Unless you are building a new home or have an absolutely unlimited budget, the initial stage of a decorating project comes with some pre-existing conditions. Floor finishes, ceiling heights, window size, architectural details and even already-owned objects such as furniture or art pieces are there and must be incorporated into the design plan. In many cases this is a blessing in disguise as it gives you direction and a place to start thinking creatively. Unfortunately, in other cases, it can be an unwelcomed challenge or what I like to call the elephant in the room.
Having the tools to embrace the elephant, and perhaps even come to appreciate it, can turn a project from frustrating to exciting. First and foremost, take stock in what the real obstacle is. Is it a color issue, a scale issue, a style issue? Once you understand what it is that you find uninspired or challenging about the situation you can face the project with confidence simply by thinking outside the box. Perhaps you might even find that you can indeed make a silk purse from a sow's ear.
The biggest mistake most people make is to try to mask or hide the challenge. This rarely works. The more you try to cover something up the more it can become glaringly obvious. Instead, look at its characteristics and see what you might in fact work with. Let's start with a color issue. Perhaps you are working with a budget that requires that you keep carpeting that is not a color you adore. Face the color head-on by finding a textile that contains a small hint of that color and use it in a big way in the draperies or on a large upholstered piece of furniture. By incorporating it into the color palette with a pattern you enjoy the carpet itself recedes and becomes a compliment to the focal point of the textile you are excited about.
In the case of inappropriate scale, clearly the approach should be one of encouraging the object to appear larger or smaller. Suppose you have an art piece that because of its value or historical significance to the family should be hung in a place of honor, such as above the mantel. You may love the piece but it is too small to claim the attention you believe it deserves. The solution is to highlight it by adding a contrast of color behind it. Use some simple architectural molding to frame out an appropriate area. Paint the molding the same as the existing trim in the room. Then paint the insert area a color that compliments the art piece and enhances its drama, thus letting it increase in stature. Finish with spot lighting to create an even more dramatic effect. By contrast, for a piece that is too large, perhaps an oversized sofa, blend it into a subtle monochromatic color palette so that it will recede into the big picture.
Working with something that is not your style is probably the most interesting challenge. First, visit the style as a whole and see if there might in fact be some aspects of the overall design movement that you can embrace and enjoy, then repeat. Or perhaps you have a modern sensibility in your style and the fireplace mantel is ornate and traditional. You may find a decorative object that reflects the same ornamental detail but in a more subtle or deconstructed way (a lamp or an urn for example). This can be the transitional element from the more contemporary flavor of the space to the more traditional architecture of the mantel. By acknowledging your elephant and working with it instead of against it, you may actually find you grow to be fond of it once your project is complete.