Breaking Bad Design: Rules Are Boring

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“Nothing dies harder than a bad idea.” Julia Cameron

Design rules are more like old wive’s tales than true. Follow them and you may screw up anyway by creating really boring rooms.

The following is a very short list of very dated decrees.

“The bed and headboard should never be placed in front of a window.”

Adhere to that rule and you could miss a terrific opportunity. The most effective and best looking way to locate furniture is to make use of any focal point available. If the window qualifies as such, use it as a backdrop to form a vertical extension of the headboard. The drapery can be hung on the sides to equal the width of the bed, or stretched even further to give the illusion of a bigger window.

This is an effective way to disguise “unfortunate architecture” too.

“Bedroom furniture should only be used in the bedroom.”

Well, yes and no. A double or twin bed can be made up with layers of big pillows to look like a divan in a living room, den or office.  A beautiful chest of drawers can be both decorative and practical if used to visually balance a similarly scaled piece of furniture or a fireplace on the opposite side of the room. For that matter, dismiss the idea that certain kinds of furniture can only be used in specific rooms.

Using what you already have better, is the smart way to style your home.

“Ceilings should always be white, because white makes the ceiling appear higher.”

No, it doesn’t. White walls can make a room seem airier and brighter but don’t necessarily make a room look bigger either. Though it seems counter-intuitive, under certain conditions dark colors appear to recede, while light colors appear to pop forward. If your walls and ceiling are one continuous color, the lines are blurred as to where the corners meet and the walls end. Without the contrast of  eye popping, eye stopping white, the room really will seem bigger.

This is one way to make ceilings appear higher that actually works.

“Outdoor furniture and lighting should always be used outside.”

Open air, open mind. Willingness to think creatively about furniture arrangement need not stop at the door. Bring wrought iron garden furniture indoors and it looks architectural. Large lamps typically used to light a pathway could provide an unusual and interesting solution over the dining table or in the entry hall.

You can do yourself a decorating favor by forgetting traditional locations for anything you use to style your home.

“Art should always be hung at eye level.”

In a museum, perhaps. Think about this is in terms of establishing a relationship between the furniture, the lighting and the architecture. In so doing, the goal is to develop a composition between the players.  Hanging a picture according to some arbitrary rule greatly increases the odds that it will no longer relate to the setting you are creating.  Consider the purpose of the room too.  In the living room, where you sit to entertain your friends, you would naturally view your pictures from a seated position.

Neck strain means your artwork is hung too high.

“Dining chairs should always match.”

Yawn.  A pair of dining chairs for each end of the table with benches, banquettes or even stools on the long sides, looks a lot more interesting.

Conventional wisdom only works at conventions. Any sentence that has “should always”, “should only”, or “should never” in it, is a decorating mental block. The only “should always” that will net great looking results for you and your home is “have an open mind to new ideas”.

Consider the following as New Rules for a fresh approach:

  • Don’t be a snob. It has been said that “money and taste frequently move in inverse ratio”.  Don’t be afraid to mix the high-end treasure with the fabulous flea market find.  Unusual old things found anywhere can be “re-purposed” in modern environments to great effect.
  • Don’t pinch pennies ’til they hurt either. Searching flea markets for bargains can be both fun and rewarding but remember to stress interesting over cheap. Don’t buy something mediocre just because you got a good deal on it. If you buy junk, you own junk. Good quality is an investment in satisfaction over time. This is particularly true about art.
  • Break up the sets…please. This means dining chairs, bedroom suites, and china too.  Pairs, however, add balance and cohesiveness.  Try mixing pairs together where applicable.
  • Get over Color Block Syndrome. Loud colors in the home are usually questionable but then again, so is Landlord White By Default. Select tones or shades of colors that already exist in your rooms to create a harmonious backdrop for your furnishings. THEN, consider those “color pops” you might have heard are a good idea.
  • By the way, doors and trims don’t have to be white. A few shades lighter or darker than your main wall color looks great. The best solution is to create a color palette for your whole home where the door and trim color can be used consistently throughout.
  • Learn to “see” what you are looking at. Take full advantage of the creative options right in front of you. Where are your focal points? Pay attention to shape, size, color, texture and proportion. The notion that certain items have designated rooms with no deviation allowed is another Bad Design Rule.

Most importantly, lighten up. Are you veering toward neurotic worry over whether your choices are in good taste?  Good taste for whom?   Even if you actually are being graded by a jury of your peers, in the end, this is your home.  It’s supposed to be all about you and what you find beautiful and restful to live with.

Besides, as Dorothy Parker put it, “A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.”

Large featured photo:  from portfolio shot from Outdoor Wicker Furniture Indoors by Dotter Solfjeld Architects Read more:

Article photo: Room design by Buckingham Interiors + Design, via Houzz

The original version of this post was published on, May, 2009. This is the last word to date…