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Deconstructing a room and decorating *rules*

15 years ago

In the April issue of House Beautiful, there's a room decorated by Michael S. Smith.

I picked this as an example because of who he is (hot right now, decorator for the White House, etc) and it had most of the elements in question (decorating rules).

We get many questions, on Home Dec, about patterns, WTs, # of colors to use in a room and drapery hardware. Some of the *rules* (not just here, but on decorating shows, as well) have been as patterned sofas, no patterns of the same scale, WTs should be the color of your walls, drapery hardware should all match (hard to see in this pic but he has done a black rod with silver rings/finials...a look I like and have done) and many more.

I could live in this room in a heartbeat. The walls are yellow and he's added blues, reds (which he calls a neutral), greens and browns. I lost count after 13 patterns.

What's your take? Do you follow rules or break a few of the more conventional?

Comments (38)

  • 15 years ago

    The only rule should be that you MUST love coming home! If you love it, the heck with the rules. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this room (and I've always been a bit of a rebel). It looks accumulated over time-just my style

  • 15 years ago

    I break them occasionally, but never with the success that a professional decorator seems to. They can be broken "good" and they can be broken "bad". (Also true of following rules, I suppose).

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    I love the idea that red offers a splash of excitement. Semms like the rest of the decor is neutral. What I see is that your bedroom is all neutral. So, bring in that splash of excitement in the MBR because you can see it if you leave your door open. If the room is long, and there is some floor space at the foot of the bed, you might put a chair and table there that matches the LR open space. If not, you could put a red throw since it would the the closest to the door in view. A red pillow to bring your eye back a little. Or red flowers on the night stand. I would do this when you are entertaining friends and they can see into the room, this way that room is festive also. The other posters are right, the rule of thumb is to have it flow together. I also feel that when you decide to add drama with high contrast (a color that pops) you really need to carry that throughout because it becomes obvious if done only once. Decorating is easier to understand when working in layers. Your walls & floors, all the 'case' or 'box' all will sit in, then main pieces, pretend your room is empty of all else but major furniture and walls, drapery. Does it flow? Then supporting pieces, if they do not flow with main, do they flow together? Such as (to make my point easier to understand) all tree branch and natural shaped end tables, and metals flow together (you can always break the rules). Then lighting for task, general lighting done, then accessories, do they flow together, for example, all about birds and nests (reflecting the wood branch metal tables, etc.) again simplified to make my point easier to envision. Then you would have a cohesive look. Now, being creative, artistic, and adventurous, we can bend all the rules and decorate any way we want and move things around until it is pleasing to US first... don't worry about pleasing others, it is your nest, your home. I would love to see photos! Here is a link that might be useful: My home Blog
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  • 15 years ago

    The only rule should be that you MUST love coming home! If you love it, the heck with the rules. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this room (and I've always been a bit of a rebel). It looks accumulated over time-just my style.

    I completely agree with this statement! I don't have "rules" in my own home ... if it pleases my eye, then it's right. I love what Mr. Smith has accomplished in this room. It does indeed look as though it's just happened over time, and to me, that's the best kind of room there is.

  • 15 years ago

    This room is too, too busy. But then, I love contemporary that is clean and uncluttered. Yep, love coming home to my place where there are no rules.

  • 15 years ago

    Too funny, I think Andee nailed it when she said, "They can be broken "good" and they can be broken "bad"". Love that observation . . . and she's so right!

    I like the room you've pictured, although it's too busy for me personally (too many patterns). The thing is, if a room/your room looks good to you and makes you feel good to be in it, then I say to heck with the rules . . . at least most of them. I still cringe when I see artwork hung too high or when it's too small for the wall. That's one rule I always stick to. But, the rest of the so-called rules are open to personal interpretation, as far as I'm concerned.

    Getting back to that room pictured, I love those huge framed prints! I think I've seen them in Gumps catalog. Smith's pairing them with the bold, red checked draperies and the flowered sofa fabric is unusual and Eclectic, but it works for me. I love a rule breaker who can pull off rule breaking so beautifully!

  • 15 years ago

    It makes a pretty picture, but it is way tooooo busy for me also. I don't like so much "clutter", but that is only my opinion.....rules are made to be what makes you happy to live with.

  • 15 years ago

    It's a beautiful room and although I love many of the elements, in total, it would not be a room that *I* would choose to come home to. Appreciating it in someone else's home is easy but my little brain would be on overload if I had to live with it.

    Now about these RULES...... Maybe that's one advantage of not having cable - I don't watch those shows that spout the RULES!!! And I generally don't have the patience to read the text in decorating books - I'm just in it for the pictures ;-)

    Probably the LAST thing I think about in any decorating is RULES. I've certainly made some 'questionable choices' over the years but isn't that how we learn? And not just learn what works in the larger world but mostly learn what works *for us* - that's key. I think a lot of it comes with age - learning to trust your eye, knowing what works in your world, not being afraid to break away from the flock and do something different than the 'catalog look'. What I appreciate most about that room above is that I don't see a single PB piece. Not bashing PB items in total because I do have some. I just tire of seeing rooms with PB personality not that of the residents, KWIM? But that's a whole 'nother thread, I guess. Nevermind!

  • 15 years ago

    I'm not so sure that too many rules have been broken in that room. When you study it a bit more you'll see that with all those patterns going on he's still achieved cohesiveness by basically sticking to two colors, red and blue, plus a neutral, cream. The drapes work because of the cream with the red which helps it to blend into the wall. (One of my pet peeves on this forum, and please forgive me for those of you who like this) is light colored walls with solid dark brown or other dark-colored drapes, so that this is the first thing that catches your eye. It can work if the furniture is all that same color so that some integration is achieved, but that's usually not the case.) For myself, I've tried to educate myself by looking at innumerable rooms in books, magazines and on TV, and in spite of that have still failed miserably at times. Fortunately most decorating mistakes can be fixed and I've learned through that too. Overall, I don't think I'm too much of a rule breaker except that I think my house has more color than most of the houses I visit (beige is alive and well), because color energizes me and makes me happy, as long as it's not garish. To me the worst sin is boring and formula decorating. I want to be able to sense who is living in that house, and what their passions and interests are. Almost any decor can appeal to me as long as that quality is evident.

  • 15 years ago

    I like M. Smith and this room....except for the rose settee with the golden legs, and the teal pillows, tho I can see how that color is the same in the large prints that I,too,LOVE!
    Yep, break 'em good, break 'em bad...well said!
    IMO, it never works if it does not LOOK evolved over time.
    Looking at this pic from HB reminds me that I do seriously question why so many who worry about their decor skills do not simply study and learn from these wonderful sources . It may take years of looking and studying the desired rooms, but all the while knowledge is building and taste evolving. It is a learning process for most of us.
    It helps if you've grown up with great style, just as learning to cook is easier if your childhood home served up delicious, inventive meals. These same mags offer recipes and gorgeous food photos as inspiration.
    Those who say I know what I like and don't need learning tools or inspiration are, at worst, kidding themselves or, at best, residing in rooms that may have once been beautiful, but quickly become dull and static in feel.
    Wow! see that I got a bit off track :>/ Now go buy a mag!:>) :>)

  • 15 years ago

    Good design, in my view, is at least as much about what you leave out as what you include.

    Editing is everything! And I would say it is guided by principles rather than rules. If you follow well-established principles (balance, proportion, scale, cohesion, suitability, function, etc...), then you can set the rules anew for each project.

    The first thing I used to do when taking on a new project is to establish what, in architecture, is called the "parti." The parti is a statement or list of elemental requirements that drive everything you do. When in doubt, compare it to that statement. If a color or a thing or a style doesn't satisfy the parti, out it goes.

    For example, let's say that you like beautiful things, but you would also rather be barefooted most of the time. You decide that your overall goal for your house is personality, hospitality, orderliness, and humor.

    From there, you decide you want it light, uncluttered, formal in structure, but informal in materials. So you want lots of soft seating, not much pattern, sturdy casual fabrics, and great storage. Orderly to you also means clean, so it has to be easy to maintain. For personality, you decide that some of that great storage should have glass doors to show off some of your stuff, but without letting it lie about on tables. For structure, you want beautiful upholstered furniture in a traditional arrangement, but with soft linen and cotton fabrics to make them welcoming. For humor, you want to use some light funny pictures you have amassed, but for order, in frames that are alike, and arranged in a grid on one wall. For lightness and simplicity, you choose a strict color scheme of three or four pale colors, and whenever you are tempted by somehting else, you Just Say No,.
    You want tables wherever it is natural to put a drink down (hospitality), and you want them quirky (personality). You see a gorgeous red room in a magazine with chintz curtains and brass lamps with black shades. It's beautiful, but it violates your parti. You pass it by.
    And so on, and so on...

  • 15 years ago

    There are no rules in decorating, but there are basic principles -- things like color harmony, scale, proportion, balance, etc. The so called "rules" are simplistic form of these principles. Why are some rooms appeared well balanced, and some seem off-kilter. Why certain eclectic rooms appeared complex and interesting, why another seemed messy & junky & chaotic? There are many underlying principles at work contribute to the outcome of a room.

    It's interesting to me that when you look at art/decorating/architecture across culture and time line, these principles (that define "beauty") applied. We may not like or know Asian architecture, but we can see the beauty in old Asian temples. Michael Smith's room may not be to our taste, but we recognize the complex play of texture, the color harmony, the balance layout, etc.

    Once we learned the principles, we can tweak them to emphasize or de-emphasize certain aspects of the room. How to call attention to certain details, or to minimize another. To make a room warm, complex, interesting, or calm, quiet serene.

    It's like cooking really. When my GM taught me how to cook, she taught me how all the ingredients go together (fish w/ dill, tomato & basil, orange peel w/ shrimp). It doesn't mean that fish always have to go with dill. Once I develop my palate, I can be creative and mix things up a bit and create more complex, more unexpected flavor. There are hits and miss of course, but it makes cooking more fun. :-)

  • 15 years ago

    leahcate, you've expressed sentiments that have often occurred to me. Well said, and so true. Libraries are a great source of decorating magazines and books for those who cannot buy them so there's no excuse. The best decorators are still continually educating themselves and so should we be if we want beautiful and vibrant homes. Besides, if you want to break rules you have to know what they are!

  • 15 years ago

    I like what I have read from my fellow GWs. I have to say that if someone had posted that same pic without a "famous" designers name attached to it, I would have thought ewww what was that person thinking?? I think he missed on all counts. And I love a collected over time more is more eclectic look. I think famous doesnt always equate with great. IMHO! I think there are lovelier rooms on GW by regular folks.

  • 15 years ago

    Here's my two cents worth: I think the room is fun and interesting and I would love it in someone else's home, but it would be too busy for me. I think you can definitely break the rules successfully, but if you do it so it works it takes greater skill than following the rules.

    I also think that there are design principles that supersede decorating rules. Balance, proportion, repetition, harmony, variety, unity, rhythm, to name a few. This room has those even though some decorating rules have been broken.

  • 15 years ago

    Thanks for all of the responses.

    I couldn't get back to the post, for a while, as I had just found out I became a GM. :)

    I knew that the room wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but wanted to examine the use of different patterns, textures and hardware. The calm and serene look and colors have been showing up so much, lately, and I like a bit of punch.

    Maybe it's because of all my high ceilings that I've fallen into a texture instead of pattern style. I'm finding myself missing bold patterns and colors. For some reason, I am more relaxed in a room like the pic than I am in a purposefully serene one.

  • 15 years ago

    Hey, congratulations, Parma! Girl or boy?

    That's such exciting news! Hope all is well with mom & baby. You're going to be a cool grandma!

  • 15 years ago

    congratulations Parma, welcome to the club !! boy or girl ?

    I agree that the room posted is amazing, I like more blank space than that but as I look at my living room, my walls are very filled, lol......

    I would edit the matchy matchy red, blue and white candlesticks/chess pieces? in Mr. Smith's decor, I would have introduced a metal at that point. But hey, he didn't ask me, lol............

    I love the big pictures, they make the room, imo.....

  • 15 years ago

    Thanks stinky and mitchdesj!

    It's a boy. Guess those ultrasounds don't lie like they used to *sigh*. Who am I going to buy cute little dresses for? DD and I joke about that, though. My mom was the same way when my son was born. Both are healthy. :)

    BTW, I agree about the candlesticks/whatever.

  • 15 years ago

    ***I couldn't get back to the post, for a while, as I had just found out I became a GM. :) ***

    You think you can just post that in the middle of a thread and be done with it? Nuh uh, grandma!! Congratulations parma - what a great day! Time to start a new thread, me thinks ;-)

    btw - I never did get my pink - still holding out for a grandaughter someday. In the meantime, how about a Cubs hat for the little one??

  • 15 years ago

    Congratulations on being a grandma, parma. I'm sure once you get to know this little person you won't care one bit about what gender he is. (Maybe one or two dresses before he's too old to know the difference? Weeel, maybe not.)

    I'm glad you're thinking of more color and pattern. It can give so much warmth and interest to rooms with high ceilings.

  • 15 years ago

    Congratulations Parma! How exciting! I am step-grandma to three boys and I promise you, it is a far more affordable option to all those little dresses. :-)

    Mitch, I agree with you on the chess pieces. Everything else in the room is of a certain quality...and then those...things. ???

    Which leads me back on topic... I have always thought that one could more easily break rules when every element is of the very highest quality. There is something about exquisite yet disparate objets that makes them blend together seamlessly. Of course, that does not work for us mere mortals, but I often have that sense when looking at these ultra-posh rooms in the ultra-glossy mags. When it's all good stuff, it all works.

  • 15 years ago

    Congratulations, Parma! Is your new baby nearby? I hope so!

  • 15 years ago

    I always brake the rules..Rules are made to be broken..following rules makes things to predictable..rooms that are memorable are never predictable..they are the ones that are "different"..and make a statement..

  • 15 years ago

    whooohoooooooo! Welcome to the club. You will never believe how it's going to rock your world. Just wait and see. So happy for you!!Big hugs:>) How far away are they?

  • 15 years ago

    Congratulations on the new baby! What nice news is that?

    Have you ever had a friend that just always looks amazing? I do. She is in her early 30's and is striking to look at, but not super pretty. Pretty, but not a knockout. She is currently wearing her hair (colored dark, with a swatch of silver in the front) in a chin-length bob. She is thin, but fairly good figure, and about 5'7. She has two children. Sometimes, when she comes to a function that I am attending, I really want to stare. I don't, because she always dresses to a different drummer, but I want to. One of her recent outfits had her wearing super-heavy makeup, deep red lips and LOTS of eyeliner. She wore a raspberry beret and had her hair in pig-tails sticking out the back of the hat. Straight-across bangs. High heels in red. Pencil skirt just below the knee. Her top and vest I couldn't tell you, but she had mixed patterns outrageously. She had big hoop earrings, a chunky silver necklace, and a purse the size of my medium carry-on bag. She also had her youngest, a boy of 1 1/2 slung across her hip. She breaks every fashion rule I've ever heard. And I think 34 is too old for short stuck straight out pigtails. She is office mgr for a title company and is very serious about work. I've seen her at work in overalls with a hat and high heels.
    How does it all work? If I could just figure out how her sometimes black lipstick and black nails work, I could be happy. So, don't ask me to dissect a room. Here's what I think....Decorating rules are super helpful for someone who is lacking in confidence or just getting started. For someone who really knows what they are doing, they go with what 'feels' right to them, and when they're done, it turns out that they have followed a lot of the rules without even trying. And if you have some really great stuff and don't overdo it, you can make a room look fabulous. If you have all fairly mundane, safe, stuff, even following every single rule won't do more than make your room look 'nice'.

    If I wear a beret to work tomorrow, whatcha wanna bet that the whole office will burst out laughing?


  • 15 years ago

    Heartfelt congratulations Parma! That little boy will light up your life every single time you see him, if I'm any judge! When my little grandson (2 1/2 years old) says "Love you G'ma" all is well with the world. I wish you all tons of joy.

  • 15 years ago

    Congrat's Parma aka grand ma ma. LOL

    About the room and designers/decorator's. The room is pretty upon first quick look, but if I stop and really look at things, I find a million and one things I don't like. It is much too busy for me also with way too many patterns. Makes me dizzy. I really love all the elements in the room, just not all in the same room, altogether. With the amount of stuff in that room, I could decorate my entire house. LOL

    What I really hate is when designers/decorator's try to convince someone else that some cockeyed brain storm of there's look good when anyone with two eyes can see it looks like you know what. I see people on RMS all the time doing a room and proudly exclaiming they saw it on HGTV. OMG, it's a disaster and they don't even realize it.

    I like some of the rules because I really don't know all of them. For instance, living with taupe and oak all those years and not realizing they don't go together. Those kinds of things, are good to know for future reference.

    I just don't want someone telling me that I can use 2 different curtain rods in the same room and it's fine. To my eye, no it's not fine, it's tacky. Some lines I will cross and some I won't. I have my own rules also.

    I know there are a lot of people on this forum who could put many of designer's/decorator's to shame.

  • 15 years ago

    Brutuses, I agree and you are one of those who I admire so much. I learn so much from the posters here.

    As for the room above, it's too layered and fussy for would take much effort to clean and be too expensive to maintain. It reminds me a bit of the grandparents house on Gilmore Girls...not a comfortable place.

  • 15 years ago

    Well - I am really new here so I hesitated to post anything that is negative, but I don't care for that room at all. The combinations of patterns makes me feel a little motion sick. Several of the comments from earlier posters hit the nail on the head: fussy, overdone, etc etc etc.

    Definitely not a room I would want to spend any time in.


  • 15 years ago

    Congrats! Parma!! You look too young to be a grandmother! We didnt think you were a day over 39! Just in case the OMG i am old thoughts hit today! heh heh. I hope my two get married, and have kids someday. you are lucky!

    as to the room,perhaps others have seen the rest of the room and some, like me have only seen the pic in the post.
    I don't mind the room, I took another look this am and still don't get how this guy is a famous dcorator/designer.( it makes me worry a bit about how the White House will look like when he is done- or is this a photo from it?) To me, and it might be the perspective on the room,it looks like he just left stuff on the floor cause there was no place to put things and walked away. I have no idea if the things are quality jsut by looking, but if they are, I would think the "Chanel rule" would apply. It looks like Chanel with Cartier, with Manolos, with Versace, with Wang,with Spade,if you get my drift. again thats just me! Perhaps it just means that some folks on HD should be thinking of second or primary careers to get the big bucks! I have cut and pasted b/cause of the analysis of the room that some have done.
    Parma fun fun post it made me think and again congratulations on being a GM! Blue rules!

  • 15 years ago

    What I think is important is the lighting, no matter what the colour of the walls is. If lighting is done properly anything else does not matter. I did some lighting for my home it looks attractive and amazing and that is why i recommend you all to have a look on the website
    I have already bought some products from them and the products are amazing and the service provided is top class.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Pure Lighting

  • 15 years ago

    Although I do have Smith's books -- I find THIS room's decor to be too MUCH -- and too busy ....

    Lately I simply adore Phoebe Howard's designs and decor -- BUT -- again -- I would be adding more personal items to these designs too ...... sigh.

    To see more of her designs -- click on the photos on the website .....


    Here is a link that might be useful: Phoebe Howard website

  • 15 years ago

    I must say a word in defense of Michael S. Smith!
    Certainly that room is not for everyone (not for me, either), but he is one of the most talented and responsive designers working today. In fact, he is a very good example of someone who works from principles but not rules. He says himself that he is mystified when someone asks him what his style is.
    In every project, he responds to the client's needs and tastes.
    Take a look at some of the images here, and you'll see that he isn't a one-trick pony. If I had the budget of his client list, I'd hire him in a flash!

    Here is a link that might be useful: Michael S. Smith - images

  • 15 years ago

    Thanks again!

    Unfortunately, DD lives in another state. Not too far but definitely not an afternoon drive. She is/was a mortgage processor and when the housing crisis began, she had to follow the money.

    Dlm2000, I'm torn over the Cub's hat. Even though I lived in Wrigleyville, and was a Cub's fan, my heart belongs to the Milwaukee Brewers, lol. It wasn't a problem when they were in different leagues, but now...

    Cooperbailey, the only pic of myself I've shown was five years old. I'm 57 and the years are starting to show. :(

    Amy, I agree. This look is so much easier to pull off with mega$$$. Like the Paris atelier with layers of threadbare, antique orientals. Not quite the same done in Home Depot polypropylenes.

    Bru, "I just don't want someone telling me that I can use 2 different curtain rods in the same room and it's fine. To my eye, no it's not fine, it's tacky. Some lines I will cross and some I won't. I have my own rules also." the rods are the same, it's the finials and rings that are different. I purposefully chose an extreme example to show what my tolerance is for pattern. For some reason, I feel more at peace with a room like this than one that is much more pared down. I was raised in chaos so maybe my brain is wired that this is normalcy. (deep, huh? lol)

    Red, I see women like that walking down Michigan Avenue (Chicago). It sure takes a certain air of confidence to pull it off, but they manage to don't they?

  • 15 years ago

    It's true Parma, we are comfortable with what we grew up in and that's why everyone's styles are different (thank goodness). As a child our house had the necessities and nothing more. Too poor. LOL It was always clean and neat. I had a great aunt whose decor I loved because she had a house full of gorgeous antiques. Not a lot, no clutter, just beautiful and clean all the time. She would pay me a quarter to dust the furniture and I was in my glory doing it. I know why I hate dusting my own, I don't have antiques. LOL

    I know designer's feature rooms like the one above to advertise for other designer's and retailers. It's not a true depiction of a designer's work I don't think. I don't think this guy would truly design a room with 13 patterns in it. If he does, send him to Parma's house fast!! LOL

    mpw, thanks for that lovely compliment. That is very kind and generous of you to say. I think I have good taste, as taste goes. Problem is I don't know always what to do with. I think accessorizing is my weakest link when it comes to decorating. Thank goodness I can come here and have you nice people help guide me in the right direction.

  • 15 years ago

    I think the room's great, but I don't find it particularly daring or innovative. The furniture's pretty conventional, and other that the large art, everything's at a very human-sized scale. The surfaces aren't covered with lots of stuff, either.

  • 15 years ago

    May I say I hate this room? No matter, I just did. lol
    The room has way too many patterns and different designs for me.

    As for my one decorating rule, I would never put, say, Mediterranean pieces with an Asian influenced room followed by Louie the 18th chairs in the same room. IMO that is not eclectic it is tacky. Let's be honest some rules should be broken.

    Parma for some reason I thought you had no children. Congrats on being a GM, I know you must be thrilled to death.


  • 15 years ago

    This is another thing I find so interesting-how one poster finds little 'daring' and the next, finds it way too over the top (last two posts). All about tolerance levels.

    Jane, maybe I've made reference to 'no kids, no pets'. I just meant that none are in our home, at the moment.