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Do-tell hotel: Learning from the El Cortez

Fresh from remaking a historic downtown hotel, design experts dish tips for sprucing up your own home

Last month, historic downtown hotel the El Cortez invited four Nevada design teams to each make over an outdated suite with a $20,000 budget. The results were spectacular, ranging from Urban Design Studio's mob-themed "The Big Sleep" (complete with pinstriped carpet and bullet casings in a dish), to Worth Group's "Rec Room" (boasting vintage cocktail bar and a classic black-and-white wall photo of '50s-era El Cortez). What lessons does this contest hold for your home? Plenty. Here are some tips from the winners.

Misuse it or lose it: With their "El Contempo Suite," Mikel Patrik and Patrick Peel's signature piece was a wall mirror transformed into a headboard. "One thing you should always consider in home design is using a piece for something else, something most people wouldn't think of," says Patrik. They also gold-coated the suite's ceiling and floor. "People worry about painting (ceilings) dark because they worry it will make the room feel smaller. That's not really true." One trick to make the eight-foot ceiling look taller: dramatic floor-to-ceiling drapery. For the mural, the designers used an archival photo of the El Cortez and printed it out on wallpaper. "These days you can put hi-res images on anything - plexiglass, leather, metal. If you choose wallpaper, find a cool image, have a designer print it out, then plaster it on there," says Patrik.

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Let accessories reign: For "The Big Sleep," Tina Enard's Urban Design Studio team placed sheer material (which usually lies under or behind the blackout drapery) on the outside of the curtains. "On the outside, the sheer still functions the same," says Enard. "A shimmery fabric can make the room feel light and airy. You can even add a colored fabric - plain or pattern - behind the sheer." Another touch: placing a dresser behind the sofa. "You can use a dresser, a desk - anything like that helps to create the illusion of different spaces without actually having to put up walls," says Enard. "With our suite, we didn't use actual screens or walls. Instead, we let the furniture and accessories create rooms within the space, which makes the room feel bigger."

Update, don't upend: "Striped walls that you find in a hotel suite can be recreated in the home quite easily," says Nidia Settembre, who along with Charles Mais created "Hint Suite." You can DIY such a project by measuring out the spaces with a tape measure and marking off the lines with painter's tape. Put the kibosh on out-of-control remodeling dreams by simply updating fixtures. Or just use a headboard as a room divider. "Design is about larger-scale thought," adds Settembre. "It's about taking a regular idea and pushing it to that next level."

Encourage a gathering: Do guests and family tend to hang out around your kitchen's island range? Keep it multi-functional by putting stools on just one side of the island. A big counter is best, but have it installed at the right height. "Go with a counter height of 36 inches rather than 42 inches, and insist on a big granite slab or, even better, a concrete or solid surface, which is easier to take care of and maintain," says Worth Group Architects' Jamie Thomas, whose "The Rec Room" garnered much attention and acclaim.

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