Break bad design rules beautifully: use orange liberally

Do You Know The Truth About Bad Design Rules?

Home » Style & Design For Living » Do You Know The Truth About Bad Design Rules?
Break design rules with a black ceiling
To hell with white ceilings. They are one of many bad design rules and are a lost opportunity for more interesting choices.

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

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

The following are just a few misguided design rules and other bad 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 also an effective way to disguise “unfortunate architecture” .

“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.

Doors and trims don’t have to be white. Who knew? 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 design 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.

Lazy but effective. Don’t overlook the possibility of leaning art against a wall or layering it on a console or mantel. This solution implies the 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 design rule 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) 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 coordinated.

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 design rule 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 consider the above suggestions to get yourself started in a logical way.

Oh, by the way, stop compulsively matching colors.

Dressing monochromatically can be a very cool pulled together look. This is way less true for rooms, due to the much larger scale.  The result could be very one-dimensional looking. 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. Don’t worry about matching.  A range of shades in the same color family is a lot more interesting. This ensures depth, texture and a lived-in feel rather than a studied but 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. In the same vein, 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. Your room will feel grounded but not overfull. In addition, by mixing up sizes, you create more interest because of the varying dimensions.

In very tiny rooms, 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.

“Have only one style and one time period per room”

The most obvious reason this is a bad idea is that you run the risk of recreating your life in a museum setting. This would be weird, not to mention boring. The recipe for really great looking rooms is to freely  mix periods and vintage treasures 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. Use a few pairs here and there or your rooms will look like a clearance sale in progress.

“Never mix different metals in the same space”

Arcane concept redux. This design rule is as relevant as “never wear white shoes after Labor Day”. Think of metals in term of color and ask if that color of metal makes sense in your room. A few different metal colors 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. You can vary the tones of your woods to great advantage too.  

A good example of this is how light wood furniture pops beautifully on dark wood floors.

Conventional wisdom only works at conventions.  Otherwise known as the “Design Rules from Nowhere”,  people frequently cling to “convention” in the hopes of not making a mistake.

This is false hope in action: Any sentence that has “should always”, “should only”, or “should never”  is a mental block to better home design.

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 New Design Rules for a fresh approach:
  • Don’t be a snob. “Money and taste frequently move in inverse ratio”, Anonymous. It’s true. Big expense (name labels can qualify here) doesn’t equal protection from a cringe-worthy purchase. Don’t be afraid to mix the high-end treasure with the fabulous flea market find.  You can “re-purpose” unusual old things in modern environments to create a very cool “new” item.
Learn to mix the Lux with the Lowly and you’ll look like a genius…
  • 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. Old school design rules specify safe predetermined set pieces with limited options. Modern design is focusing more on found treasures, clever re-purposing and an appreciation of beauty and value where ever it’s found.
  • 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 important Design Rule of all: Lighten Up. Are you veering toward neurotic worry over whether your choices are in good taste?  Good taste for whom?  You are not really being graded by a jury of your peers. 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.
This article was originally published on, December 30, 2008. It can be viewed here .
I love your comments and do feel free to share!
These articles are written as guides with general advice to help you, help yourself find the best design solutions for your home. 
Thank you for the opportunity help where I can.

Similar Posts