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Interior Designs for Screens

Suffering from a little backdrop anxiety when zooming your colleagues? Emma Clegg advises on how to model a chic and uplifting interior, but just the one that your webcam correspondents can see behind you.

If there’s one thing about staying indoors, it’s that you can’t escape the rooms that form the indoors. Commuting to work can make you blasé about the worn area of the carpet under the desk, the dust collecting on the skirting boards, the number of boxes at the bottom of the stairs, the wall that could do with another coat of paint, and the clashing of colour schemes as decorative items build up. “It’s fine – I’ll do it when I get time!” is easy to say when you can escape for eight or so hours each day. When you’re face to face with it all, however, it gives your interior décor decisions a different spin. 

Given the current lack of access to DIY stores, be reassured by the fact that it’s the inside outside appearances that matter most. I’ve been watching the news a lot lately – I expect you’ve been doing the same – and a significant number of those being interviewed from home live in a house that is not looking at its best, within the frame of the TV screen. Call me superficial, but I’ve seen a myriad of chaotically untidy shelves, with books and folders stacked and crammed with papers at ridiculous angles. I’ve seen cupboard doors wantonly wide open showing undesirables within, I’ve seen a selection of dubious pictures hung way too high or way too low, I’ve seen piles of pictures not hung up at all, just leaning on a table. I’ve seen sofas with ghastly textiles and random things slung over them, I’ve seen plants that are gasping for water, I’ve seen lampshades that haven’t been changed in decades. What is going on?

The answer, I suggest – to avoid criticism from the outside world – is to focus your interior efforts on the frame of your screen, to give the impression of interior calm and design integrity whenever Skyping, or Zooming or Housepartying. After all, you can be interviewed in your pyjamas as long as your head and shoulders are up to scratch. Full make up, coiffed hair, designer necklace and chic top combined with Superwoman pyjamas and fluffy dinosaur slippers rocks a new look, and the cat won’t mind. So an elegant rectangle as a snapshot of a room could up your game, and disguise the chaos beyond.

Start by setting up your Skype or Zoom or Houseparty. Sit in front of the screen, at the best angle to avoid double chins or other unflattering angles. Take note of the frame of the room shown behind you and take a picture of it on your phone. I’d avoid kitchens on the whole, as the background, being in constant use, is hard to control, with a study or living room a safer bet. Use the picture to identify the key parts of the room that need styling to impress your friends and colleagues.

Now you need to do some tidying up. Treat the frame like a canvas. Clear what’s there, moving it into the invisible chaos surrounding it. Now choose your wall colour from the paint remnants in your garden shed, understair cupboard or attic. You only need a small amount of left-over paint to cover the surface of your screen frame. Avoid white or magnolia, ideally, because these drain your face, eschew daffodil yellow because it’s distracting and carmine red because it’s too shouty. Black is a no-no unless you are skyping with Goths. Stick with flat colour (strictly no sponging). I’d suggest a smoky mid-tone if you have one: duck egg blue, smoke grey, soft green or plaster pink. Use a generous trim border of around a standard ruler length or a bit more, if your paint supply allows, to be safe.

Now furniture. Bookshelves can be difficult to make work for novices – there are plenty of mistakes that are made – but they are good to give height and fill blank backgrounds. Choose ones that don’t look as if they furnished your student flat and don’t buckle under the weight of books, and totally restyle them (meaning take everything off them and start again) with a selection of worthy titles easily visible, organised by size. I’d suggest a good smattering of the following types of books as a baseline, with some personal favourites of note as decorative additions: Yves Saint Laurent: The Scandal Collection 1971, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, A Dictionary of English idioms, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The House Book by Terence Conran and The Royal Horticultural Society: Plants and Flowers. It should be easy to customise these or similar tomes in your library according to who you want to impress.

Next choose a picture, at a decent size to balance the bookshelf, that makes an impressive statement. The style can fit with your taste, but note that retro is good, modern is good, abstract is good, surreal is good. Avoid Renaissance, Impressionist or Pre-Raphaelite as they can come across as corny unless they are genuine originals. Or anything too dark, as viewers won’t be able to see it at a distance.

Next, picture styling: your picture must not be blue-tacked to the wall or be clip framed, but set in a frame of consequence, and can’t have slipped at an angle behind the glass. Another idea is to have a Gothic style frame, ideally in a gold finish, attached to the wall with no picture behind it, but instead a geometric shape painted on the wall with the additional paints you found in your store, Howard Hodgkin style. A good talking point, too.

Put other things on your bookshelves apart from books – this is important. This is your chance to show off your eclectic tastes and experience. Here are some ideas: a marble bust, a hand-thrown ceramic vessel, a Victorian tea caddy, an African mask, a (well-cared for) plant, a tennis trophy, a seminal album such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon leaning with meaning against the wall, a designer speaker or some bent sculptural driftwood. Don’t whatever you do stoop to the letters H, O, M and E.

The above provides you with a styling statement that you can embellish with incidental objects that cut into the frame. The surround of a pine stripped door (clean the fingerprints off), the edge of a stylish curtain, a retro arc floor lamp, a slice of a wooden cabinet with a cameo of aperitif bottles and glasses, a part of a battered shop dummy wearing a wartime Air Force uniform, for example.

In order to be taken seriously nowadays you still need plenty of cutting edge technology, but you can get away with power dressing from the waist up, and an easily achieved cameo interior statement to intimidate your screen associates.

Plan your interior screen design right now before your next social video call – you won’t regret it.