No Rules in Decorating

No Rules in Decorating

Once I was asked (while I was at the dentist getting my teeth cleaned, mind you) the proper way to hang paintings on a wall. As I struggled to answer, it occurred to me that there is no real rule of thumb to follow for this. Two thirds up the wall from the floor? At eye level? Not too high on the wall, I usually tell my clients, and then they end up asking me to come over and supervise the installation anyway. To hang paintings, it takes an eye. And that is why so many people mess it up.


But there are a few decorating guidelines that can be useful. How high do we hang our chandelier over the dining room table? There’s answer for that one! The bottom of the chandelier should be 36” from the table top. Most of the time. That formula works for 8 to 9 foot ceilings, but there’s a lot of wiggle room if the room has extra high ceilings.


And as for “the rule of three” - that’s one of my favorites. Simply put, the rule means that objects look best when grouped together in a threesome. Try it, you’ll see that it is more pleasing to your eye, and less static. A stack of books, a glass paperweight, a silver vase. Except when a matching pair of objects is all you need!


Here’s another “rule”: dark colors recede and light colors expand. So if you paint a room a dark color it will feel smaller, and conversely, if you paint it a light color it will feel/appear larger. This rule is not only logical, it’s empirically demonstrable. And yet, some designers will swear that they can paint a small room a dark chocolate brown and it will look not only warm, cosy and inviting, but bigger too. Horsefeathers. It might look great, and be just what you want, but bigger-looking, no.


As a designer I do have some tricks. I love to organize bookshelves by arranging books with a mix of china plates, art pottery, small metal sculptures, and antique wood tea caddies for balance and maximum decorative impact. I completely zone out when I’m manipulating everything into my artistic grid. Are there rules for this? Not really, I just watch the vertical and horizontal objects, the mix of materials, the basic geometry of the objects. And I never fill a bookshelf up solely with framed photos. If I have one rule for bookshelves, it’s this: put BOOKS on them!


Framed photos have their place, of course - ideally framed in a similar style when grouped together. One table grouping of photos per room, is a rule I attempt to enforce….. even if I fail miserably to follow it myself. After many years, a few cherished children, more grandchildren, and a lifetime of happy memories, those framed photos may seem to have propagated their own progeny. They start to take over the room - covering every table surface (or crammed into the bookshelves.) Time to cull, dear clients, time to cull. 


Rules of decorating? Tricks of the trade? Some of these maxims are based on trial and error, or years of experience, instinctual response, or just sheer personal preference. But better run that scheme by your decorator first. Or not.