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Favorite object of the week:

Winter is a good time to think about how handy a bench can be in the foyer, back hallway or mud room.

What better place to park yourself while pulling off those beloved boots?

There are rugged old benches, of course, as well as fancy upholstered models, such as the one shown here from Thomasville. Wooden or iron garden benches add a summery touch to the indoors.

You can get fancy and add cushions or keep things plain -- park bench style. You can even find unfinished benches, so you can jazz them up yourself with paints or stains.

Benches are nice to have around. But beware: They tend to become catch-alls for everything from the morning mail to late-afternoon backpacks.

A few cats have been known to adopt them as their own as well.

Design tip

To make a unique soap dish, cover the bottom of a ceramic or glass bowl with an assortment of colored pebbles and place a bar of soap on top, recommend Julian Cassell and Peter Parham in "Decorating Hints & Tips: More than 2,000 practical solutions to help you improve your home" (DK Publishing, $19.95).

Any water will drain through the pebbles to collect at the bottom of the bowl.

Mix and match

Mixing your stripes with your florals need not be an unsettling adventure. Waverly, maker of fabrics and wallcoverings, offers some basic tips for mixing and matching prints:

-- Begin with a print you love. Select a large-scale print with several colors so you will have many options for mixing and matching other patterns. Let this "signature print" dominate in the room. Use it on upholstery, window treatments, bed coverings or wallcoverings.

-- Mix in two or three mid- and small-scale patterns that color-coordinate with your signature print. Try to let one color from your signature print dominate throughout your patterns. Use these on smaller upholstered pieces, pillows, table covers and accents such as ruffles and contrast linings.

-- Avoid repeating patterns that are too similar: a floral and stripe are easier to coordinate than two florals.

-- Vary the texture among patterns for added interest.

-- Balance patterns with areas of solid color or neutrals. The more patterns you use, the more your room needs visual relief.

Visit Waverly's Web site at

A mantel display

If you are looking for ways to rework your fireplace mantel, the February issue of Martha Stewart Living has some ideas. Suggestions include using the mantel shelf for displaying collections -- teapots or mercury glass, for example -- as well as tapping the wall space above the mantel for hanging plates, family photographs and other items.

Stuck on symmetry? The article also shows how asymmetrical arrangements can be quite pleasing to the eye.

There's no reason why a vertically framed painting nailed to the center of the wall can't be taken down and relocated to one side of the mantel shelf, for instance.

Instead of hanging it, let it lean against the wall. For balance, place a pair of candlesticks toward the other end. Then toss a few other items into the mix -- say, five assorted glass containers in assorted colors -- to fill in the gaps.

And finally . . .

" 'Less is more' usually costs twice as much."

Steve Lyons, owner of No Big Deal Decorating in New York

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