to home over the course of her childhood.

For Shalls, each relocation provided an unexpected benefit she’d grown to love: the opportunity to collaborate with her mother in creating a new home environment, wherever they landed. Looking back, Shalls says the listening skills and resourcefulness her mother taught her have factored into her own design style.

“I am always on the hunt for great, new resources. I love to find inspiration from the unexpected!”


“For guests bedrooms, I like to keep things simple and fresh… not too cluttered. This Lake Tahoe residence is just that, a relaxing guest retreat!”


“I’ve always enjoyed collaboration on a space, rather than just telling someone what to do,” says Shalls. And to enlist this collaborative style, Shalls asks her clients to look and listen to their space by writing down where they do things in their home, paying special attention to seemingly insignificant day-to-day activities. Her questions include, “Where do you have dinner? At the kitchen bar? In the living room? Or at the dining room table?”

All of these habits, once logged in a journal, help Shalls unlock a plan that makes sense for her clients’ space based on use.


“It’s always great to be able to work on large-scale projects. In this Tahoe resort we mixed textures and colors to create a mountain-modern design.”


Shalls believes that when a person walks in the door of any space, he should feel right at home.

“My philosophy is a really simple one: a clean space lends itself to a clean mind,” says Shalls. “When we have a space that is not overly cluttered, we have a chance to actually see the design of the room, to clearly show off the structure.”

Shalls believes that anyone looking to redecorate or create a new home design plan would be well-served to employ a simple approach she uses with her own clients — dividing the space into three simple layers: the foundation, the majors and the accessories. Achieving the simple sophistication look couldn’t be easier with these three principles.

“To help my clients visualize this foundation layer, I ask them to imagine turning their space upside down and shaking out all the items inside the room not attached,” says Shalls. “This leaves the flooring, walls and built-in architectural elements.”

Since layer one is a foundational element and often cannot be changed without a major investment, Shalls says there is one simple (and inexpensive) modification that offers lasting impact: repainting the room.

Shalls recommends starting with a neutral base color like tan or camel, which can help set the stage for the next, more dramatic second and third layers. She says this foundation layer can also provide a framework from which to hang our uniqueness, which can change over time, just like we do.

The second layer involves the arrangement or securing of major pieces like a sofa, an easy chair or a dining room table. These items may require investing a good amount of money, so making a good choice is critical. Shalls recommends items with simple lines or a neutral color palette, forsaking excessive colors or trendy patterns.

“If you must have a splash of color at this layer,” says Shalls, “an easy chair is a great piece to consider.”

According to Shalls, a sofa can always be punched up with the simple addition of patterned pillows or a colorful throw blanket. These items, classified as elements of the third “accessories” layer, reflect our personality and can be easily swapped out at a later date.

Accessories can include artwork, lamps, mirrors in nice, thick frames, or something as personal as a salon-style grouping of family photos and artifacts tied together with frames of the same style or color.

“When we have a space that is not overly cluttered, we have a chance to actually see the design of the room, to dearly show off the structure.”


“The goal for this residence was to create a cozy retreat situated right on the golf course. We did just that by using warm colors, textural fabrics and soft lighting.”

This final layer is often where people get tripped up, but Shalls says she has a surefire trick to help get the last layer perfect.

“This is just like the tip women use before walking out of the house for a night on the town,” Shalls said. She explains that when they look in the mirror, they simply remove the first piece of jewelry that catches their eye. “This also works with the editing phase of the third layer. If there is something that pulls your focus, minimize it by repositioning it or removing it completely.”

Shalls knows that while not everyone can hire a designer, they can use these simple tools and tips she’s learned along the way to create a unique space that makes anyone feel right at home.


“In this Portland, Oregon penthouse we took advantage of the large windows that bring light to the space. We were also able to capture the fun and whimsy of the client by incorporating bright pops of color into the accessories and artwork.”


Sara’s Three Simple Design Tips

1. When purchasing a sofa, bookshelf or dining room table, always choose well-crafted items since these items will most likely stay with you as long as you have your home — and, likely, they will travel with you, should you

ever move.

2. When looking for accessories, pick items that you relate to or that tell a story. If you are looking for art, visit an art gallery or an artist’s market to make a personal connection with the work you are bringing into your home. You can entertain your guest with exciting stories behind the art you hang on your walls.

3. The easiest and fastest way to change a space is through our senses. Maybe a full remodel is not required, but a few candles or fresh flowers from a local farmer’s market, according to Shalls, are always something she has in her own home to help her relax.

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