Category Archives: Rethinking Design Rules

A fresh outlook on old wive’s tales about design.

Breaking Bad Design Rules

To hell with white ceilings..

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

There are so many myths and phony design rules, you can wind up half armed with too much information. 

Here are some misguided rules/ideas to think twice about.

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

Missed opportunity! The “never fail” way to position your 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 makes a bold statement that also seems like a natural “no brainer” once you put it into place.

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.

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

“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 doors to the outside.

  • 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.

“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.

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. You can even pick one of the more interesting colors that might already be sprinkled throughout the room and use it for the trim too. It’s a great way to tie that color to the room so it looks deliberate rather than random.

“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 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.

If your neck feels strained while appreciating the wall art, your art has been hung too high. Don’t overlook the possibility of  leaning art against a wall or layering on a console or mantel has that effortless quality of careless chic the French are so famous for.

“Dining chairs should always match.”

A matter of interest.  This caveat remains true in the most formal of dining rooms, but for the most part, adhering to this notion will only provide you another missed opportunity. I’ve seen tables sporting chairs of entirely random design. If this appeals to you, go for it, but you do run the risk of your dining area looking like a random accident.

I would be more inclined to have sets of chair pairs (that relate in some fashion) and along with a bench. You can still add a couple of odd design chairs. No question then that the arrangement has been well considered and the overall effect is more cohesive.

With home environments, there is a different set of parameters to consider than for any other art form. Order and cohesion are much easier to live with than artistic chaos or carelessness.
You want this.

“Never mix prints in the same room.”

Never say never.  Analogous to this misguided notion is that bright colors and bold patterns only work in large rooms. Not necessarily true, but handle with care or you might create a confused looking mess unless you have clue and a plan.

Here’s what you need to know to do this well:

  • Prints work well with any stripes or Tattersall design.
  • Prints can also work together if the scale of each is different.

Binding caveat: make sure that some of the colors relate to each other (i.e. there is blue in both prints/stripes/Tattersall ) AND some of those colors also relate to the overall color scheme in the room.

Ok, so I’m fussy. I have seen rooms filled with mixed prints and riots of color that somehow worked. However, unless you think that “happy accidents” can be planned, then start with the above suggestions to get yourself started in a logical way.

Oh and by the way, stop compulsively matching colors.

While dressing monochromatically can be a very cool pulled together look, it can be way less so in a room due to the much larger scale.  This could result in a very one-dimensional effect. Whether you are minimizing your range of colors or going all out for a riot of colors, be sure you have a range of tones. And, don’t worry about matching as a range of shades in the same color family is a lot more interesting looking. This ensures depth, texture and a lived in feel rather than a studied artificial look. 

“Don’t put large furniture in a small space.”

This is where logic can fail you. A lot of small furniture in a small room just looks crowded and busy…..and tiny rugs in tiny rooms just look sad. What actually looks great are a few well edited pieces of larger furniture with just a few smaller pieces (as needed only!). Your room will feel grounded. And by mixing up sizes, you create more interest because of an increased sense of dimensions.

In very tiny rooms (otherwise known as an alcove with a door), just a bed with an imposing headboard and a pair of small tables is all you need for instant “wow power”.

Lower your standards. If your ceilings are unusually low, (standard ceiling height is 8 ft.), then consider furniture on the larger side that is also low slung. This is another bit of visual sleight of hand.

Why does this work? Mostly because it “appears” that there is more space between each item as well as above it.

“Only have one style and one time period per room”

The most obvious reason this is a bad idea is that you run the risk of creating the effect of living in a museum. This would be weird, not to mention boring. The recipe for really great looking rooms is to freely  mix periods, vintage treasure with flea market finds.

Learn to mix the lux with the lowly and you’ll look like a genius…

However, “mix freely” does not mean thoughtlessly. Make sure your pieces relate by shape, color, material and/or pattern. You need reference points of cohesion. Be sure to use a few pairs here and there for example, or your rooms will look like a clearance sale in progress.

“Never mix different metals in the same space”

Arcane concept redux. This suggestion is as relevant as never wear white shoes after Labor Day. Think of metals in term of color and ask if the color of the metal makes sense in your room. A few different color metals can add a little edge and richness to the overall effect.

“All of your wood finishes in a room should be the same.”

As with metals, thinking in terms of matched woods is limiting. Again, you are better off thinking of your various wood pieces in terms of their colors and how those colors work with your overall color scheme. Another key consideration is that it’s important to vary the tones of your woods to get a good range of light, medium and dark. Imagine what your room would look like if you photographed it in black in white. If the room is still interesting looking, it will be in large part because of multiple shades of dark, light and in between. Light wood furniture pops beautifully on dark floors, for example.  

Conventional wisdom only works at conventions.These are just the “Rules from Nowhere” that people frequently cling to in the hopes of not making a mistake.

False hope: 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 these 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. Modern design is focusing more on found treasures,clever re-purposing and an appreciation of beauty and value where ever it’s found than predetermined set pieces with limited options.
  • 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.
  • 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 previously noted elsewhere,  “A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika” – Dorothy Parker.