Instead of relying on uninteresting, fully matching furniture sets, follow these simple rules to add character to your space.
House Doctor: How to mix and match styles
In design magazines, the most attention-grabbing interiors are those where the designer has drawn upon many styles, eras and cultures to create a diverse environment.
In reality, many people are intimidated by the notion of mixing and matching, so they take what they perceive to be a safe route and rely on matching furniture suites. They purchase a sofa, chair and love seat that look exactly alike. The side tables match the coffee table and the accent lamps look like they came two to a box. The dining table, chairs and buffet are all the same finish. The end result is always a boring interior that looks like it belongs on the pages of a catalogue.
An alternative to relying on fully matching suites is to focus on the layout and scale of a room. Just follow a few simple rules.
First, decide on a handful of colours and patterns. Select the finish on the largest items of furniture first. In the living room, start with the sofa, whether it's a new purchase or a textile for reupholstering. Then choose additional seating that is both complementary and contrasting. When a furniture grouping includes a sofa and two chairs, the sofa can have a vibrant colour and pattern that is balanced with matching, monochromatic chairs (or vice versa).
Instead of a matching set of tables, find a pair of tables to anchor each side of the sofa, then add a statement table made out of a contrasting material as the centre point of the seating area. If the side tables are metal and glass, perhaps the coffee table can be wood. Statement pieces for coffee tables can also include an ottoman (with a tray to set drinks on) in a stand-alone textile, an antique trunk with a glass top (cut to fit), or a one-of-a-kind item made from reclaimed materials.
A good rule of thumb is to consider single-tone metal finishes, glass, black, white and beige as neutrals that can be easily mixed with many other colours and textures.
Additional small tables should be unique and in a material different from the other tables in the room. A small accent table provides an opportunity to introduce a finish or a pop of colour. A set of lamps on matching side tables is acceptable if the lamps are bold, and as long as they are correctly sized. A common mistake is using decorative lamps that are undersized for the room.
Use a rug under the furniture grouping to accentuate the chosen finishes but select it after the furniture, and scale it to define the seating area.
Now instead of uninteresting suites of furniture, you have created a space with character, interest and a designer's touch.
Robert Reid is a professor of architecture, art and design at the American University of Sharjah.