There are people who love a very minimal space, and they seek to clash as little as possible. This means clean lines, similar colors, same era. Cohesion, unity.
I’m not one of those people. I’m a mixed-bag kinda gal. Descended from long line of fishermen and farmers, I was raised in a suburb that was both upwardly mobile and white trash. My mother collected antiques that I’ve inherited, and I’m a fan of the ‘50s/’60s , and Art Deco. I don’t want to blot out any of who I am, because I think it makes me kinda groovy.
So naturally I’d like to blend all of that together in my space, but I also don’t want it to feel confrontational or cluttered. Ack! Tall order, Batman!
On the contrary, Robin! With conscious choices and planning, you can avoid conflict between the different styles that make you who you are. Bam! Kapow! A punch of personality in decor is a wonderful thing, and makes for a fun place to live. It’s like letting your imagination spill out into the world. If you like your worldview, why not live in it?
A cast of players
There are pieces you can’t do much about — heritage pieces. Whether it’s the big armoire in the corner or the red-and-silver melamine ‘50s kitchen set, there are some pieces that are intrinsically a part of us and we either can’t or just plain won’t change ‘em.
Let’s call these the anchor pieces. These are what you work with and design around.
Next we have the fundamentals. They’re all that stuff you need so you can pretend you’re a proper functioning adult. If they’re not heritage pieces that you either inherited or have an emotional connection to for any number of reasons, then they’re just stuff. They’re your sofas, tables, beds, shelves, lamps — any of the normal stuff we’re supposed to have, but it’s stuff you’re buying because it’s what humans own.
Finally we have the accessories. These are the party-crashers. They’re the personality pieces, the pops of colors, the eye-candy, and knickknacks.
Know your scene
The heritage pieces we keep ones that we’re emotionally connected to, things that keep us grounded in our past while living in the present. In my living room, for example, my anchor pieces are my huge armoire made of reclaimed 140-year-old oak plank flooring, a Woorsted Persian-style wool rug that’s primary pale sage green, rustic white-painted pine bookshelves my dad made me, and a 170-year-old giant overstuff camelback blue armchair.
So that’s all over the place from the style through to the colors, but I love them all.
But my personal style? Well, everything I love revolves around seaside chic, late ‘50s/early ‘60s modern style, a bit of Art Deco, and I like what I like, right? So how does all that come together? Just like any hodgepodge comes together, with a little structure.
Getting the party started
If, like me, you have a bunch of contrasting elements and you’re not willing to part with them, you can either pull colors/features from them to complement and even exploit, or you can keep everything else neutral and minimalist.
For a few years there, I took the first approach. I picked colors that contrasted against everything so everything would stand out against it, and in so doing have kind of a unified feel. My walls? Fire red. Red complements white, blue, and green, so it worked really well when I wanted a vivid, engaging space.
I was younger then, though. These days, I’ve got all cream-colored walls and white trim. It’s a minimalist approach because I need a quieter, calmer space now. Still, both the red walls and the cream walls worked brilliantly with my belongings, showing that you can embrace either approach and it’s really what works for your tastes.
Pick neutral or high-contrast walls, whatever your like. A clean backdrop, or a wild party — both work, but high-contrast will need careful choosing. Think jewel tones like emerald greens, deep sapphires, purples, burnt oranges. Big, bold colors that work well and stand up against each of your anchor pieces without being jarring.
For neutrals, think whites, creams, soft greys, pale and muted yellows or blues, in an eggshell finish. It’s a plain backdrop, ideal if your art will stand out or your space needs to be more restful.
Finding your fundamentals
You’ll need to round out your space with all that other stuff proper adults own. What’s missing in your space? How much of the picture will it fill?
If, like me, your stuff is kind of weird and contrasting from different eras, you need to either find those high-contrast colors that complement everything and run with it, or you stick to simple neutrals.
Because I’m not scared to paint my walls insane colors, I decided to go as minimalist as I could with my other things. My sofa and chair are cream-color leather in a 1960s clean lines style suited to Mad Men, fittingly called the “Sinatra” line. My desk is low-profile, made of wood and white metal with no embellishments. My coffee table is simple straight, clean 1960s-style honey oak. In fact, the majority of my fundamentals (mirrors, lamps, tables, chairs) are either wood or white or silver, to keep it quite toned down.
That way, my anchor pieces speak volumes.
If you’re not confident about making these choices, just make sure you have a good return policy before you buy, so you can change your mind if you have regrets.
Injecting personality: accessories
From candles to art to rugs and vases, this is where you bring your personality and quirk into the room. Travel souvenirs, pieces you’ve collected — all of it. Whatever suits your style. In my very conservative bathroom, I hang a nicely framed Dogs Playing Poker. Keeps my attitude positively adjusted in the morning, and all my guests tend to love it.
It’s best to see what pieces sort of work together, either by way of appearance or by their theme. I keep my ocean paintings and photographs grouped together, with candles and other pieces that match their frames down on below on my desk. An elephant candleholder has nothing to do with the Pacific coast, but the color of it and the metal used are the same as in the frames above, so it works without being matchy-matchy.
Look for common elements that tie things together both with themselves and with your anchor pieces. “Oh, all those things have a touch of orange in them. The orange will contrast with my blue chair.” Perfect, that’s the one unifying and contrasting thing that makes it work.
Shape, texture, material, color, lines, these are all things you can look at to see what’s working together.
Enjoy Yourself, It’s Not Forever
You’ll get more comfortable with your blend over time. Some items will fall out of favor, some colors will get tired, but you can always update and change things just by playing with the mix. Don’t be scared to try different combinations. This isn’t science, it’s an emotional and visceral thing, and sometimes it takes a journey to get to the end result. Go forth and mix with gusto, grasshopper. It’s the only way you’ll know if it works.