"The first rule of decoration is that you can break almost all the other rules."
Legendary interior designers know that decorating rules were made to be broken. Yet those who take a DIY approach are often fearful of making mistakes and are easily intimidated by conventional wisdom regarding how to put together a room.
Every space is as different as the person who inhabits it. Here’s a rundown of some preconceived notions you should feel free to leave at the door when making your own design plan.
"Don't Mix Old and New"
One of the fastest routes to a boring room is sticking to a single style or period. The most livable and inspiring rooms combine old and new pieces in a variety of styles to give them an effortless sense of having been assembled over time.
An easy way to mix old and new is to consider a room’s architecture. If you live in a 1930s house, you can incorporate some period pieces, then add contemporary lighting, rugs, or accessories to bring the rooms into the 21st century. If you live in a brand new high-rise apartment, choose an Oriental rug, an antique mirror, or a vintage chandelier to create a sense of history and warmth.
If, like many people, you live in a cookie-cutter space, mixing vintage and contemporary pieces will give it personality and dimension. Stick to a neutral color scheme and your flea market finds will blend right in with your IKEA staples, creating texture and subtle contrasts.
"Paint a Small Space in a Light Color"
Most people know that one of the easiest ways to create an airy space in a tight room is to paint walls, trims, ceilings, and even the floor in shades of white. But using a dark wall color in a small room is a trick that many interior designers use to create a sense of depth.
Painting walls in a warm gray, deep brown, or navy blue, for example, can fool the eye into not knowing where the wall begins and ends, creating an illusion of more space. If you’re decorating a room with only one wall of windows, a dark accent color will frame and showcase the view.
When using a dark color in a small room, be sure to balance it with light-catching materials like mirrors, mirrored furniture, and metallics, and incorporate table or floor lamps to ensure that the room has a warm glow.
"Every Room Needs a Pop of Color"
The phrase “pop of color” is one of the most overused clichés in the design (and now fashion) lexicon. But painting one wall red or adding yellow pillows to a couch isn’t a magic pill.
There’s nothing wrong with an accent color (or three), but don’t feel obligated to add color to a neutral room. Shades of gray mixed with metallics, mirrors, furniture and accessories in a variety of textures and materials can have as much impact as a room full of bright colors. The eye doesn’t tire of neutrals as easily as it does of color, which can be introduced in transient details: a bowl of lemons or clementines, a vase of flowers, the changing wardrobes of the people who pass through, etc.
"Don't Mix Metals"
Old school wisdom says you shouldn’t mix your metals, but silver, gold, brass, bronze, and copper can happily cohabitate in any room.
Nothing warms up a gray wall like an antique gold frame, so why not add vintage silver plate sconces alongside a gilded mirror? Or hang a vintage brass chandelier or a contemporary Tom Dixon copper pendant light in your modern kitchen full of brushed nickel hardware? You’ll get the most impact if you mix cool metals like silver with warm metals like gold or brass.
"Match Your Wood Finishes"
The era of the matching bedroom or dining sets is long gone, but many people are still afraid to mix wood finishes in a single room. Don't be.
Varying wood tones create a layered look. But before you start mixing things up, first consider your floor, the background against which all other wood tones will be set. Darker toned furniture can provide a sense of groundedness to light maple floors in a vast urban loft. If your mid-century modern coffee table disappears into medium-toned oak floors, create a canvas for the table with a light-colored rug. Limit your wood-mixing to two or three tones to start, and try to balance them throughout the space for a harmonious look.
"Don't Mix Patterns"
Fashion and interior design trends often go hand in hand, and lately, mixing patterns is all the rage on the runways and in the design world.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to mixing patterns, but it does take a bit of trial and error. If you’re new at this, choose a limited palette (say, black and white) to give your matchmaking a common denominator, and play around with scale and geometry, whether it’s bold stripes, small checks, plaids, animal prints, or florals. Or choose colors on the opposite side of the color wheel – warm oranges or yellows with cool blues or grays – and mix and match from there.
"Match Your Colors"
Just like matching your lipstick to your handbag to your heels is the fastest way to date a look, there is no reason on earth that you have to match the color of the pillows to the drapes and/or carpet.
To ensure that your room looks put together but not contrived, choose fabrics and finishes in the same color family if you prefer, but don’t match. Even if you prefer neutral linens on the bed, you don’t have to choose pillowcases, sheets, and a duvet cover in identical shades. Mix bright white with ivory and cream, preferably in varying materials – silk/satin pillowcases, polished cotton sheets, and a linen duvet cover, for example – and your bed will read as neutral and serene, but the look of it won’t put you to sleep.
"A Living Room Needs a Couch, a Kitchen Needs a Microwave"... and Other Myths
Part of designing a comfortable home means making sure all your needs are met. But there is no sense in having a formal dining room if you prefer cozy dinners for two at the bar in the kitchen. If your kid prefers using a laptop while sprawled across the bed, there’s no reason to clutter up the room with a desk. And if you live alone, why take up precious square footage in your studio apartment with a couch when a love seat or comfy armchair will do?
Rooms should be comfortable and address your lifestyle, so think about what that is before you fill your space with things you don’t need.
"Every Window Needs a Window Treatment"
If you live in a south-facing apartment with a Rear Window view of the neighbors across the way, you’ll want to install a solar shade to protect you and your belongings from UV rays and black-out shades, shutters, or curtains to ensure you have privacy when you need it. Curtains might be a good idea if your room has awkwardly placed or overly small windows, to create balance and add style.
But if you live on a high floor with a spectacular view of only sky, or rooftops, or mountains, or anything else that cannot stare back at you, there’s no shame in a naked window.
"Use Small Furniture in a Small Room"
Just because you live in a shoe box studio doesn’t mean you should fill it with tiny furniture. Scale and proportion are important, and you don’t want a giant sofa or bed to eat up all the real estate, but using a few large pieces in a small space often creates the illusion of a bigger room.
In a small bedroom, you might choose a queen-sized bed for comfort and an oversized headboard to create a sense of height. Then, opt for practical wall-mounted nightstands that don’t take up much space. Compensate for a large seating area in a small living room by skipping the coffee table and using nesting or occasional tables that can be moved around as needed instead, and add sconces instead of table or floor lamps.
"Every Room Needs an Overhead Light"
While it’s hard to quibble with a beautiful chandelier – especially one on a dimmer – there is no law that says a room must have an overhead light. For better or worse, overhead lights can serve as a focal point in a room, but they can also cast unflattering shadows on human faces, strain the eye, and create a nervously over-lit feeling in a room. Layering multiple ambient light sources throughout a space means that you set the mood.