Elizabeth Baxter 

Interior Design Tips and Principles
Elizabeth Baxter 
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Principles #1: Proportions:

The Greeks discovered something about the difference between a ho-hum room and a
beautiful one that isn't immediately noticeable until you have the secret. They called it "The Golden Mean"....and it is like a small recipe.  It says that you should think in percentages for color, mass, and even texture.  You should have about 70% of any one thing; 25% of a related thing, and just 5% of a contrasting thing.  So, if we take color or pattern as an example:  If you paper the walls of a room (large percentage), then you can put a related stripe on a bedspread (the 25% item) and then, throw a contrasting color onto a pillow or two (the 5% thing).

It works also with texture: if you have decided to put wood grain on the walls and the floor (75% or more of a texture that's a very strong and dominant one) then put about 20% into a similarly strong texture (oriental rug, rag rug) and then stop with the dominant, strong-speaking textures.  Put the upholstery fabrics into smooth.  This principle is why English libraries look so grand; they put a lot of chintz with all that wood.  By the way, if you have bookcases, the books add immense amounts of texture and line into a room.  So, you need to consider calming down on adding more texture to avoid that busy, cluttered look.

This same principle goes for color, for amounts of furniture of the same bulk.. you get the picture. You'll also be able to trust your own instincts if you now look at pictures in House Beautiful versus any other house magazine; they have this principle down; they create brilliant rooms!

Principle #2:  Color

Color is and should be fun, but it has a lot of unexplained rules about how to use it that if not articulated, are hard to capture intuitively.  It overlaps with the Golden Mean principle; you need to think about it in percentages. A lot of one color, some of a second, related color and a bit, a splash of a contrasting color for interest.  So, for instance, if you are doing a room in which you want to use green, let's say, use 70% green (dark for this example), 24% lighter green from the same color way as the dark green, and then, perhaps a blue, cream, or even raspberry for contrast.  This color-thinking applies to every place in the room you plan to use color; walls, floors, furniture.  So, you could have dark green on the floor (rugs, tiles, painted floor as they do in the Caribbean), on the walls, and then use lighter green for the upholstering or cushions, and then toss your contrasting color on a few sofa cushions, or in a lampshade, or in the pictures on the walls.  The curtains could be the lighter green too.

Now, you could also use color as follows:  The walls painted cream so that the shell of the room is used as museums do, to show off everything else. Museums tend to use neutrals to allow the paintings to pop off the walls at you. Grey's, mushrooms, creams, beige's, camels...those kinds of colors.  If you do this, you don't count the walls as part of the color selections.  Then you can put a lot of your chosen main color on curtains, floors, fabrics, counters; wherever your room wants color.

Color and Wall Paper

Thanks for the specific question about the wallpaper; that was going to be my next idea for a 'tip' anyway!  Wallpaper is fun and yet very limiting.  It is best to use the wallpaper as the central item from which all other decisions for the room's colors and patterns is derived.  I have a fabulous English hand painted paper in my bedroom now and it influences every other choice I make.  If it weren't so gorgeous and beautifully made, I would change back to neutral walls, just to get back the variety of choice I used to have!

Any way, look at the paper you have in mind.  Notice the percentages of colors in it; which color is the most predominant?  If it's flowers, it usually is the greens used in the stems and leaves.  If it's another 'color-way', then maybe the stems and leaves are mostly blues.  Then, step back from the paper and which color springs out at you the most? That's the color to use elsewhere in the room
for accents at least.  Now, the background color in a wallpaper is your 70% color, and is usually the best color to repeat in the trims, the baseboards and anything that directly touches on it.  It also is a place to break that rule a bit too, if you want; for instance, if the pop-out color is cranberry let's say, you could do all the trim in that color.  Then, you have to stop using the dramatic color anywhere else, because you have come to the edge of what will look dramatic and very tasteful, and when it will begin to look like a kindergarten room.  The rest of the the color in our 'cranberry' room needs to calm down to neutrals that also come from the paper.

Breaking the Rules: White on White

Just couldn't resist responding to your idea about a white-on-white room!  You have picked one of the loveliest looks; a breaking-the-rule look!   You'll be considering almost 100% one color, for one thing; wouldn't the Greeks, with their Golden Mean, be freaking!

You really don't have to worry about getting the wrong shades of whites, creams, beige's, and so forth.  If you just keep all of them closer to the white, light look, it won't look messy or cluttered.  Use the whitest ones you pick as the comparison standard; then you can reject any others you might try by putting them next to the white one....based on whether or not being next to the whitest
makes the others look dirty or tired.  See, many fabrics and colors look marvelous on their own, but when put in close proximity to others don't really work.  This is particularly true of whites and yellows.

You'll be able to use the Golden Mean principle here by changing it to textures, since you aren't using that principle in the area of color.  I mean, you can go wild with textures in the whites without creating a too-busy look. Laces, Battenberg, Swiss polka-dot white on whites, white on white stripes; you can have a ball without putting a single foot wrong.  It will be spectacular.  The drama created by knowing where to break a rule is always refreshing!

The textures also are demonstrated in the draping of everything; if everything is smoothed down, you lose some of the interest.  If you recall those pictures you mentioned, there is an immense amount of fabric used in order to create dimension through draping.   Lots of folds, lots of hanging ripples from layering; lots of pillows with rich and diverse fabrics and trims to create more dimension....that'll do it.

You might want to consider putting whites almost everywhere; floor coverings, paint or fabric-covered walls, as well as the curtains, bed coverings, canopies if any; pillows, upholstery.....and then, throw one surprise in a pillow, or a drapery ribbon trim; cherry red, pale lavender....any introduction of an unexpected color in a tiny proportion just caps off the delight.

The Eye and Architectural Features

In studies of how the eye works in aesthetics, it helps explain why some rooms work and satisfy the eye and others are exhausting to the eye, and feel too cluttered.

It turns out, our eyes like two things; to roam and flit from thing to thing, and they also like to come to a rest before moving on.  So, that explains why the best rooms have one prominent architectural feature.  Examples; fireplaces, large, sculptured fancy-trim windows, an important painting, rafters, or in furniture; an armoire, ...you get the idea.  That's where the eye rests.  If a room has too many of those stand-out architectural features, the eye can't rest; it is pulled repeatedly from feature to feature to feature; flitting, flitting and thus, the room is experienced as cluttered.  

The Victorian period broke this rule all the time; filling rooms with hundreds of eye-catching features; millions of drapings on the windows; lamps with beads and curlicues, fireplaces, fireplace screens, Orientals upon Orientals on the floors, heavily carved and massive furniture and hundreds of gewgaws on every layered surface.   Now, they went 70% or more in the other direction toward movement and and dimension and texture and pattern.  The best ones looked great, but  made everyone itchy to try and live in.....because of the eye's need to rest.

Take a look at the Thorne rooms; a lot of why they work, is she knew when to stop.   She left a lot of space between beautiful objects so that the eye could roam with room to digest each part before another hove into view.

So, if you look at a room you are working on, start with the architectural feature and build from there.  For instance, if you have a fireplace, you don't need also to have lots of trim; chair rail, superimposed framing, cupboards, bookcases, heavily framed windows with mullions, chandeliers with medallions....stop, already!

A good guiding principle, particularly the scale we're working in, is Less Is More.  It kills me to have to stop putting beautiful stuff in anything I'm working on; I assume you are like me; I have to tie myself down to keep from creating overkill!

This eye thing applies to numbers of patterns in one room; amount of furniture in one room....allow your eye to tell you what feels right.  It will tell you and so will looking at pictures in the great design magazines; House Beautiful, Art and Architecture.  And, as you get better at trusting yourself, you will be able to pick up other magazines, as you wait in line at the grocery store; Woman's Day, House and Garden, you know the kind of thing, and you will start to see why many of their rooms don't work!

Mass and Space

Mass and space, mass and space.  One of the best ways to have a marvelous room, is to step back and look at the overall effect and correct the ratio between amounts of mass and amounts of space if needed.  What on earth does she mean, you are saying........??

 Mass refers to how much bulk or how little, you have put into your room. Space, of course, is the unused areas in between the 3-D masses (furniture, draperies). If you have a lot a large-mass pieces in one room, you can overwhelm any effect you are after, and you end up looking like a rather crowded furniture store. My real estate agent retaught this to me, when I was considering selling my house (I get these restless periods after all the moving I've done over the years; 43 moves since I was 15!) and she told me to store over half of my pieces of furniture in the living room alone.  I had forgotten that rule; that space makes rooms look larger and more gracious.  When she 'cleansed my aesthetic eye', I could see, that while my room had a ton of beautiful things in it, it also had achieved that furniture-store look. So, in a mini-house or roombox, it is too easy to get that cluttered look, because the smaller the scale, the faster the overloaded look will occur. You have to be ruthless with yourself, or you have to cheat a little with the scale to get the right effect with mass.  Ways to do this?

1.  Use less furniture than you wish.  A living room?  One couch, two chairs, two tables, two lamps.  Not a rule, of course, just an example to give you the idea. You are trying to create at least as much space between clumps of furniture as there is furniture-mass.  The best rooms in miniature, have much more space to look at than they have objects.  The Thorne Rooms again, are the best common example I can think of.  She cheated with scale all the time to showcase her beautiful things.   The rooms were larger in order for the furniture not to overwhelm the eye.

2.  Use less pattern.  If you have wallpaper with a strong pattern, it acts almost like mass; it has a slight three-dimensional look, and so it falls into the 'mass' percentages.  So, use it only on one or a few walls (it then can be used as a focal point, like a fireplace), or only down to a chair rail, to lower the amount that  your eye has to deal with.

3.  Leave space between a sofa and the wall.  Furniture that is positioned so that it appears to float, makes the space look larger on the whole, even though you have less space in the middle of the room.  Try it out; see what you think. When all the furniture is jammed up against the walls the way we all instinctively do at first, your room becomes heavy and unmoving.  You see, the walls are also an influence on the final effect.  If you have put the heaviest pieces all on the walls, your room becomes smaller, rather than larger the way we hope it to look. So, put an armoire against the wall, obviously (it too, becomes a major focal point, so if you have a fireplace and an armoire, you are already starting to go over the top as far as amounts of prominent mass is concerned)..... but put the sofa angled away from a wall, or with its back to the armoire.  Play around with floating furniture this way, until you get a spacious effect; with space flowing around most pieces.  Then, your smaller pieces can be put in, placing them in proximity to the larger ones you've already placed.   Two wonderful chairs on either side of the armoire; a chair, side table and lamp catty-corner to the sofa.  The Oriental partly under the sofa and chair....so that you have created two large-mass clumps, instead of trying to fill every wall and every corner.

Just know that everything you put in has a visual impact, and you are asking the eye to absorb each and every one of your items.  I mean, you have already put in so much work on each, most of us are trying to showcase each precious item!

Make your room larger than you would; cheating with the scale, is the ticket here......usually, the best way to get more of a sense of well-used space, is to raise the ceilings.  Then, for some reason, the items on the floors don't look so bulky anymore.

Remember, as much as I hate this rule, it is true for the finest finished looks; Less Is More. I break it all the time, cuz I do love the gorgeous things that we humans have created, and I am always sorry!

Kitchens, Breaking the Rules

One of the true exceptions to the rule; mini-kitchens.  Kitchens, where a lot of work goes on; stores, where lots of imagined traffic occurs and things are bought, are two of the places where the 'clutter' I talked about so cavalierly, is not only acceptable, but preferable, to show us, the observers, that life is going on.   With minis, the observer is supposed to be drawn in to something that feels like a tiny life really lives there and does things!

Kitchens are usually active, and if they are too neat, it is only for a picture in a magazine, right?  I mean, my kitchen looks good if there are only 100 things out on the counters!  If the kitchen police were to enter my house on a usual day and take one look at my trashed-out kitchen full of the stuff   that people have to use, they would usually take me away!  Kitchens are meant to feel lively and used, so the look will always be a bit more filled with wonderful things to look at!

If the goodies of a kitchen that you want to show, could be artfully arranged on a center worktable and a few of the counters with a bit of clean space, you are fine and dandy.  See, in a kitchen, you can go the exact opposite direction from lots of empty space and few items, and not be creating an uncomfortable site.  As you said, your eye is telling you that it's pleasing; go with your instincts.

I would even leave cupboard doors open to show cool items inside the cupboard. Knowing me, I would probably even have some dishes still in the sink!  The ones that take the lively, active look too far, also have too much for the eye to have to deal with besides cool items like food, dishes, dishrags, pots and pans.....if there are also, curtains with many folds and patterns, wallpaper of a strong pattern, cupboards with trim, strong paint colors, rugs, cushions for the chairs.....then you may want to consider how little rest-space for the old eyes you need to clear.

Thanks for pointing out an exception to the rule; that's the fun part; how do you learn when to break the rules and get away with a great and original look?


  Line is another of the great illusion-creators.  The use of line is well-known in clothes; fat people in horizontal lines look much worse. So, in a room, you decide what final look you want.  If you want a room to look grand, use lots of parallel lines that are vertical.  We have always equated
grandness with a sort of  soaring, lifting feeling, which strong vertical lines produces. That was the purpose of the tremendous ceiling heights and all the verticals of the columns leading your eye upwards in the ancient European churches. Again, the Thorne Rooms come to mind as a great  teaching example for this principle; look how often those copies of European aristocracy rooms had verticals;  the plaster work on the walls, making frames with very long vertical sides; the drapery lines from floor to ceiling.

An example I learned from my genius mother; she always hung draperies from floor to ceiling whether the windows were that high or not.  She was right; the effect was of higher more grand ceilings. In mini-rooms, anything you can do to make the room seem larger is a good thing to know.  I agree with the guy who was describing how kits are cut; that the rooms are often not to scale so that the manufacturer can get more out of their boards.  So, then we need to have every secret trick at our disposal, to get more visual space from our efforts, cuz even the rooms themselves might be too cramped due to this money-saving on the part of the manufacturers.

Since you are trying to create not just a museum room, but a room with life in it, you need to use every illusion of space you can, so that you can display all the artifacts of that life to their best advantage. Vertical lines is one great way to do that. The strong verticals are usually created by doors, long windows and curtains or draperies. You can add to that emphasis with wallpapers that feature strong verticals (even many of the patterned papers are based on a vertical thrust).

Don't interrupt those verticals with horizontals, unless you don't care about creating the illusion of space and higher ceilings. Chair rails are usually the primary way that people interrupt the eye going up and up. Café curtains are another interrupter.

If you want to create the impression of movement around the room, rather than upwards, use horizontals, like chair rails, café curtains, a grouping of pictures all the same size and framing, marching in a horizontal row.

If you already have very strong lines, like a fireplace or a door, that sets the tone for what you can do. If the fireplace has strong horizontals to your eye (prominent mantel, for instance) then you can repeat those horizontals, and your room will appear to be larger. It is always smartest to go with the strongest lines already in the room. (The architectural features principle) Otherwise, you can end up with a jumbled look, as the various elements are competing with each other for dominance.

You can see the same influence of horizontals and verticals in furniture. Think of what your eye sees when you think of an armoire. It takes your eye mostly upwards, with its strong verticals in the sides of it. Or in reverse, a couch. That takes your eye horizontally from end to end. So these stronger shapes can be the place you start building from; basing much of what you select upon those first, strongest shapes.

Patterns & Mixing Them

Anyway, I thought of some stuff on patterns and mixing them, that might be useful...I know you will know this as you read; so, consider it just a confirmation of what your own 'eye' and instincts tell you.

Have you seen any ads for Laura Ashley's patterned wallpapers and fabrics? The ones where she loads the room (usually bedrooms) with all manner of patterns? For how many of you, is it "too much?" Well, if so, that's your eye reacting to the absence of relief from the movement that is produced by pattern. But, because she follows the other rules of scale and mass really well, she almost gets away with breaking the Golden Mean rule of 70% or so of one thing (color, pattern, texture, line); 20% or so of a related thing, (again, color, pattern, texture or line) and 5-10% of a contrasting thing. (Tip #1, I think, covered the  Golden Mean principle).

Scale: So, using the Laura Ashley example, let's figure out how she got away with so much of one thing; pattern. All the patterns used are of the same scale, for instance. They are all relatively delicate; no heavy damasks, no thick stripes. So, scale with patterns simply means, do you get the feeling that they came from the same family...the same batch? That is, are they all sort of the same visual weight to your eye? Let's reverse the example for illustration...let's say you're doing a Victorian library, and all your research shows you that strong, thick textures are used (velvets, frises, horsehair,) dark colors, and massive furniture. So, the delicate tracery effects of certain patterns and papers would be a waste. They get lost when dominated by stronger stuff. But, to mix strong patterns? Great look!

Ok, so that's a bit about repeating the same scale or dimensionality or 'weight' of patterns when mixing. Delicate and light-feeling; stay with it, or strong, heavy, dramatic, stay with that. When you mix scale, it ends up looking confused. Scale is a huge secret influence on the pulled-together look. One last example of that; you can see what effect you'd get if you use a heavy, dark-colored, dramatic wallpaper with strong stripes and then put a light-colored, delicate, flowered chintz on the furniture...the wallpaper wins and the chintz ends up looking too frail and washed out.

Color: So, when mixing, do this:  pick patterns that repeat the same two or three main colors.    Start with the strongest of the patterns you want and make every next choice relate well to that main one. If that main one has as its main colors, blue, green and cream, then your  subsequent choices have to have those colors IN THE SAME TONES. In the Laura Ashley example, her colors are exactly the same in tone (same exact greens, blues, etc) and in the colors themselves.  That's important, so that the fact that the patterns differ is overcome by the  strong relationship in terms of colors. So, I will start with the strongest pattern, such as a strong floral, and then experiment with stripes, plaids and dots on related fabrics until the weight of the supporting patterns can stand up to the strength of the main one. That's where your eye will tell you. A stripe that is full of slender, narrow stripes cannot stand with a strong floral that's got big flowers, big leaves and a strong pattern. Right? Right!

Also, for a little training of your aesthetic 'eye', go to any fabric store or drapery and upholstery place and look for a long time at the books that clump fabrics together that they deem to be related patterns, scale and color. They do a great job and you can learn to see what I'm struggling to convey, in the flesh, so to speak.  

So, plaids and stripes and more random patterns, such as florals, can go with each other if you ensure that the scale and the colors are matched. Jeez, upon review, I could've said all the above in the one last sentence. Oh dear, chatting on again.

If you have questions, contact Elizabeth Baxter for more information.

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