Make a House a Home with Shea McGee: 9 Design Tips from Her New Book

The esteemed interior designer reveals her top design tips for each room and spills her secrets for personalizing your space.

shea mcgee on gray couch

Courtesy of Shea McGee

Through her thriving design business, Studio McGee, and online community of over five million followers, interior designer Shea McGee has shown the world how high-end design principles can be applied to any home on any budget. We've shopped her pieces in Target stores and watched her host the EMMY-nominated Netflix series Dream Home Makeover for inspiration. And now, she's sharing her all-time top design tips with us.

McGee recently launched her first-ever design book, The Art of Home: A Designer Guide to Creating an Elevated Yet Approachable Home. The book starts with a step-by-step explanation of the design process, followed by a tour of every room of the house, guiding the way to a cohesive design for our entryways, living rooms, kitchens, workspaces, utility rooms, and kids' rooms, and balancing her signature aesthetic of sophisticated design and livable functionality.

“Design is a process. It unfolds one step, one decision, and one layer at a time.”

As the title of her new book suggests, designing rooms for maximum impact while remaining approachable to anyone who enters is an art, but it’s also a skill that can be learned with the right tools. "What I love about design is the opportunity to dream and then will that vision into existence," McGee says. "I am proud of the spaces we've designed over the years, as you'll see on these beautiful pages, and to be able to share some of the lessons I've learned along the way so you can create a home that feels authentically you."

In an exclusive interview with McGee, she reveals the top take-aways from her new book—including inspiration for every room in the house—along with key steps for creating a functional and beautiful home.

white entryway with wood table

Courtesy of Shea McGee / Lucy Call

The Entryway

“The entryway is the place that sets the tone for your entire home and gives people an idea of what you’re all about,” McGee says. Focus on what you want the entryway to say about the rest of your home and the kind of welcome you want it to give you and your guests when they walk in.

For McGee, there are five essential items that make an entryway both functional and stylish. “When approaching any entryway, big or small, I think console table, lamp, and mirror," she says. "Then, I always ensure there is some sort of tray or bowl as a drop zone, and I always like to put a candle in this space, too.”

Where space is tight, McGee recommends drawing the focus to the floor with a vintage rug to center the space and set the tone with color and pattern. Ottomans, floor pot plants, and sculptural objects work wonders, too. 

neutral home living room

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Living Room

“Although we walk into the entryway first, I often design the kitchen and living room first and build from there because it’s where most of the living happens and where we spend most of our time at home,” McGee says. For her, a good living room design begins with a good layout that creates conversation and brings people together. “If you put all your seating to one side or push everything up against the wall, it doesn’t create that intimate effect that I would hope for in a living room.” She recommends opting for an ottoman over a coffee table in small spaces, as it can also become a footrest or extra seating.

When designing a living room, McGee focuses on creating balance. Her eclectic style perfectly balances the old and the new, resulting in a seamless and cohesive design. To achieve this, McGee focuses on finding tones, textures, proportions, and shapes that work well together and repeating motifs throughout the space. “For example, in a living room, I want to make sure that the fireplace shape ties in with what we have surrounding it on the walls and ceiling," she says. "We won't go ultra modern with the fireplace if we have beautiful soft moldings on the wall,."

“I like to think of designing a home in terms of rhythm rather than cohesion— it’s about movement, cadence, and flow.”

“When it comes to furniture, modern lamps and an antique chest or vintage stool are a no-fail approach to mixing styles,” McGee explains. “You’ve just got to play around with different pieces together until they feel right.” She also recommends taking reference images with you for inspiration when shopping or collecting photos, taking pictures of the furniture you like, and pulling them together on a design board to play with different combinations until you find the right balance.

white kitchen with wood floors

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Kitchen

For McGee, there’s more to a kitchen than just a practical purpose; it must also fulfill the purpose of adding beauty to your home. She expanded on this idea by sharing her top three elements for a functional and beautiful kitchen. “Firstly, I would make sure I have a good work triangle," she says. "It makes cooking much more enjoyable when you can walk easily between the main areas of the kitchen, so the refrigerator, the sink, and the stove."

Second, McGee always includes a focal point, whether that's a beautiful hood over the stove, beautiful backsplash tiles, or open shelves next to the range. “If you don’t create a focal point, your eye wonders about and can’t settle on anything," she says. "Kitchens serve a lot of functions." Finally, McGee suggests paying attention to durability as much as style. “Kitchens are a big investment, so select materials that will stand the test of time and finishes that aren’t ‘trendy’ and won’t date,” she says. 

“Functionality is not just about practicality; it’s about purpose.”

A good lighting plan is another way to add another dimension to your kitchen. “You can take task lighting and make it beautiful,” McGee says. “For example, instead of just doing recessed lighting, is there an opportunity to incorporate a different light fixture?” Highlight kitchen features with soft accent lighting at the back of a shelf, under countertops, or around the kitchen island.

dining room with white walls and wood floors

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Dining Room

“Dining rooms don’t have as many pieces as a living room, for example, so making sure the combination of table and chairs is spot on is the most important design decision you’ll make,” McGee says. Scale is just as important as style when choosing a dining table, ensuring the table is the right size for the room and there is enough space for chairs to be pulled out and people to walk around them. The shape of the room naturally influences the shape of the dining table; a rectangular room will suit a rectangular or oval table, whereas a square or round table will likely be more suitable for a square room. For her home, McGee designed a white oak racetrack-shaped table to lend a sense of softness to the linear grids on the windows and ceilings.

"The nourishment extends beyond mealtimes as it is a designated place to gather and spend time together."

Center the table with a decorative light fixture, and ensure you get the scale right. “Choose lights that are about two-thirds the width of the table and plan for 32-36 inches between the table and the bottom of the light fixture,” she advises. “Whatever you do, always hold up the light fixture before you install it to make sure it looks good,” she adds. At the end of her book, McGee includes a style guide to provide a visual resource for design and decorating, where she details how to hang and position ceiling lights, amongst other valuable tips.

white bedroom with gray headboard

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Bedroom

Layering textures is the secret to creating an inviting, relaxing sanctuary. “Layering bedding, with beautiful quilts, a throw, and some decorative pillows, goes a long way to making the bedroom feel luxurious,” McGee says. For her, the unspoken interactions with tactile surfaces allow us to relax our bodies and minds, making a variety of soft textures a must in bedrooms.

“Serenity can be found through soothing color palettes as well as the tactile qualities of each surface.”

Upholstered furniture, window treatments, throw pillows, and bedding provide the perfect opportunity to introduce color and pattern into a neutral bedroom space and tie the scheme together. For example, the color of the lampshade might pick up a color from the design on the window treatment, reiterated with a scatter cushion on an accent chair. McGee details pattern mixing in her style guide, revealing her top tips for successfully combining different patterns and how to style them on the bed.

white bathroom with bathtub

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Bathroom

Bathroom renovations can be costly, so avoid overly trendy and extravagant bathroom designs that will date quickly. McGee suggests playing it safe with big-ticket items, like plumbing fixtures, tiles, custom vanities, and countertops, and having fun with small changeable things, like vanity lighting and decorative mirrors. “Classic selections keep a bathroom grounded, but diving into the minutiae keeps a design from feeling safe and boring,” she says.

“Materiality is the difference between a sad bathroom and a splendid one.”

Even if you choose classic tiles, playing with small details, like the tile pattern or adding an unexpected grout color, can quickly transform your bathroom into something unique without increasing the cost. “Don’t be afraid to mix up your metals either,” advises McGee, who suggests using the dominant metal on the plumbing and incorporating a different finish for the lighting, mirror, or hardware.

Note that powder rooms and kids bathrooms play by a different rulebook, where “go big or go home” is the motto. These smaller contained spaces provide the perfect opportunity to try bold patterns and trendy colors.

home office with wood furniture and black walls

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Home Office

Now that working from home has become the new norm, having a comfortable place to feel inspired and be productive and efficient is essential. “When designing a workspace, the first questions we ask our clients are: What inspires you? What are your hobbies and interests? What kind of environments do you like to work in? And what colors do you like to be surrounded by when you work,” McGee says.

“Functionality informs the layout and foundational pieces, but passions and interests should inform everything that follows.”

While some prefer to work in a dark, moody environment, others feel more productive in a bright, light-filled space; it all comes down to personal preference. Home offices, especially stand-alone rooms, are the perfect opportunity to personalize a space, as kids or guests rarely frequent them. For home office designs, McGee recommends diving into what makes you tick, using your hobbies and passions as inspiration for office decor. “Showing your personality in an office by filling it with what you love and inspires you means that when you stop and look around, you’ll feel motivated to work," she says.

white laundry room cabinets

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Utility Room

Utility spaces, like mudrooms and laundry rooms, may not be glamorous, but well-designed utilities elevate and facilitate everyday household duties and add beauty to mundane matters. McGee begins designing utilitarian spaces by listing the top priorities and uses for the space. “Utility rooms that function well work best when you evaluate how you will use them before planning or installing the cabinetry,” she says.

Closed storage is a great way to hide muddy boots and mess, but incorporating open shelving provides a space to style. “You want to make sure that the spaces you have to style still make sense and are usable for the space," she says. "In that room, you can have a little decoration, but right next to it, you have something that serves a purpose beyond decoration.”

neutral bedroom with stripe wallpaper

Courtesy of Shea McGee

The Kids' Rooms

Designing kids' rooms is about balancing a sense of whimsy and allowing room for growth. As a general rule, McGee invests in foundational pieces with longevity, like bedroom furniture and custom carpentry, that grow with the child. She then adds personality through decorative accessories, wall colors, and easily updated finishes.

“One of the things we always consider when designing kids’ spaces is a lot of storage and space for them to hide all their collections,” she says. “We include some open shelves for them to display their favorite things, but I tend to keep open shelving to a minimum to prevent the room from looking cluttered and messy.”

“When designing rooms for little ones, my goal is to provide a sense of whimsy and room to grow.”

That said, she observes that toys make excellent styling objects with the right balance. “I always incorporate a space for the kids to relax and feel comfortable in, too, like a fun chair or reading nook.” McGee applies the same approach of layering textures to kids' bedrooms to conjure an inviting, comforting, calming, and sleep-inducing environment.

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