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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. Marianne@HGTV says:

    "Its matching art takes it from bad, to good, then all the way back to bad…forever." This just cracked me up. You hit some good ones here, I would like to add hanging way-too-small-for-the-wall art at the wrong height as a bad one. Mere mortals can't make that look good, you have to be a design wizard.

  2. Briana@HGTV says:

    No particular decorating peeves to add here, but there are certain things that are apartment rental dealbreakers for me. Like popcorn ceilings or old parquet floors. Not a fan. (Also, thanks for reminding me to buy a potted fiddle leaf fig tree.)

  3. Emily Henderson says:

    'Don't' Faux anything. I started a new client last week who just fauxed every wall in her newly renovated house and when i asked if they could be changed she got upset, but then asked if it was a deal breaker and I said yes.
    (she signed contracts last night and we are repainting that sh*t).

    I don't care if you have a tuscan style house, you do not live in TUSCANY. (unless of course, you do live in Tuscany in which case buongiorno)
    I understand why people do it, i do, but i can't handle it.
    Brian, I totally appreciate this post and the fact that you gave the 'do's' instead. I hate it when people just list pet peeves on blogs, this was way more progressive. I heart you.

    • Liz_HGTV says:

      Yes, a thousand times yes! Though, I will admit my first decorating attempt was to faux a desk in green and white. It was a disaster. I painted it white the same day.

  4. Becky in 'Bama says:

    For those of us born in the 50's and raised in the 60's – we were ALL so proud of our parents' totally matching living room furniture with the coordinating lamps and aspired to have the same in our homes when we grew up. Now I look at my 'bedroom suite' and wonder how I can fix the problem. Of course, in ten years I may regret breaking up the set. It's design dilemma.

  5. Briana@HGTV says:

    (Okay, I lied when I said I didn't have a peeve, because you made me remember faux, and unfauxtunately, I can't fauxgive it either.)

  6. Another Meg says:

    A big "don't" for me is pushing all the seating up against the walls. Especially if that means that the people on one couch are now sitting 10 feel away from the people on the other couch. If you have to shout to have a conversation in your living room, then you aren't living to that room's potential.

  7. CplusE says:

    It's just a little thing, but I don't care for "karate-chopped" pillows. I don't know how this got started, but I wish it would stop.

    I also don't like the idea of using backless benches instead of chairs for the dining room table — it may look attractive, but is so uncomfortable! Although if the purpose is to get guests to leave as soon as possible, it's a brilliant idea!

    My final pet peeve is too many tchotchkes on table surfaces. Collections are fine as long as they are not occupying spaces that are meant for more practical use — I would think a coffee table got its name because it was meant for accommodating coffee cups and the like, not stacks of pictures books and arrangements of figurines.

    Oh, one more thing — wallpaper borders. If you want to use wallpaper, go all the way and do the whole wall instead of hanging a narrow strip at ceiling level!

    Boy, I never knew I was so picky! Okay, I will admit to a couple of floor vases with branches — hey, nobody's perfect!

    • SweetLiz says:

      CplueE, some "branches" have personality, the ones shown were boring. I like them if they have interesting bark or curly branches. You cracked my up with the "karate-chopped" pillows…how do you feel about ones with head indentations?

      • Becky in 'Bama says:

        I agree with the karate-chopped pillows…great way to describe it. AND I am not a fan of 10+ pillows on a sofa, bed, etc… I have been to homes where I could not sit on the sofa and when I did wasn't sure what do with pillows I was forced to hold (to keep them from falling on the floor). Hmmm..: :p

        • CplusE says:

          I used to make the mistake of loading my guest beds with pillows — my poor guests had no idea where to put them all! I have reformed my evil ways and now my guests no longer have to contend with decorative pillows on the bed. :D

      • CplusE says:

        I guess it depends on whose head made the indentations! ;)

    • Sassy says:

      I am SO with you on the benches around a dining room table — if I'm going to have folks over, darn it, I want them relaxed, comfy and hanging out. I discount any designer spread that shows benches like that. I go further though: I don't even like a long bench with a back — being in the middle is like being in the middle seat on the plane — it just makes me want to get up, over and over again.

  8. elizabeth traub says:

    Could you pick a more modern look when matching furniture. That is an easy "don't" The fabric alone is a don't, and the matching only enhances the don't. Can I see more modern and hip furniture that should not be matched.

  9. elizabeth traub says:

    p.s. not a fan of the word "crime" when relating to design. We have enough crime on TV. Why bring it into an industry of creativity and learning?

    • Yeah, Design is very subjective. According this post I'm a design criminal. I stand by my love of branches brought indoors as decor and faux painting techniques can be unbelievably gorgeous and interesting. I've done many with much success. To each, his own.

    • donna says:

      I enjoyed Megs concept, a crime of design does not mean murder in my mind. I was glad to see her win.

  10. MizzyD says:

    That pot plant picture is a DON'T – it is blocking some seriously beautiful windows and light. That space would look much better if you did something to accent the windows instead, and then found a different empty space for the plant.

    Another design crime is CLUTTER. Too much crap, too many tchotchkes. Have things clean and simple. Let the furniture and art, and the space – speak for itself.

    Can't stand wallpaper borders in any shape or form.

    Dark houses. For some reason, particularly in America, there doesn't seem to be much power from standard light fixtures and you need a million lamps etc to have a bright room (if you don't have a lot of natural light). Don't live in dimmness, groping around in the twilight, make sure you have sufficient light. In one place I lived the bedroom was so dark I had to go into a completely different room just to make sure my clothes didn't have any unexpected marks on them.

    • Becky in 'Bama says:

      Unfortunately, my spouse insists on semi-lit rooms. He wants total darkness for sleeping and television viewing if possible. constant argument of shutters open – shutters closed.

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