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Q&A: Author Emily Hutchinson’s Tips for Decorating With Roommates

Emily Hutchinson (left) was inspired by her own time spent with roommates, including two old school friends, Maddy (middle) and Felicity Burke (right). “Living with them was so much fun – going to sleep and waking up with your friends every day is a special thing,” said Hutchinson. (Photo by Pablo Veiga)

By Bree Florence

It started with a reckoning. Emily Hutchinson, an Australian writer with a knack for home design, felt that a growing demographic of residents was excluded from the design market: adults in shared homes. As young professionals flock to growing cities such as Phoenix, it is more common than ever to split the cost of housing—and design—with two, three, maybe four others.

Inspired by the sometimes eclectic and compromising style of roommates, Hutchinson found her passion in helping young designers navigate home decor on a budget. In Shared Living: Interior Design for Rented and Shared Spaces, she provides interior decorating tips from her own experiences as a roommate and renter, peppered among curated examples of beautiful homes around the world that showcase how accessible good design can be.

At the beginning of your book, you talk about how you drew inspiration from your own time living with housemates in Sydney and in New York City. Tell us more about those experiences and what inspired you.

The important thing was making sure that where I lived, even if it was a share-house, was somewhere that felt really comfortable. Because home is your retreat after a long day. When you feel a bit out of place, it’s nice to come home and be surrounded by the things you love.

My experience sharing a house in Melbourne was very special. I lived with two friends from school and they pretty much gave me free reign to decorate the whole house and, of course, they put in a few bits and pieces as well.

Emily Hutchinson Shared Living

When you were looking for the people and homes to feature as case studies in the book, how much did you learn along the way?

I knew it was important to know about people decorating on a budget because that’s the reality for a majority of share-houses. It was important to know about communal spaces and how to share decorating responsibilities with your housemates.

People can get very territorial in that situation. I was very lucky that my past roommates were like ‘Come in, show us what you’ve got!’ But for some roommates, it’s very much, ‘This was my space, and this is how I like to live, and you have to fit in with that.’

What is your advice for people who find it difficult to compromise on their style?

You just have to accept that there’s someone else living in the space. It’s really hard if you have completely conflicting tastes. Like if you had a housemate that loved super modern, futuristic design coupled with someone with midcentury modern taste, that’s going to be really hard. A really good way to start is to ask them to first bring in small things that aren’t going to bother you. It could be  throw pillows that you’re OK with. It’s all about communication. If you don’t like something, speak up and say, ‘That mannequin in the corner is really freaking me out.’ It’s a lot of compromise, but you just have to be open.

This home is shared between Brendan De La Hay, Alicia Quinn and Roxanne Van Zyl, all performers based in Sydney. The house has “a touch of showbiz to it,” including the sign from the stage musical Gypsy. (Photo by Pablo Veiga)
This home is shared between Brendan De La Hay, Alicia Quinn and Roxanne Van Zyl, all performers based in Sydney. The house has “a touch of showbiz to it,” including the sign from the stage musical Gypsy. (Photo by Pablo Veiga)

What qualities or behaviors do you think make a cohesive pair of roommates?

It’s so much about personalities, isn’t it? It’s just people skills. A big thing with roommates is that you need a good balance of wanting to socialize but also knowing when to switch off. It’s a mix of knowing when to give your housemate space but also being able to come together, have wine, chat, watch your favorite TV shows or cook together.

Of the folks you met on this shared living journey, who surprised you the most?

There were two couples doing a shared beach house as a second home. I’d never thought, as a renter, I could ever afford that. But they proved it can be  financially accessible if you split the costs between four or five people. That would be the most incredible thing, especially in COVID-19 times. It’s just a part-time shared house that you can go to, but in the country or along the coast. I really want to do that in the future! You can have fun decorating together because it’s completely different style from your [main home]. I just think that would be really fun.

You’re still posting examples of shared houses on your Instagram account, @sharedliving, and sometimes there are listings, as well. How did that start?

I just kept seeing all these amazing shared houses. I couldn’t feature all of them because we reached 21 and the publisher said, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ There are so many cool examples out there. So I thought, ‘Why not keep the momentum and help people who actually enjoy design and living with roommates come together?’

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