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When I was living in New York while working on Design Star, I remember season six winner Meg Caswell discussing her idea of a series all about design crimes. Up until that point, I’d never used that term. Well, I kinda love it. In fact, I would probably steal it and pass it off as my own term if Meg hadn’t created it in front of millions of people on national TV. (Her new show is called HGTV’s Great Rooms; I like that, too.) The term is rather silly if you think about it; how criminal can decorating get? Well, perhaps if you rob a bank and then use the loot to buy custom window treatments. But for the most part, the term “crime” seems rather severe when applied to an industry heavily focused on fabrics and chandeliers.

After stepping off a plane to Atlanta from Fort Lauderdale where I’d spent a week troubleshooting some kidspace and kitchen renovations, I started to make a list of decorating dos and don’ts. While I’m not the end all/be all expert when it comes to decorating, I have for the most part pretty much seen it all, the good and the bad. Sometimes, there are happy accidents, such as running out of vases, then using a soup can to hold flowers, which surprisingly turns out to be kind of adorable. On the other hand, there are wimpy, completely uncreative acts like throwing sticks into a vase, shoving them into a corner and calling that “decorating”.

From smooshing sofas into walls to turning master bedrooms into showrooms for matching sets, here are a few design don’ts to keep in mind before tackling your next project. And if the term “design crimes” will persuade you not to do them, let’s go ahead and steal Meg’s catch phrase for the sake of saving a room from possible incarceration. PS – Can you imagine getting twenty-five years to life for blocking a window with a bookshelf or using floral chintz in a bachelor’s master bedroom? Hmmm, maybe there should be decorating jail after all.

Stick In A VaseDON’T #1: Shove sticks into a vase and use them as centerpieces. This was invented somewhere, probably in hell, and it doesn’t make any sense or even remotely add anything to a room. Well, except for some sticks. And a vase.

PlantDO: Use potted fiddle leaf fig trees indoors. As seen in this photo from The Marion House Book, they’re architectural, hardy, fill negative space beautifully and are an excellent choice for bachelor pads since they borderline on masculine.

Floating RugDON’T #2: Throw an area rug into a living room just for the sake of throwing an area rug into a living room. In order for an area rug to do its job—to ground and/or delineate space—it needs to not look like it accidentally fell from a magic area rug stork.

RugDO: Choose an area rug large enough to encompass all seating in a living room. Ideally, select one that is large enough to tuck either halfway or all the way under the sofa and any other chairs or settees in the space. In this Charleston home featured in Veranda, designer Deborah Lipner used this technique to help create the feeling of a room within a room, similar to the way putting disparate objects on a tray makes them look like a uniform grouping.

Sofa and ArtDON’T #3: It’s probably wise not to ever buy a matching living room set. Or a bedroom set. Or even an office set. Actually, 99.9% of the time sets suck. Vintage ones are okay. Unfortunately, the set in this photo is very, very bad. Its matching art takes it from bad, to good, then all the way back to bad…forever. But seriously, art should never match furniture. And an entire room of furniture that 100% matches (as in a set) is just plain wrong.

Sofa and ArtDO: Pull some colors from a good piece of art, and use them as accents throughout the room; they can even be close to the colors in the art, not exact. This cottage living room from House Beautiful is a great example. In this space designed by Leslie Klotz, the blues and yellows in the painting make their way around the room in different intensities. The Steven Gambrel-designed chairs have stripes in blue and yellow tones that complement those in the art. The table lamps bring out the more vibrant blues in the art a little bit more. But none of these tones “match” the art, per se. Just in the same ballpark.

Something one of my favorite designers taught me is that the key to a great room is to always have things slightly off, like different shades of a common color instead of the same exact color everywhere. I kinda love that tip.

Okay, those are three crimes and three legally decorative alternatives. Anyone else got any major decorating pet peeves that they see too often?

Report them in the comments below.

42 Responses

  1. judyminviv says:

    I hate to see anyone set up a space with a little formal "settee" that no one will ever, in this lifetime, sit on. My sister-in-law once had a white one with the coffee table and some little end tables and the perfectly placed little accessories, CUTE, but what a waste of space. You knew in your heart that no one had ever sat on it, nor would they ever want to do so.

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  4. hi there says:

    First of all, great article. Though I wonder–does a plain matching living room set count as a "don't"? I recently bought a living room set that is made of dark brown fabric (sofa and love seat) and glass tables with a dirty gold-ish metal base. The thing is, I thought it came together because the patterned cushions and rug and a couple paintings I made added some color while still ensuring that nothing looked out of place. Also, the sofa and love seat are textured, so it's not purely brown. I don't know. I guess in the end my question is this: Is there a way for a matching living room set to look good?

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  6. Excellent article. I’m experiencing some of these issues as well..

  7. Excellent article. I’m experiencing some of these issues as well..

  8. I have generally essentially seen it all, the great and the awful. Once in a while, there are cheerful mischances, for example, coming up short on vases, then utilizing a soup can to hold blossoms, which shockingly ends up being slightly delightful.

  9. Becky in 'Bama says:

    concerning popcorn ceilings: unfortunately there are areas of the US where this is the finish of choice for a home – mainly due to shifting ground (as in Texas). The popcorn effect is highly conducive to hiding cracks in plaster that comes from a house settling and shifting as the earth dries out, cracks and moves. Sometimes it's just a necessity.

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