Some folks have a natural eye for design and can create a beautifully decorated room in their sleep. The rest of us need a little help. If you have trouble envisioning how a room should look, stick to a few simple rules of thumb.
1. CONSIDER THE ROOM'S ROLE.
First, you want to start with the function of the room you’re decorating, says Warren Sheets of Warren Sheets Design. “For example, you want a living room or the kitchen to be conducive to gatherings. The décor should suit that not only in the items you place in there but also in the aesthetic,” Sheets tells mental_floss. “You want these rooms to feel lively and fun. Conversely, you want to create a sanctuary for your bedroom and decorate with the aim of making it calm and peaceful.”
2. FIND A FOCAL POINT.
Sheets says the next order of business in decorating is to find a room’s main focal points. “Remember that our eyes are often drawn to a focal point,” he says. “So whether it’s a fireplace, the windows, or built-in units, you will want to achieve symmetry around them.” This could mean adding tall pillar candles to each end of your fireplace's mantel, or finding eye-catching bookends for your shelves.
Amy Bell, a professional interior decorator and founder of Red Chair Home Interiors, agrees. “Never underestimate the power of pairs,” she says. "Pairs of matching lamps, curtains, chairs, and artwork add a pleasing symmetry to a room.”
She says that symmetry is especially important in rooms than are “architecturally asymmetrical.” So if your focal point, like a fireplace, isn’t exactly centered on a wall, you can make the room feel a little more cohesive by adding decorative pairs.
3. LAYER YOUR LIGHTING.
Lighting might not be the first consideration in decorating a room, but it’s an important one because it can totally change the mood. Lamps.com Design Expert Abbey Pettit says the key to proper lighting in design is to layer your lighting. Lighting serves various purposes, so it should come from different sources that account for those needs.
“As a general rule of thumb, lighting can be bucketed into three layers: ambient (general), focal (task), and decorative lighting," Pettit says. "Ambient lighting provides overall illumination without glares or shadows. Focal lighting concentrates brightness in a specific area, and decorative lighting allows you to express your personal style and add some sparkle to the space.”
Ambient lighting might be a ceiling-mounted light, for example, while lamps and under-counter lights are considered focal lighting (because you generally use them to light specific tasks, like reading or cooking). Again, this is why it’s important to consider a room’s function when decorating: If you’re decorating a room that's dedicated to a specific purpose, like your kitchen or home office, you want to be strategic about where you place your task lighting.
When choosing the brightness of your light sources, Pettit says it's important to consider two factors: lumen output and color temperature. “Lumens are the measure of brightness, so more lumens equal more light,” she says. “Color temperature is measured in Kelvins and determines the warmth or coolness of the light. For a warmer light (ideal for bedrooms and living rooms) look for a color temperature between 2000K and 2700K. For a bright, white light (ideal for bathrooms), look for 3000K to 3500K, [which] resembles daylight.”
4. COLOR ACCORDING TO THE DOMINANT WALL.
Use the color of the room's dominant wall—the wall that takes up the most visual space—as your jumping off point. “You can establish that color by painting it yourself,” Sheets says. “You can then ‘bounce’ off this main color by using variations of the shade, in solids or prints, within the room as a running color palette throughout the space and this will effectively pull the design elements together.”
If the dominant wall is a light shade of gray, for example, you might mix in a darker charcoal gray in elements throughout the room. Taylor W Murphy, an interior designer from Austin, Texas, suggests going neutral with larger items and then accenting with brighter colors.
“Don't be afraid of color and pattern, but give yourself limits,” he says. “[Use] neutral colors in your big-ticket items, such as sofa, chairs, and drapery, [then] you can pull in color and pattern with pillows and artwork ... Pillows are always a great way to add color and texture to a room without fully committing to an idea, plus they can be changed out seasonally when you get tired of them.”
5. MIX UP THE TEXTURES
To give your room some dimension and personality, don’t just stick to one or two textures: Mix them up. Choose brass lamps and a fuzzy pillow, or a plush throw with a chrome coffee table.
“To enliven the room, consider textures on decorative pillows and patterned wall covering,” Sheets suggests. “There are so many kinds of prints available. And the best news is you don’t even have to commit to one—there are many wallpapers today that can be easily and conveniently applied and removed within minutes.”
6. PAY ATTENTION TO PROPORTION.
Finally, you want to consider the size of the room and make sure your furniture and other items are scaled accordingly.
“If your room is on the small side, look for items that have a smaller footprint and command less space,” Murphy says. “Smaller chairs and tables make the room feel larger and more inviting. Instead of one large coffee table, think about multiple smaller ones you could pull up to the sofa or chair leaving more room to get through the space.”
Murphy suggests then finding a rug that’s large enough for all of the furniture to sit on. “A rug that is the correct size also makes the room feel larger and more complete,” he says.
Sheets adds a final word of advice for novice decorators: Keep it simple. “If you are just learning how to decorate and still finding your own sense of style, try to keep your choices as simple as possible. Make it easy on yourself to alter things when necessary without having to undergo a complete do-over.”