Few of us have homes that look as immaculate as homes do in magazines. Budget notwithstanding, most of us simply don’t have the stamina to keep our living space in the state of perfection that print magazines command on shoot days. In reality, much more goes into an interior photo shoot than meets the eye: Furniture is moved around, accessories are brought in by the truckload, electric cords are taped to table legs (or simply photoshopped out). Some publications even have soft stylists, people who specialize in making linens and other textiles look billowy and “perfectly imperfect.”
While we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to live up to the impossible standards of magazines (whether it’s interiors, fashion, or otherwise), it doesn’t hurt to learn a few tricks of the trade to make our own homes feel a little more curated and polished. Enter Colin King, a freelance interior stylist for publications like Architectural Digest. His Instagram feed is a master class in interior styling. He’s perfected the art of crafting details that make a space feel elevated and personal. We chatted with him about all the little things that he’s learned through styling for a camera lens. The best part? A stylist’s gig is usually no more than a day’s work—which means you can achieve the same effect in just a few hours. Ready to take your home to a whole new level? These insanely easy tricks will make a world of a difference in your space.
Focus on Unique Objects
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One of the lessons King has learned through styling shoots for magazines is that objects matter. “I’ve learned that not only do they bring form and texture to a space—they engage us in conversation. The smallest object can embody an entire relationship or single experience; they’re tied integrally to memories and can shape the identity of the room. When I style, I try to search the homeowner’s existing pieces to incorporate into the shot because it retains a laid-back authenticity that never lacks functionality or feels misplaced because it means something to the person who lives there.”
Some of his favorite objects to always have on hand on shoot days are pillows, throws, books, and handmade ceramics. “With pillows and throws, it’s such an easy way to bring life into the shot. It’s a great way to add some texture or a pop of color. I love sourcing ceramics from local artists wherever I’m styling. If I have a prep day, I like to go to artist studios to get the newest piece from the kiln. And whether it’s in the material or the form, I love to contrast opulent and quirky elements with stark simplicity when styling with them.
Stylist Tip: “Pick something handmade. There’s this revival of the individual and the idea of having truly one-of-a-kind objects that are made by hand. From plates to furniture, pieces that have their own unique set of characteristics enhance spaces, reflect your personal style, and make your home more magazine-worthy. Try to ignore the consumer culture; no one wants to see an over-staged re-creation of the latest one-look catalog spread. Take your time, trust your instincts, and find your independence to create great design.”
Rethink Your Bookcases
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“I don’t consider a house a home if it’s not filled with books. If something feels like it’s missing from a shot, books always end up being the answer,” says the stylist. “My favorite bookcases are the fully functional ones that have each shelf jammed full of books. I look at bookshelves like a jigsaw puzzle. There are a ton of pieces involved, but when thoughtfully placed, everything just fits perfectly together. I find that if you just start randomly throwing things into the mix, it can quickly look like a cluttered mess.”
Stylist Tip: “I like to pull everything out first. I need a blank canvas. I’m always interested in the interaction between things, so I begin by creating groups of two to three; groups of objects, books, and frames that are varying in height, material and color but perform with one another. I then start placing the groupings and make sure no area feels too heavy or neglected.
My biggest trick when styling bookshelves? I get my phone out and snap a photo. It’s my biggest tool on set. Something my naked eye may miss, my iPhone picks up. When I see my work on screen, I get a whole new perspective on the balance of the composition. That iPhone trick is essential throughout my day on the job. The camera on my phone allows me to better see how the space will translate through the lens of the photographer.”
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We often try to make our spaces look as perfect as possible, but King has another theory: Embrace imperfection. “I’ve learned that pieces with a temporal element, such as a surface that changes over time, brings an energy, dynamic, and depth to the room. It should feel natural, not over-designed and preferably like it has been there for awhile and aged in the space.”
Stylist Tip: “Pick timeless over trends. Interiors should grow and evolve with the people living in them. More often than not, the urge to keep up with trends or change things now results in bad buys, short-term remedies, or costly compromises. This has taught me to ask three questions when searching for the perfect piece: Is it functional? Is it interesting? And is it timeless?“
Style Your Bed
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“There is nothing more satisfying than climbing your way into a perfectly made bed after a long day. I like to incorporate texture and layers for a casual, effortless look that doesn’t try too hard,” says King. “If the rest of the bedroom is super refined and polished, I like to embrace imperfections in the duvet or pillow situation. Sometimes I will even get into a made bed, roll around a bit and then get out as naturally as I would in my own bed to bring about the sense of photographing a space the owner actually lives in.”
Stylist Tip: “When I style a bed, I start by looking at the bed frame. Some bed frames are so sculptural or grandiose that I like to keep the linens super simple with one color scheme. For other normal frames, I have this go-to formula: a white base (sheets); a coverlet with texture, color, or both; and then a white duvet or neutral throw folded at the end of the bed.
My favorite pillow setup is simple: two pillows on either side laid flat and stacked on top of each other. If I feel the room needs a pop of color, I like to add two large decorative pillows, one in front of each stack.”
Upgrade With Art
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The stylist’s number one trick to making a room look more expensive is art—and not just large pieces or gallery walls. “Well-framed art has the ability to stand alone.Matting and framing, when done successfully, can generate a language for a room. Right now, I am really into playing with the small-scale art pieces—I find that it draws the eye into the space and makes the viewer want a closer look.”
Stylist Tip: “I try to think of unique ways to mat the artwork. I love putting an XL mat around, say, a Polaroid, to give a small piece a bigger impact. Mixing high and low pieces is key.”
Find Your Light
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“Light plays a huge role in creating the character of the home. The changes in the light and shadows from morning to night and from one season to the next should be calming and comforting, so it’s important to play with materials and surfaces according to the light in the room.”
Stylist Tip: “Rely on natural light when shooting your space—colors will appear fresh and clean, shadows will come from more natural directions. Candidly, I have started to experiment with photographing rooms with a few lights on in the evenings as a way to capture the mood and intimacy of the moment; but if it’s not dark out, leave them off.”