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Breaking Design Rules and Habits

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I often write about design principles. Not just dos and don’ts but about basic tenets that ensure successful, classic results. These rules usually address scale, proportion, balance, and harmony - from architecture and space planning to fabric patterns and color schemes. Without following the fundamentals, end results are either a hot mess or forgetfully bland.

But by definition, there are exceptions to rules. Sometimes these exceptions create the wow factor in your design. At the very least, breaking the right rules and a few predictable old habits allow you more creative freedom.

One of my life-long mottos regularly applies to my work – when clients permit. “No guts, no glory”. When a client’s initial rejection to an idea turns into second-thought giddiness, it’s a sure bet that the idea will ultimately become the most favored part of the design.

When a New York builder colleague of mine strayed from the usual kitchen and bathroom finishes during a remodeling project, his apartments sold for an additional half-million dollars.

But not all rule-breaking need be so monumental. Some may in fact just be old habits established for no worthy reason. Some ideas are used over and over in model homes, or on television home shows, or in retail displays. If seen in any number of places, then it must be right, right? Not always.

Breaking rules and habits begin by being fearless, or at the very least, being open-minded to new ideas. When making your next design decision, embrace your inner James Dean and rebel a little:

1) Hang a chandelier at the foot of your bed or over a pair flanking nightstands. They’re not just for foyers and dining tables.

2) Try large graphic or textured wallpaper. New, improved, and glamorous paper is the latest “it” thing on the market.

3) Mix black and brown. You don’t have to choose one over the other. This is truly a sophisticated color combination.

4) Mix your metals. A brushed nickel faucet works just fine with a black iron light fixture.

5) If you love a bold color, paint it on a wall or in an entire room - and don’t worry about it being too dark. Imagine how yummy charcoal grey or semi-sweet chocolate would look trimmed out in contrasting soft-white. Imagine how it will highlight artwork and furnishings and add dimension with well-placed lighting.

6) Paint ceilings a color other than white especially if they are higher than eight feet.

7) Layer warm and cool tones within the same color. For instance, combine warm corals with cool burgundies or warm olive greens with cool lime and chartreuse. Back to the rules - when using this strategy, keep the rest of the colors in the space neutral.

8) Tile an eight-foot shower to the ceiling. Forego the standard eye-level decorative row of accents in favor of something more significant and more unusual. Make any accent (in the shower or anywhere) count or don’t do it at all.

9) Introduce a super mod piece of furniture to a traditional room, an antique to a modern room, or rustic pine to slick contemporary.

10) Mix stripes, florals, plaids, paisleys, and animal prints. Use a variety of colors for a country-cottage decor or use only one color for a more contemporary look.

Admittedly, I couldn’t help but interject a few rules while breaking a few others. And, there are some that should never be broken: Surround yourself with things you love. Reflect your own style. Unshackle your creativity. And, have fun.

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