When To Break Bad Design Rules For A More Beautiful Home

Bad Design Rules Can Lead To A Boring Decor.
There are so many myths and bad design rules, you can wind up half armed with too much information. Wouldn’t you love to have a heads-up, ahead of time? Find out how to avoid some of the bad design rule roads you don’t want to go down!

mustard yellow & turquoise colored furniture and room
Some design rules were followed, but not enough to be boring. A little bad taste can be refreshing. Fun colors!

the myth about design rules and other bad ideas to think twice about

When we aren’t really sure HOW to do something important to us, don’t we all find that even just the IDEA of a rule to follow, is somehow comforting? We HOPE, if we follow the rules, we are less likely to make some grievous decorating mistake.

Yet, when do we ask,”Who said following design rules is a no-fail solution?”

where do design rules come from?

“nothing dies harder than a bad idea”

Julia Cameron

Did traditional (Old) Design Rules actually evolve from Old Wives Tales? Whatever those original reasons, they are lost in the dust of time and obsolescence. The most likely result of following THE RULES is that you will wind up with BORING ROOMS, that still don’t look right.

Is being safe really better? bad taste is at least interesting.

Let’s take a close look at when breaking bad design rules can look terrific.

dresser in hall
This beautiful antique dresser would be splendid in any room

bad design rule #1. Bedroom furniture should only be used in the bedroom

be resourceful with your furnishings

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 bedroom drawers can be both decorative and practical in an entry hall or dining room. Conversely, end tables from your living room might also work in the bedroom, if the height is within a couple of inches of the height of the mattress.

being clever about using what you already have, is the smart way to style your home.

crystal chandelier outdoor setting
This chandelier looks great indoors AND outdoors

Bad design Rule #2. Outdoor furniture and lighting should only be used outdoors

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 an outside door or patio, 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 the best furniture arrangements.

Break design rules with a black ceiling
To hell with white ceilings.

bad design rule #3. Ceilings should always be white, because white makes the ceiling appear higher

No, it doesn’t, because white isn’t magical

White walls can make a room seem airier and brighter bUT dO NOT 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 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.

READ MORE>>>How To Select Home Paint Colors You Will Love

long shot multiple matching  doorways in allignment
If white had been used for these door trims, the effect would have been lost

bad design rule #4. Doors and trims have to be white

no, they don’t.

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.

This a great way to tIE-IN unexpected color that looks deliberate rather than random.

If you want to know more about how to use paint color effectively, along different color placement ideas…

READ MORE>>How To Select Home Paint Colors You Will Love

Art, shelves, accessories on wall
A great collage of art and items can much more interesting than what meets the level eye line

bad design rule #5. Art should always be hung at eye level

certainly true in museums; not so much in homes

The key to great looking rooms is to establish a relationship between the furniture, the lighting AND the architecture. Plan to develop a composition between the players. Hanging a picture too high, but in accord with an arbitrary design rule, increases the odds that it will no longer relate to the setting you are creating. 

dead give-away: If your neck feels strained while viewing the wall art, your art has been hung too high.

Consider the purpose of the room too. In the living room, you usually sit to entertain your friends or do most anything else. You would naturally view your pictures from a seated position.

as such, how does the “composition” look then?

For a rather lazy but effective solution, try leaning the big art pieces against a wall or layering smaller ones on a console or mantel.

This solution implies the effortless quality of careless chic the French are so famous for.

dining table with same side chairs and different armchairs
Well coordinated use of related design elements in chairs that don’t match

bad design rule #6. dining chairs should always match

matching dining chairs aren’t particularly interesting

We used to take Formal Dining Rooms soooooo seriously. Maybe the matching chair idea dribbled over onto the everyday dining room set-up, as a “poor man’s knock-off formal look”?

How many of us actually still have the BANDWIDTH for Formal anything?

Good design is based on Composition and Relatedness. In the photo above the two upholstered end chairs are big and bold while the side chairs are minimalist leather and cast iron.

They relate because the chairs and table have a modernist sensibility and the chair backs are all the same shape. Using a similar modern-ish bench on one side would make the set up even more eye-catching.

wood table and chairs
Three different but related chair backs work well together

how do you make different chair designs work together?

This is a VERY interesting idea but tricky. Regardless of any other guideline, keep the chair heights relatively even. It’s visually too much to take in mismatched chairs AND wild swings of short and tall heights.

a few guidelines to help you pull it off

  • Again, it’s about design relatedness. In the photo above, all the chairs have either a ladder back (series of rectangular openings) or one BIG open rectangle.
  • Keep the design sensibility in the same family. Modernist clean lines vs the curves of more traditional designs from different centuries.
  • Pairs of chairs are great. With a few pairs, the odd chair design still looks eclectically at home.
  • Matching colors would defeat the concept, of course. But do have the chair colors relate to the table scene you are setting as well as the rest of the room.

Can it work if all the chairs are a different design?

Tough to pull off but if this notion appeals to you, go for it.

BUT by combining differing primary color blocks, differing materials, sizes and/or shapes ALL WILLY-NILLY, you put your dining room at risk for looking like a flea market sale.

relatedness and cohesion are much easier to live with than “artistic chaos” or old fashioned carelessness.
you want this.

mixing prints fabric,wall paper. A bad design rule says never do this
I count three prints and one stripe. Extra credit if you count the wood stripes of the table and floor too.

bad design rule #7. Never mix prints in the same room

Never say never but handle with care

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.

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.

I have seen room filled with mixed prints and riots of color that somehow worked for no particular rhyme or reason.

Happy accidents do occur.

English country house style is a good example of charming dishevelment that somehow works. There is a LOT more to that design story, so don’t get giddy with abandon.

fair point: happy accidents do not occur Frequently.

You might want to head over here for more on upholstery fabrics and leathers.

READ MORE>>>The Ultimate Guide To Selecting High Quality Upholstered Furniture

blue chair matches blue wall
Terrific matching color on wall and chair, done on purpose. You need not be so exacting for your color selections at home

By the way, stop compulsively matching colors

Dressing monochromatically can be a very cool look. This is way less true for rooms, due to the much larger scale. 

The result could be weirdly one-dimensional looking. Whether you are minimizing your range of colors or going all out for “Colorful”, be sure you have a range of tones. Don’t worry so much about matching. A range of shades/tones (light, medium and dark) 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. 

small room with knotty pine walls and ceiling
This little room has smart design elements that look terrific

bad design rule #8. Don’t put large furniture in a small room

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 works well 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.

The photo above: great use of space with no apologies for being small

  • The loveseat nestled between the built-in side tables was made to order or at least carefully planned.
  • The window is the automatic focal point and lends a WOW.
  • Most people cringe at the thought of old fashioned knotty pine but here it was used brilliantly as PATTERN on all five sides of the room (walls AND ceiling).

When all the walls are the same, rooms appear seamless and the size seemingly expands.

use shorter, lower furniture

If your ceilings are unusually low, (standard ceiling height is 8 ft.), then use just a few pieces furniture on the larger side that are 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.

If you’d like to know more about how to arrange furniture in a small room:

rEAD MORE>>>How To Plan The Best Furniture Layouts For Every Room

french regency period. all one period only designed rooms are a bad design rule
It’s a lovely stage set, or museum room. Do you want to live so formally?

bad design rule #9. have only one style and one time period per room

The most obvious reason this is a bad idea: You are creating your life in a museum setting. This could be a little creepy, if not actually boring. The recipe for really spiffy 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.

several wood finish samples
Think of wood finishes in terms of COLOR rather than species, to be used for more interesting looking rooms

Bad design rule #11. All your wood and metal finishes should be the same

Arcane concept redux. This design rule is as relevant as “never wear white shoes after Labor Day”. Think of metals and woods in term of color. Ask yourself if that COLOR makes sense in your room. A few different woods and metal colors can add a little edge and richness to the overall effect.

good example: the way light wood furniture pops on dark wood floors.

It’s better NOT to use chrome and nickel close proximity. Side by side, there is enough of a shade difference to be a little off. Chrome is a cooler silver, while nickel is on the warmer side.

green foliage, pink neon Breathe
It will work out just fine to take a more relaxed approach to home design

What are the main points to remember about design rules?

  • Conventional wisdom about home design 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.

This is not to say COMMON SENSE is OLD HAT and should also be IGNORED.

The only “should” that will likely net the best results 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.

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 ugly-but-cheap junk, you oWN ugly-but-cheap junk.

Break up the sets of anything…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. Look for tones or shades of colors that already exist in your rooms to work with as a harmonious foundation for your furnishings. THEN, consider those “color pops” you might have heard are a good idea.

The only really important design rule is to lighten up

“if it weren’t for bad taste, he’d have no taste at all”

This is probably not you if you have ever had the slightest doubt. The truly tasteless tend to be blissfully unaware.

Let’s assume then, that in your case, a little DOUBT is a good thing.

Rest reassured, in any case, that you can RELAX. You’re not really being judged by a jury of your peers.

This is your home, designed especially for who you are and how you want to live your “one wild and precious life”. *

*The Summer Day – Mary Oliver


a little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika

Dorothy Parker

This article was originally published on Hamptons.com, December 30, 2008. It can be viewed here .

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Bad Design Rules Can Lead To A Boring Decor.
There are so many myths and bad design rules, you can wind up half armed with too much information. Wouldn't you love to have a heads-up, ahead of time?  Find out how to avoid some of the bad design rule roads you don't want to go down!

about the author

Cindy Bergersen is a professional design consultant turned full time writer about home design: what is it, how it works and how to make it work for anyone. Decades of experience as a design consultant to private clients, retail clients for well known, high end furniture retailers has proved to be invaluable training. She is both passionate and committed to sharing her experience and knowledge to help anyone, to help themselves to a beautiful, comfortable home, without feeling confusion or overwhelm about where to start and how to proceed. She lives in New York with Olivia, the cat. When not writing for the Library, she can be found cycling though city parks, watching a lot of film, or curled up on the sofa with a good book.