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Focal points are the objects or architectural contrasts that grab your attention as soon as you walk into a room. Common focal points are a fireplace, big-screen television, a bed, a bowl of fruit on a coffee table, or shelves along a wall. Sometimes, the focal point is built into the room; if not, you get to figure out where to put it.

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Why are focal points so important to good interior design?

Human beings have a psychological need for focal points. Maybe you remember walking into your apartment or house for the first time after the previous owners had cleaned everything out and essentially left an empty structure. Perhaps you recall a feeling of being out of place, perhaps even mildly nervous at the experience, even as you began imagining how you might transform this empty space. The things we put in a home don’t just fill it up at random. We want to design the space as though it’s being put together in a kind of plan. Everything extends out from the focal point.

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“It really tied the room together …”

You don’t have to be a professional interior designer to see how it works. In the cult classic film, The Big Lebowski, the Dude, an aging hippy who spends his days bowling and dodging his landlord, laments the loss of his cherished living room focal point: “That rug really tied the room together,” he complains after a gangster soils it in an act of misdirected revenge.

Similarly, Elaine Benes on Seinfeld makes her friend Kramer watch a beautiful armoire all night in hopes she can move it in the morning to become the cherished focal point of her living room (and is saddened at its loss by street hoods strangely enamored of antique furniture). And in real life, you may have gone through the exercise of moving furniture in a room around until it just “looks right” – that’s you, searching for the focal point.

How to emphasize your focal point to “make” a room

Make your focal point pop. Here are some quick ways to do it:

Fireplace. Decorate the mantle with some sentimental items. Place a mirror or artwork above it. Place a rug in front of it (Not just for emphasizing focal point – nobody likes to warm up in front of a warm fire on a cold hard floor). Arrange furniture around the hearth in a way that doesn’t block line of sight. You might also think about painting the fireplace a different color than the wall to make it contrast.

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Window. You’ve got a big window that offers up a terrific view of the landscape, the city or your neighbor’s nice yard. Accentuate it with drapes that contrast with the color of the scene. And as the Dude might recommend, tie the room together with a complementary area rug.

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Bed. It’s not cheating to make the bed the focal point of the bedroom. It’s only natural. Choose an outer cover with an eye-catching design and perhaps some stitching for texture. Add some throw pillows. Balance it out with bedside tables and consider artwork above, like a dreamy sailboat scene or a soft landscape.

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After you’ve designed a room with focal point in mind, do a quick test. Get someone other than yourself to come in and tell you the first thing they notice in the room. If it’s not what you chose as the focal point, you might need to emphasize it more (or just switch over to what your tester noticed). Anytime you decide to do a redesign or renovation, keep your eye on the part that’s going to tie the room together.

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Cate Morgan-Harlow

Cate Morgan-Harlow is an all arounder, writing about how-to, DIY, and design with gusto. She is a shadowy figure with a mysterious past.