Learning from a Room: Jessica Helgerson’s Tips for Combining Color

When we were discussing ideas for new columns this year, I sat back and thought about what I felt was really missing from the web. I kept coming back to the idea of decorating, but I wanted to tackle something more practical and knowledge-based, rather than just inspiration. While trying to shape the column’s focus I was reminded of an important lesson I learned while writing Design*Sponge at Home: photographs should teach and not just describe. I was so used to listing and linking items in a home tour, rather than using it as a teaching moment (to explain how and why the things in a room worked), that I was missing a chance to really help readers (and myself) gain more design confidence and practical decorating skills. So it’s with that concept in mind- empowering readers with practical design lessons and tips- that I’m launching this new series. Learning From A Room will examine one single room from the perspective of the decorator (whether that’s a home owner or interior designer) and break down the design skills, tips and principles being used so you can learn from them and try them in your own home. I hope this column will help break down the some of the walls between inspiration and creative realization. Here’s to tackling our design challenges head on in 2014!

Today we’re starting with my favorite interior designer, Portland, Oregon’s Jessica Helgerson. This dining room is part of a full Brooklyn home tour you can see right here. All photographs are courtesy of Andrew Cammaranoxo, grace

Click through for the full interview, decorating tips and Jessica’s go-to white paint!

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Name: Jessica Helgerson
How long have you been an interior designer?: 20 Years (gulp!)
Where can people find you online?: My website, Facebook and Instagram

What was your goal with this room or what was the client’s goal with this room?

Jessica: Our clients wanted a happy, colorful, original, pop-art feeling. Our goal was to achieve that for them.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in this room?

Jessica: This room is the first room you come into as you enter the brownstone. Our biggest challenge was letting go of trying to make it a living room and dining room, and just letting it do the one thing well. We put the living room downstairs in what was intended to be the “family room” and it totally works.

What design idea or concept does this room best represent?

Jessica: To me this room is all about contrast…bright, fresh, and modern meeting natural, rustic and handmade with a sizzly pop!

There are so many great color and paint choices happening in this room- what are your overall tips for choosing paint colors?

Jessica: When it comes to choosing paint colors I think a good tip is ‘Don’t fight the space’ For example, painting a dark basement room a happy yellow is really not a good idea. Paint it dark grey instead and just let it be what it wants to be anyway. Similarly I normally wouldn’t paint a light-filled bright room a dark color, I’d probably just paint it white. (Our go-to white paint is Benjamin Moore’s ‘White Opulence’ OC-69!)

How did you choose the red paint colors behind the bookcase?

Jessica: I like contrasting colors and colors that are almost identical (like in our bookshelf). There are actually four paint colors back there and they were picked by looking at lots of paint samples, and drawing numerous Sketchup models until we landed on what felt just right.

How/why did you choose to leave the exposed ceiling beams unpainted?

Jessica: We wanted to keep the natural elements rough and earthy to contrast against the polished modern ones. It balances the room and keeps it from feeling sterile.

How did you choose the contrasting colors between the turquoise chairs and the red wall?

Jessica: I love red and turquoise together. They just look so good. I’m always inspired by the color combinations that Mexican architect Luis Barragan uses. He does radical things with color that are somehow so beautiful.

When choosing a light fixture, how did you choose this shape, style and color?

Jessica: For one thing, we love David Weeks (the lighting designer). The explosion of shiny modern black balls in this fixture of his feel bold, playful, and happy; a look our clients were eager to achieve.

You chose to leave the floor bare under the table, could you elaborate on that decision and/or why a rug would have not been the best choice?

Jessica: I’m not a big fan of rugs under dining tables, just from a practical standpoint. And we really didn’t need to introduce more color or pattern, it felt balanced and finished just like this.

Do you have any styling tips for styling a large shelf area like this one?

Jessica: I’m often in favor of not really styling. . . I usually think bookshelves are good for books, or other useful things, arranged in whatever way is practical. In this case though, the shelf is really an art piece not a “book” shelf. We wanted to contrast the bright colors and bold angles of our painted backdrop with earthy, natural, and handmade things. With that goal in mind, we set up the rule to only select items made of pale wood, white ceramic, paper, or clear glass. The objects are all handmade by Brooklyn and Portland artists and craftspeople, whom we love to support.

Are there any other tips or ideas from this room you’d like to share?

Jessica: The little sofa that you see on the left provides comfortable seating in the kitchen. These days we are trying to incorporate really cozy sofa-type seating in most kitchens that we design. It makes the place that everyone wants to hang out in anyway that much more welcoming!

  1. Love the color of those chairs!

  2. Zanesvillain says:

    Argh! They painted the McCobb chairs!

  3. Melinda says:

    Jessica, I love your work! You’re amazing. Also, I have a small sofa in my kitchen & it gets more use than the sofa in the living room!! Great idea!

  4. susie says:

    Love this new column! Thank you for the amazing tips and insight, Jessica.

  5. Linda Briganti says:

    This is really useful. I’m glad you thought of it.

  6. Nicole says:

    I live in nearby Seattle and am a huge fan of Jessica’s! Looking forward to having a project for her in the future. :)

  7. emily says:

    love the post idea! I’ve thought about this void in design blogs for awhile (which is why I started my own!). I love that you are going straight to the source for tips, and who better to start with than Jessica Helgerson. Amazing room amazing designer…can’t wait to follow this column.

  8. Lauren Elyse says:

    Love the concept of this new column! Great idea!

  9. Kristin S says:

    Nice. I remember this design. The colors flow perfectly, and every detail accounted for, but it feels effortless.

  10. Abby says:

    Love this new column, exactly what I need! And what a beautiful room to kick it off with.

  11. emilee says:

    I just so appreciate that you are always thinking! This is an awesome new feature. Thank you.

  12. Maggie says:

    I really like this new column! It’s always fun to learn something new. Great space too!

  13. Peaches says:

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a post like this. Pretty images + meaty content. Jessica’s style is much more sophisticated than my own, so hearing her break down some of the basics is a real eye-opener.

    More like this!

  14. Really love the ‘don’t fight the space’ bit. The colours are so cheerful and playful, and there is a slight nautical theme that makes you feel like you’re on vacation. Well done!

  15. Heidi P. says:

    Jessica Helgerson, THANK you!! for your practicality! A bookshelf as a bookshelf?? No rug under a kitchen table b/c it’s unpractical?? I thought I was the only one who disagreed with a rug under a kitchen table!! Ahhh, feeling validated. Thank you.

  16. Leila says:

    This is a great idea for a column! I can’t wait to read more of these! The bookcase is gorgeous, I love the way the light and darker reds mimic the light coming through the window! Feel very inspired!

  17. Lynne MS says:

    Grace was right, this teaching and learning element is sorely needed within design blogs. Great start with the first one. Looking forward to more!

  18. Great idea for a new p0st series, and terrific and fascinating post to kick it off. I too love that the designer thinks bookshelves don’t need to be styled and that rugs under dining tables are impractical. And yet this space has such great style. Love it and looking forward to more in this series, thank you!

  19. Antado says:

    I never think about the mix of red and turquoise but it looks awesome!

  20. Dana Brook says:

    I don’t usually comment – I’m just quiet viewer… but I am blown away by this designer. I can see why she’s your favorite. Very inspiring. Thank you.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      isn’t she great? really, jessica is the tops of for me. can’t beat her work :)


  21. Eva says:

    love the new column! it’s what everyone wants to hear!

  22. Amanda says:

    OH. MY. GOD. That bookcase is incredible. Swooooooooon.

    Also, yes! I’ve never understood the rug under the dining room thing, especially for families.

  23. Michelle says:

    Thank. You. Jessica! Love the tip of don’t fight the space. Always feel myself using certain colors to make the room look larger than it is. and always regretting it later on. Great advice!

  24. Jemma says:

    Looking forward to this new column. I would love to see a post about creating an art wall. Mine never seem to hit the spot. I know this is so personal and everyone has different art but we see so many great examples and it would be so helpful to get some tips on why some of those examples work – frame widths/sizes, selecting and combining colours and styles etc.

  25. Kim says:

    I’d like to leave a constructive comment about your goal of making these into teachable moments. First off, great idea! I think this would have been a lot stronger, through, if the designer was really pushed to expose some theory. For example…. I would find it much more teachable if this article actually broke down the elements in the room and deconstructed why they work. The and turquoise work so well together because they are about the same value, and they are very traditional combo in terms of contrast — however, they hit that pop-art thing because they are bright and clear. The ceiling fixture is mic century modern (the era of pop art) and it doesn’t overwhelm or argue with the paint colors because it works by being a great silhouette. Then you could go on to talk about the furniture…. Note that with all that color and the chandy going on, it would be overkill and cliche to go with an abstract rug — the tribal rug is another traditional and classic element that still nods to MCM. Talking about these particular dining chairs would also lend itself to a history lesson, and why they might work better than, say, iconic pop-art tulip chairs. I think this is such a great idea for regular posts, but you could do so much more to eat rally educate. I just don’t think the post does what you’re trying to achieve.

  26. Confirmed! I’m using a ton of that aqua now after seeing this! The slashed two tone color lines in the box shelves…simple and brilliant!…thanks again for sharing this one.


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