In anticipation for his debut on A+E’s Working The Room, Mat Sanders dishes about design dos, definite don’ts, and everything in between. Missed last night’s FYI premiere? Catch Mat’s episode again on Saturday, May 18, at 9:00AM on A&E.
How did you start your career in interior design?
I got my start in New York City working as a stylist. I was making no money. I had a 250-square-foot tiny little apartment in the West Village that I decorated in this over-the-top nautical theme with things I found at garage sales and flea markets. It was kind of like Ernest Hemingway meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse and it caught the attention of Apartment Therapy, which is this huge interior design website; it ended up on the cover of their best-selling book, and that kind of launched my career into interiors.
“This space used to be a nice sitting area. But we had a couple of kids, and now it’s the play area.”
— Client Michelle, on her living room
What do you love the most about what you do?
The thing I love most about interior design is the collaboration. Just to order a sofa, it takes the coordination of 4 or 5 different people; and it’s just fun to bounce around ideas, it’s never just your vision, it’s always a shared vision, and I really like working with everyone else. And, I also love pretty things, I guess. [laughs] I like to travel, I like to have a sense that everything is elevated. I’m always looking at things and thinking, how can I make this cooler, how can I make this better, how can I make this more stylish?
Any advice for people starting?
Get a degree in business, theater, and psychoanalysis.
What kind of tip can you give for someone looking to transform their space?
The biggest way you can make a transformation to your space is to just rethink the floor plan. It doesn’t mean that you have to buy all new stuff. Just think about how you can switch things up using the same pieces you already have and [snaps] you’ve got a new room!
How can you create conversation areas in a living room?
Create a conversation area in your living room by thinking about different zones. If you’re having a party, people are gonna vibe, they’re gonna vibe in all different areas, so think about where they’re gonna do that, how they’re gonna face each other, and then create little moments, little pockets in the room for people to kind of play or get flirty, or you know, do things that we don’t want to talk about on camera.
If you’re looking at the room from an aerial view, think about stacking the furniture. And think about furniture where people can sit and position themselves in two different ways. You can have a sofa, and then a coffee table, and then a set of ottomans, and then a set of chairs. Now on the set of ottomans, I can turn around and face this way and talk to someone, or I can turn around and face this way and talk to someone. So, you know, the furniture should be versatile. Pieces that people can sit on and face multiple directions; and you can break up a long skinny room using a bench that floats in the room, that either faces the sofa, or faces the set of lounge chairs on the other side of it. Placing furniture kind of back-to-back is a great way to do this, too, when you have really long awkward spaces.
How can you make a living room less stuffy?
I love to decorate a room, get it looking really perfect, looking like a designer really did it, and then do something really messy and wrong. You know, a throw that’s just kinda so casually thrown this way, or, an art piece that just kinda clashes in a way that’s oh-so-wrong, but oh-so-right. Or maybe you have a really traditional bust on a pedestal—take a big ribbon and tie a bow around his neck. Or get your favorite hat and just put it on there. Something that shows people that this room has life in it. That you live here. That it’s woke.
How can you create a focal point?
Always think about the first thing people are gonna see when they walk in a room. Is it that long wall that you view right when you enter? Is it the area that surrounds the TV that you’re always gonna look at? And then think, how can I make a big impact here? Is it art? Is it a paint color? Is it a really fabulous wallpaper? Is it symmetry with two giant plants on either side? Just think about doing something cool in the place where you want people to always look.
How do you mix vintage finds with new pieces?
If you want to mix vintage with new pieces, for me, it’s really just about feeling as to whether or not they go together. I like to think of any furniture that you bring into a room as little characters that are having a dialogue; so, are these guys talking to each other? Do they get along? Put them next to each other, or look at a picture next to one—at the thing you’re kind of considering—and, kinda close one eye and be like, um, they’re not friends. And don’t bring them into your house. But, if they’re cute together, then, you know, it could be a great marriage.
What are some tips for shopping for furniture?
When shopping for furniture I think it’s always best to be super prepared. It’s always great to go out and just find some inspiration and get ideas, but if you’re really sourcing for something that you need now, create that floor plan first, know the dimensions of the piece, set the parameters. Then it really lets you go down a path of knowing exactly what you need, and you’re only sourcing within those parameters.
What is worth the splurge?
Anytime anyone’s thinking about splurging on anything for the home, I always tell them do it on artwork. You will have it forever. You will pass it down to your children. It holds its value. It makes you look so much more cool and interesting. If you’re gonna spend money on anything, invest in art.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when decorating their living room?
The biggest mistake people make when decorating their living room is playing it safe. Oftentimes people just wanna go with the white sofa, and they’re gonna paint their walls gray, and they’re gonna get a gray chair, and there’s a gray table, and, “I think it’s great, I’m just gonna go gray,” and—have some fun, take a risk, what are your favorite colors? What patterns have you seen that inspired you? Do something out there. I think you’ll surprise yourself if you just take that leap and bring something into your house that you had never thought you could really do before. You can do it!
What are a few good rules for properly spacing furniture in a living room?
When thinking about spacing furniture, think about its function. If you need a coffee table near the sofa, make sure you have enough space that you can put your feet up on it. If you need a pathway behind a piece of furniture for people to walk, generally you want to keep about 30-36 inches as a general rule. But in general, just think about how the space is gonna be used, and if the spacing provides you enough comfort to move around.
Love Mat’s design for Michelle and Ben? Shop the look, with Mat’s personally curated selection based off the episode exclusively on Sotheby’s Home.
“Reupholstering is such a great way to give new life to a piece and make it feel ultra-custom to a space.”
— Mat Sanders, on his makeover of the vintage W & J Sloane tub chairs
About the show: Working The Room is an innovative new home makeover series, that follows highly regarded interior designers, as they come to the rescue of overwhelmed clients to make over a room in desperate need of transformation. Featuring the unique talents of Nathan Turner, Mat Sanders, and Tiffany Riggle, Working The Room brings to life each designer’s creative process, including how they choose items to help anchor each reimagined space from Sotheby’s Home
Stay up to date on all things Working The Room by following along on FYI and A&E, and by checking out exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage on Sotheby’s Home’s YouTube, Instagram, and Working the Room online hub.