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When we were talking about creating vignettes for larger rooms, “themes” came up.

“Theme,” used in art, writing, and other areas, is generally defined as a “unifying subject or idea.”

“Theme rooms” get a bad rap because too many people abuse them.

You know how the standard “seaside theme” looks, right? Walking in, it’s like being slapped upside the head. Oh, look… How nautical: Rope ceiling trim, a porthole, and lots of blue and white. It’s like being visually assaulted by the Love Boat’s set decorator.

That’s not a “theme,” that’s a cry for help.

When using themes in a room, subtlety helps. A room doesn’t have the be a “theme room” in order to unify that area of your home. Themes are where the vignette approach comes in handy, because elements that work together are used in a smaller context. Instead of artifacts distributed throughout a room, put a few select items in an area. And how do you group things together? It’s less complicated than it sounds.

Here are some approaches.

Home décor themes by color

Photo:Wonderlane

Pretty easy. Do they all have some color or tone in common? Great. That works. If you have muted wall tones, using color groupings (variations of red here, tones of blue there) amongst art and knickknacks can visually define areas as one moves through a room or home.

Interior design themes by era

Photo: michal_hadassah

Items from specific decades or political times work together. Maybe it’s propaganda posters from World War II with toy fighter planes, or various pieces from pioneer days paired with folk art found in yard sales, or simply some 1980s collectibles, but having such items grouped together packs more design oomph than scattering them across the home.

I only have two mid-century “pop” pieces — a retro ‘40s tin advertising sign with a superhero rabbit for “Up’n’Atom California Carrots” and a ‘40s Pepsi-Cola wall-mounted bottle opener — but grouping them over a vivid retro lime wall paint makes my 1950s kitchen feel like it’s an old-style diner, exactly what I’m going for.

Themes by material

Travertine surfaces are a unifying element here, with the theme centering around the look and feel of natural stone.

A modern metal picture frame, an 1930s-style English stained-glass lamp, & a Chinese cast-iron money dish with an “ancient coin” a top sitting on one table — an unlikely themed trio? Not in my home. With a cold dark metal focal point bridging the looks, this is a dramatic arrangement in my living room. Being different designs and styles has a big impact when against a dramatic red wall, where the “heavy metal” look on each stands out.

Similarly, several stone pieces, or brass, or wood, can all be displayed in one area, with the variations of styles and design creating a strong but united visual statement.

Biographical interior design themes

Photo: Gamma-Ray Productions

We like to remember places, people, and times in our lives. What better way to do so than in tribute at home? I love and miss my mother, but my home can’t be a shrine to her, so I keep everything Mom to my “library” area.

On one shelf is a funky lighthouse-themed frame for a sailing photo of Mom, a brass sailboat she was gifted when she earned her skipper’s license, more brass mementos collected on travels, and her reading glasses. That says “Mom” to me, but it doesn’t own my space. It’s a perfect little shrine — emphasis on “little.”

You too can combine several elements and photos that reflect yourself, people you love, or a time of your life, like college, and create a compact space that not only adds flavor to your home but is a more meaningful reflection of people or times you enjoy thinking about, without having it spread across the your space.

Geographical and cultural themes

If you’ve enjoyed traveling, you don’t need a “beach hut” or “safari” theme to show that. Combine modern or antique furniture with all kinds of world cultural knickknacks that can be blended by using wall colors based on thematic textiles, figurines, carvings, or other cultural objects. Items from similar native cultures or ethnic regions all grouped around a chair and table in the corner can pack a powerful but controlled decor punch.

Classic room design styles

Classic rustic look for that easy-going atmosphere. Photo: dithie

Don’t forget all the classics like art deco, country-chic, rustic, modern, craftsman, Victorian. If you want a specific style, flip through magazines or design sites that you know have a handle on what you like.

But, wait, there’s more!

Themes don’t end there. Using similar shapes, textures, lines, patterns, humour, nostalgia, and other approaches can all help you group things in ways that work for your tastes.

Knickknacks should make you smile or feel good. Only display items you genuinely like, not the elephant Aunt Barb bought you at the San Diego Zoo. If you don’t have a strong positive reaction when you consider an item for showing, maybe you shouldn’t put it out.

Less is more, so avoid clutter by choosing well.

Pick strong examples of your favorite belongings, and don’t be afraid to more loosely define any of the above categories. Despite what reality TV might suggest, the odds of the Decorating Police arresting you for breaking obscure home decor rules are actually pretty low. Live a little.

Try different arrangements with your belongings. Context often changes how things look, and you’ll be surprised how many more possibilities surround you than you think.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.