Decorating Rules and When to Break Them

Some Rules Were Made to be Broken!

Man walking in modern living room
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Love them or hate them, decorating rules play an important part in how we adorn our homes. They help guide us into making decisions that make our homes comfortable, calming, and lovely to live in.

Some people claim to hate decorating rules, but the truth is that they exist for a very important reason. Not to tell us what we should like or how our homes should look, but to guide us into making choices that are pleasing to the eye. Decorating rules such as where to hang window treatments, or how to arrange furniture can help navigate what can sometimes be a complicated process. They don't exist to dictate our choices, but rather to help make the items we choose look their best.

That said, the saying "rules were made to be broken" applies to decorating rules as much as anything else. While the rules exist for a reason, there's often an equally good reason for breaking them.


The Rule: Sofas Should Always Be Neutral

Purchasing a sofa in a neutral color is a wise idea. The sofa is one of the biggest and most expensive pieces in your home and it has a huge visual impact on the room it's living in. So it just makes sense to stick with something neutral and then accessorize it with colorful pillows and throws. That way if you change your decorating scheme in a few years you won't need to recover your sofa. You can just change the accessories.

When to Break It: When you want to make a statement. Playing it safe is always a smart idea, but it's not always a fun idea! A bright sofa in a strong color or pattern can add life and excitement in a way that few other things can. So if you find the perfect sofa in a color you've always loved don't be afraid to take the risk. As long as you're not buying something just because it's trendy and you're sticking with something you truly love you likely won't regret it. 


The Rule: Ceilings and Trim Should Always Be White

Conventional decorating wisdom says that ceilings, trim and doors should always be white. More often than not this is correct. White provides a nice, clean frame for your rooms, and usually it helps to make ceilings look higher. White always looks good, and no matter what the room, you know it's a safe option.

When to Break It: When you want to set your house apart from the crowd. White has always been the default color for ceiling, trim and doors, and people usually do it without question. Painting them a different color, such as gloss black for trim and doors, or a geometric pattern for the ceiling can give your home a certain je ne sais quoi that the neighbours definitely won't have. It's not for everyone, but it can definitely make a statement.


The Rule: You Must Have a Sofa in the Living Room

When was the last time you saw a living room that didn't have a sofa? Unless you work in the design industry day in and day out, it's probably been a while. That's because over the years sofas have become the heart of the living room. It's often the first piece people buy and then they decorate around it. Sofas are great because you get flexible seating for a few people at a time, and they set the foundation for the entire room.

When to Break It: When you don't have enough room. Some rooms simply can't accommodate a sofa, whether it's because the room is too small or because it has an awkward layout. If this is the case in your home don't fret. It's much better to use furniture arrangements consisting of just chairs, chaises and ottomans rather than trying to cram in a sofa that won't fit properly. As long as you have enough seating to accommodate everyone, it won't matter that there's no sofa.


The Rule: All the Furniture Pieces Should Compliment Each Other

Most designers agree that furniture doesn't have to match, but it does have to go, meaning all the items in a room should compliment each other. This is a pretty good rule to live by. Matchy matchy sets lack imagination and cause rooms to fall flat, but complimentary pieces keep things interesting and allow you to be more creative - creating a space that speaks to your specific personality and tastes.

When to Break It: When there's a standout piece you absolutely love, even though it doesn't quite work. Sure, overall the items should compliment each other, but that doesn't mean you should say no to a wild piece you've fallen in love with. It could be a completely different style, shape, or color, but as long as you truly love it, it will find its place in the space. Every room needs a conversation piece so don't be afraid to include a piece that stands out and doesn't quite fit in. 


The Rule: Art Should Never Be Wider Than the Sofa 

In most cases this is a good rule to keep. One of the keys to good design is ensuring the sizes of things work in relation to each other. When it comes to the art above a sofa it should generally be about 1/2 - 2/3 the width of the sofa to make it pleasing to the eye. Also, the space between the art and the top of the sofa should be approximately 6"-8". If it's much bigger than that the eye will be drawn to the empty space rather than the art.

When to Break It: When you want to create an impact by going bigger - such as when you're hanging something that is intentionally overscale, or when you're hanging a gallery wall. Going big with your artwork is very on trend and the space above the sofa is a great place to try it. In these cases you can feel free to extend far beyond the sofa and go as high as you like (remember when hanging a gallery wall that you need to think of the entire collection as a single piece). So basically, if you're going to break the art over the sofa rule, it's always better to go bigger rather than smaller.


The Rule: Every Room Needs Overhead Lighting

Somewhere along the line people got the idea that this is a firm decorating rule. Since all rooms need general, task and accent lighting, it became understood that overhead lighting should be a given, be it through recessed lighting, track lighting, or simply an overhead fixture. It's where most people start with their lighting plan, and in a lot of cases it just makes sense. Pot lights in particular provide a nice consistency throughout the room. And of course chandeliers and pendants are great decorative features that are often favored in certain rooms. 

When to Break It: Any time you want, as long as you have a good mix of table lamps, floor lamps and sconces. Lighting can be versatile and flexible, and you don't have to have it overhead. It just has to be plentiful enough to provide the right amount of light for the space, and it needs to be dispersed evenly throughout the room. So if your room cannot accommodate overhead lighting, or you simply don't want it, don't worry. The most important thing to remember is that variety is key. No matter what your style, vary the size, placement and intensity in order to get the right amount of light. 


When it comes to decorating rules and figuring out when to break them you should always go with your gut. Trust your instincts and your personal style and choose what works for you.