Making Patterns Work For You

Whether it’s time to redecorate or just spruce up a room, questions about the use of pattern are likely to arise. How should it be used? Where? How many patterns, and how much of each will work? Overdone, pattern creates an overly busy room where it’s impossible to rest. Incongruent patterns set up their own tension. Leafing through design magazines, it’s easy to see that pattern contributes to style, but how do designers do it so well?

“I use pattern a lot,” says Carol Sharp, owner of Medford Interiors. “There are patterns in every room and multiple patterns are used a lot. Some are pretty subtle, almost more like texture.”

Too Much of a Good Thing?

What if the pattern looked great in the sample, but not on the sofa? Or that pattern you loved five years ago has lost its panache. Yes, there are solutions to pattern problems.

It may be counter-intuitive, but you can tone down the effect of pattern by surrounding it with items that echo the colors in it. Then “the pattern doesn’t stand out so much,” says Carol Sharp, owner of Medford Interiors.

To calm a pattern, repeat its colors in at least two other places in the room, says Hazel Barry, owner of Medford’s Veranda. “Then the eye bounces around the room rather than focusing on the patterned object.”

The first rule in combining pattern is to use color correctly. “It seems like common sense, but the colors need to work together,” says Sharp. “I’ve seen some pretty awful combinations.”

When starting from scratch, the color rule is very helpful. “Use the dominant pattern to choose colors for all the elements in the room,” she says. For instance, when using a traditional floral fabric for a sofa, pick up its colors to use for other fabric or painted elements. Anytime you repeat a color elsewhere, it will emphasize that color within the pattern.

One of the most important aspects in combining different patterns is proper use of contrast. You can use the nature of the pattern itself, or its size. Or, if one pattern is floral, you can use something from the geometric field: stripes, plaid or checks, says Sharp. “If you want to use a second floral, then it needs to be much different in size from the other, so a tiny floral next to a large one will work,” she says.

“You can mix patterns nicely,” says Hazel Barry, owner of Medford’s Veranda. “If one pattern is busy, the other one should have a subtle nature that will complement or calm.”

“Too much pattern is busy and creates confusion,” she says. A solitary color can bring out the pattern, the way solid colored dinnerware works on a patterned tablecloth, or a solid throw or pillow is used on a patterned sofa.

If you are using one large pattern, no matter where it is used, all other patterns should be secondary, says Sharp. “To be secondary, they need to be smaller or used in smaller amounts.”

Another rule of thumb is to remain within the same decorating style or mood. Consider your existing furnishings, the mood you want to create and the style you wish to establish and keep all patterns within that framework. In modern and traditionally styled homes, a romantic bedroom or get-down-to-business office would use very different patterns, each designed to evoke a very different mood.

Even a large room can be overwhelmed by more than three patterns, especially if you have artwork that calls for attention. The same can be said about large-scale patterns. These attention-getters need to be loved or used in a large space. In small rooms, medium and small-scale patterns are safer and easier to work with.

Color, size, style and number: these principles will get you off to a good start in choosing and combining patterns. The next thing you know, your home will be the one in a design magazine.


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