Formal Style Decorating for an Elegant Home

Chandelier in luxury living room

Caiaimage / Martin Barraud / Getty Images

If you love the look of elegant Ritz-Carlton hotels or public buildings such as the White House, you're probably drawn to the formal style of decorating.

While homes today are not usually constructed with 18" deep baseboard moldings, hand-laid herringbone-patterned hardwood floors, or elaborately carved plaster ceiling and wall decorations, there are elements of the formal style of decorating that can be added to more modern homes.​

Symmetry in Home Design

One of the most distinguishing features of interior spaces and 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.

In a formal style interior, a central focal point draws the eye. It might be a beautiful picture window looking out to a perfectly manicured lawn. The focal point might be a fireplace in the center of the longest wall. Or the focal point might be an exquisite piece of furniture.

Architectural Features

A formal style of decorating fits best in a home with high ceilings, large and tall windows, and architectural features such as a large fireplace mantle or beautifully paneled walls.

Since formal style interiors are decorated to attract attention, highly polished woods, glistening mirrors, luxurious fabrics, and sparkling crystal chandeliers are the norm. Also important are a highly polished brass window and door hardware, and unique and interesting pieces of furniture.

Furniture and accessories in formal interiors are often antique or fine reproductions. Woods used are generally dark and rich looking, but lighter woods are often used for decoration. Imported Oriental rugs cover polished hardwood floors. The original artwork is often elaborately framed in hand-carved gilt frames. Crystal light fixtures sparkle on the walls and hang from the center of the ceiling.

The details of formal style decorating are:

  • Pairs of furniture and accessories
  • Shiny wood, fabric, and metals
  • Tall windows with elaborate coverings
  • Antique furniture and accessories
  • Original oil paintings and lithographs
  • Persian carpets and Oriental Rugs
  • Chandeliers and light fixtures of crystal or brass
  • Decorative trims of tassels and fringe
  • Carved details on wood furniture

Of course, just because you love the look of a formal interior doesn't mean that it will suit your home or lifestyle. 

Create a Formal Home for Today's Living

  • Soften tightly upholstered furniture pieces with decorative, comfortable pillows.
  • Choose lush-looking durable fabrics in place of silks and velvets.
  • Feature one or two uncomfortable formal pieces, but place more practical pieces of furniture around the room for everyday use.
  • Incorporate formal trim and fringe on sensible upholstered furniture, comfortable pillows, draperies, and valances.
  • Add ruffles and tassels on accessories such as tablecloths and table runners, but make them out of easily-cleaned fabrics.
  • Instead of searching for perfectly matched pieces to create a perfectly symmetrical room, find pieces that are similar in size, density, and style.
  • Or arrange the furniture for a formal look by having pairs of chairs, pairs of tables, and pairs of lamps. Arrange them on either side of a sofa, picture window, armoire, or dominant work of art.
  • Decorative painting techniques can imitate the look of upholstered silk walls and are much more practical.
  • Wooden furniture (case goods) is usually of a dark tone. Mahogany, walnut, and oak, as well as exotic hardwoods, are used for their fine grain and elegant look. Wooden furniture pieces are polished to a high shine. For an active home, use several layers of lacquer or polyurethane to create a durable finish.
  • Wooden inlay and marquetry, gold-leafed ornamentation, and polished brass hardware are hallmarks of formal pieces. Achieve the look of hand-carving by applying die-cut decorative pieces on furniture. Period or reproduction pieces might have leather trim or a marble top.

Don't Forget the Accessories and Special Touches

  • Many formal interiors have carved mirrors hanging in matched pairs. They help to define a space and enlarge the visual feeling of the space. Instead of gold-leafing, highlight details with shiny gold paint.
  • Furniture and accessories should look as though they're adorned with hand-carved accents and gold- or silver-leafing.
  • Soft goods such as upholstery, pillows, and window treatments made of sensible fabrics can be adorned with trims. Tassels accent pillow corners and drapery swags, fringe is often used on the bottoms of upholstered pieces, and many patterned fabrics of different textures and weaves are used together. By simply adding a row of six-inch fringe to the bottom of a plain colored sofa, you'll have a more formal look.
  • In place of silk, velvet, or satin, choose synthetic, washable fabrics for window treatments. Formally dressed windows usually have draperies to the floor with contrasting trim topped by a valance or cornice box of perfect proportions.
  • Lighting fixtures of crystal or brass with delicate silk shades create a formal look. An inexpensive chandelier can be spray-painted to get the metallic look that's desired. Chandeliers look elegant and formal in a large living room, formal dining room, bedroom, or small powder room.
  • Decorative accessories are used to add a formal look to a room. Choose shiny metals, plates, and vases of china or porcelain, or leather-bound books. Pairs of accessories carry through the symmetry of the decor.
  • Real or artificial plants and flowers, placed in interesting and elegant containers, add texture and color to a formal interior.
  • A dining room is a perfect place to introduce a formal look. Choose from a wide range of elegant and beautiful china, crystal, and silver. A simple gold-banded dinner plate set atop elegant linens with sparkling silver flatware and beautiful cut crystal stemware creates a perfect formal setting for dining.

If you like the precise, ordered formal style, find ways to incorporate some of it into your home. However, if you're less fond of the formal look, you may prefer a casual style.