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Who Said There Are Design Rules?

Originally Posted: December 30, 2008

Cindy Lee Bergersen

There are far too many design rules. Painted ceilings and random old plates arranged on a wall are a "do" if done right. Photo by Benjamin Moore Paints

When it comes to home design, the idea that there are rules is somehow comforting - that if you stay within the lines, you won't goof up and embarrass yourself. Though there are guidelines, and "fool the eye tricks," a lot of rules are more like old wives tales. Follow them and the "goof" you may wind up with is a boring result.

Here are a few among too many

"Ceilings should always be white, because white makes the ceiling appear higher."
This is a convention, at best. White walls 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. As such, if your walls and ceiling are one continuous color, the lines are blurred as to where the corners meet and where the walls end.

Mismatched chairs are more interesting than a matching set. Photo by Small
Space Style

"Pictures should always be hung at eye level."
In a museum, perhaps - think instead in terms of creating a composition and a relationship with the furniture, lighting, and architecture. Hang a picture according to an arbitrary rule, and it no longer relates to the scene you are creating. Consider too, the purpose of the room. In the living room, where you sit to entertain your friends, you would want to see 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 on the ends of the table with benches, banquettes or even stools on the long sides, is a lot more interesting.

"Outside furniture and lighting should always be used outside."
Try wrought iron garden furniture indoors, and it looks architectural. Large lamps typically used to light a walkway could make an unusual and interesting light over the dining table.

"Bedroom furniture should only be used in the bedroom."
Well, yes and no. A double size 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.

"The bed and headboard should never be placed in front of a window."
Adhere to that rule and you are missing a great visual opportunity. The most effective and best looking way to place furniture is to make use of any focal point available. Use the window as a backdrop as if it were a vertical extension of the headboard. Use drapery on either side of the window behind the headboard, hung wide enough to match the width of the bed. The effect is eye-catching and dramatic.

Use the window as a backdrop as if it were a vertical extension of the head-
board. Photo by Justin Bernhaut

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 results for you and your home is "have an open mind to new ideas."

New Rules

 • Don't be a snob. It's been said "money and taste frequently move in inverse ratio." Don't be afraid to mix the high-end treasure with the fabulous flea market find. That said, don't pinch pennies until they hurt either. Good quality is an investment in satisfaction over time. 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. This is particularly true about art.

 • About "Junk" - it can be wonderful. Unusual old things found anywhere can be "re-purposed" in modern environments to great effect.

 • 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.

 • Here's a question - are you veering toward near neurotic worry over whether your choices are in good taste, such that it's hard to move forward with any decision? Good taste for whom?

Even if you are sure you 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."

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