Formal Style Decorating for an Elegant Home

Chandelier in luxury living room

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If you love the look of elegant hotels or properly decorated public buildings such as the United States' White House, you're probably drawn to a formal style of decorating. Formal-style interiors are similar to traditionally decorated rooms, though they are refined and at the same time a bit more ornamental. Formal rooms, however, differ from casual style spaces, which are simple and restful. While homes today are not usually constructed with elaborate 18-inch deep baseboard moldings, hand-laid herringbone-patterned hardwood floors, or carved plaster ceiling and wall decorations that define formal style decor, these traditional elements can be added to more modern homes.

Defining Formal-Style Decor

Formal-style decor is not relegated solely to the living room. The formal living room gained its reputation from the perception that it's stuffy and unusable. Formal decor, however, can be a classic style that is both beautiful and functional as defined by the details incorporated into the room.

The formal style may look most comfortable in colonial-style, Cape Cod, Victorian, and can look at home in classic (but not necessarily modern) ranch-style houses, as well. Characteristics of formal style include these seven decorating touches, such as:

  • Matching pairs of furniture and accessories
  • Elaborate window coverings
  • Antique furniture or fine reproductions with carved details
  • Original oil paintings in intricate frames
  • Persian and Oriental rugs
  • Crystal and brass chandeliers and light fixtures
  • Decorative trims of silk tassels and fringe

Consider these three elements to achieve formal decor.

Find Your Focal Point

Get started creating a formal-style interior by finding a central focal point that captures your eyes. The focal point might be a beautiful picture window looking out to a perfectly manicured lawn, a fireplace in the center of the longest wall, or an exquisite piece of furniture that stands out in the room. From there, you'll decorate with classic items around your focal point.

If you prefer to first focus on one room, consider starting your formal decor in your dining room, a perfect place to introduce a proper look. Choose from a wide range of elegant and beautiful china, crystal, and silver for a formal look. For example, a simple gold-banded dinner plate set atop sophisticated linens with sparkling silver flatware and beautiful cut crystal stemware creates a befitting dining setting.

The Elegance of Symmetry

One of the most distinguishing features of homes decorated in a formal style is the symmetry of windows, furniture, artwork, and flooring. These elements are most often arranged in exact pairs on a straight axis around the room. For a more modern approach to formal decor, find pieces that are similar in size, density, and style to create a symmetrical space.

Focus on Furniture

Begin by featuring one or two darker-toned wooden formal pieces of furniture in a room. Consider mahogany, walnut, oak, or other imported grains used for their fine grain and elegant look. Formal wooden furniture pieces are typically polished to a high shine, or several layers of lacquer or polyurethane are used to create a durable finish.

Arrange the furniture for a formal look by deciding where to put pairs of chairs, tables, and lamps. A formal look is achieved by arranging furniture on either side of the sofa, picture window, armoire, or a dominant work of art. Soften tightly upholstered furniture pieces with decorative, comfortable pillows.

Consider the Details

You can still have a formal interior that's functional and comfortable. Just focus more on the details to give the perception that your room leans more towards the formal style.

Introduce Mirrors

Many formal interiors have carved mirrors hanging in matched pairs. They define a space and enlarge the visual feeling of the room. Instead of gold-leafing, you can always highlight details with shiny gold paint.

Leafing for Elegance

Leafing, however, does offer the most elegant look on furniture and accessories by catching the light in a different way than gold paint would do. Adorn pieces with hand-carved accents with gold- or silver-leafing.

Embellish With Trims

Soft goods such as upholstery, pillows, and window treatments made of sensible fabrics can be adorned with trims. Add tassels on accent pillow corners and drapery swags and fringe the bottoms of upholstered pieces. By simply adding a row of six-inch fringe to the bottom of a plain sofa, you'll create a more formal look.

Functional Classic Fabrics

The fabrics you choose for furniture and window treatments can make or break a formal space. Use silk, velvet, satin, and tapestry styles. However, for functionality, choose durable synthetic and washable upholstery and drapery fabrics that mimic lush-looking textiles.

Dressing Formal Windows

Formally dressed windows usually have layers of draperies that fall to the floor or arranged to puddle on the floor. Draperies in a room are consistent, including contrasting trims and topped by a valance or cornice box of perfect proportions.

Lighting Formal Rooms

Lighting fixtures of crystal or brass are typically topped with delicate silk shades for a unified and formal look. Chandeliers look particularly elegant and they're expected in a formal living room, dining room, bedroom, or even a small powder room.