Home Interior Design Rules
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Living room interior design pictures

Knowing basic home interior design rules like; formal and informal balance, scale, proportion, line, rhythm, traffic flow, color, pattern and texture, can help you to make better decorating choices for your home.

Have you ever decorated a room and found that it didn't turn out the way you expected? Perhaps you followed all the rules, but it just didn't feel right?

Just one misplaced design element may be keeping you from achieving perfection! Even a small detail, like a coffee table that's too high next to the sofa can put an entire room off.

Knowing the following home interior design rules can help you create successful furniture arrangements, highlight a room’s focal points, balance color, pattern, texture, and help you to create the illusion of more space in a small room.

Home interior design rules

Balance in home design

Imagine a room as a boat. If you load a boat heavily on one side, it will list. In the same manner, a room can look unbalanced if you place most of the furniture on one side or corner.

Basic principle of balance

dark colors carry more visual weight than light

• busy patterns are heavier than light solids

• heavy textures appear heavier than smoother surfaces

When planning your room design, divide it into four sections. In visual terms, you want to balance all of your furnishings equally in all four sections of a room.

Unbalanced living roomDark, heavy furniture on the left is unbalanced with the daintier furniture on the right

Crowding furniture pieces to one side will make a room appear horizontally off-balance.

In addition, if furniture is top or bottom heavy, the room can appear vertically off-balance. Your goal, when arranging furniture, is to evenly distribute the "weight" around the room.

For example, a fireplace at one end of a room could be offset on the other side of the room with something of equal “visual weight", like an armoire, a window, or a console table with a piece of art hanging over it. If it's a window wall, hang dark or textured window treatments to offset any heaviness on the opposite side of the room.

A sofa on one side of a room could be balanced by 2 chairs on the other, a loveseat and side table, or another sofa of similar weight.

What is "visual weight?" Visual weight refers to how much weight an object APPEARS to have when you look at it, not how much it actually weighs.

DON'T offset dainty furniture on one end of a room with a bulky leather sectional sofa on the other side.

Color, pattern, and texture have weight as well. Dark colors, and busy or elaborate patterns feel visually "heavy," whereas, pale colors and smooth fabrics feel light and airy.

Too many dark colors can create a "closed-in" feeling. 

Light colors can visually expand a small space.

Symmetrical, or formal balance

Symmetrical living roomSymmetrical living room design

Symmetrical, or formal balance is for those who prefer an atmosphere of order, calm, and formality in their interior decorating.

Formal home interior design rules are based on symmetry. See room styles. Arranging furniture symmetrically is fairly easy to do, because you are simply trying to "match" each side of a room. 

The goal in symmetrical design is to balance each side of a room along an imaginary axis line going through the middle of the room. This is done by using identical (or like) pieces of furniture on each side. For instance, the axis line of a room may go down the center of a fireplace. Your fireplace may be flanked by matching bookcases or windows. 

To create the symmetrical look, place identical chairs, loveseats or sofas on each side of the fireplace, along with matching (or like) side table and lamps.

Or place a sofa facing the fireplace with a coffee table in front and two cozy chairs flanking each side for a relaxing conversation area.

Asymmetrical, or informal balance

Asymmetrical living roomAn asymmetrical room still needs to be balanced

Asymmetrical, or informal balance is for those who prefer a bit more excitement, informality, energy and creativity in their home decorating.

An asymmetrical room may give you a fireplace that is off-center, an off-center window, or architectural details that make it a challenge to arrange your furniture, like a spiral staircase.

You still need to create visual balance when arranging furniture in an asymmetrical room, but you can use an assortment of furniture (and objects) in different shapes, sizes, and colors. It's a challange to create asymmetrical balance with unlike furnishings and accessories.

The effect of line in home design

If you glance around the room you're sitting in, you may notice lines going in many different directions; in the windows, the horizontal line of your sofa and coffee table, vertical lines of floor lamps and draperies, curved lines of a round table, and so on.

Bathroom interior design picturesHorizontal lines give the impression of "stretching" the walls in this small bathroom

The lines of a room give your space a feeling of movement and even atmosphere. Following are some basic home interior design rules to guide your decor choices:

  • Straight lines - Examples of straight lines can be found in chair rails, doors, windows, and square tables. Straight lines are considered masculine and strong in the world of home decorating.
  • Curvy lines - Curved lines can be found in arches, round tables, lamp shades, and round rugs. Curved lines add a feminine and graceful component to a room.
  • Horizontal lines - Horizontal lines occur in the lines of a bed, a wide window, shelving,  and long tables. They add strength and a sense of peace to a space.
  • Vertical lines - These lines are typically seen in tall windows, ceiling to floor window treatments, and armoires. Vertical lines add height, drama, and a sense of formality to a room.
  • Diagonal lines - You might find this type of line in fabrics, the legs of a coffee table, or a piece of artwork. Diagonal lines add a sense of movement to a room.

Color in home design

Living room interior design picturesColor is well balanced in this neutral-toned living room

Color is the key to all successful decorating— it can work magic by visually expanding or shrinking space, raising and lowering ceilings, and even effect our dispositions. 

Knowing some basic home interior design rules of color theory will help you make good choices with your color schemes.

Pale colors reflect light, and can visually expand small spaces by giving the impression of pushing back the walls.

Dark colors absorb and deflect light and give the impression of the walls closing in on you.

Cool colors appear to retreat, while warm colors seem to advance.

Introducing too many different colors in a small space can overwhelm the room. For more on small spaces, see small bedroom decorating ideas.

For the purpose of home staging, avoid painting walls in dark or overly bright colors. This may discourage some home buyers from making an offer because they consider painting too much work.

Soft colors and lustrous fabrics will impart a feeling of luxury to any room. Soft blues, greens, grays, whites and creams are restful colors that will tempt home buyers. 

If you are trying to make a home sale, paint your home in neutral colors, which are preferred by most people. Neutral colors are the easiest to decorate with because they blend well with most surroundings, go with most furniture, and work successfully in all room designs

For more about paint colors, see interior colors for home staging.

When using color in a room, follow the 60-30-10 rule: 

60% of a room is usually a dominant color - This is typically the wall color.

30% of a room is the secondary color - Usually used in furniture, drapes, or a carpet.

10% of a room should be the accent color(s) - Accent colors are those "pops" of color that brighten and add excitement to a room. Use color in accessories like pillows, artwork, throws, window treatments, and floral arrangements.

The accent colors and patterns you choose for a space should be evenly distributed throughout the room. Don't place all your accent colors (and patterns) on one side of a room.

Paint colors should flow gracefully from one room to the next, especially if you can see adjoining rooms, as in open-concept living areas. You can achieve this by painting all your walls in the same paint colors, in coordinating colors, or in lighter and darker shades of the same hue.

Pattern in home design

Pattern is a decorative design or form that repeats itself. Patterns have a distinct effect on the look and feel of a room. 

Neutral color bedroomThis vertical wallpaper pattern has the effect of making the ceilings look higher

For instance, light floral patterns will lend a room a fresh and open feeling, whereas, large heavy floral or paisley patterns can make a room feel formal and stuffy. Below are some examples of how pattern effects home design:

  • Heavy or wild patterns in a small room can overwhelm and "shrink" the space.
  • Painting wide horizontal stripes on the walls can visually widen a small room. Wide vertical stripes can visually "raise" a low ceiling. For home staging, use subtle and neutral pattern colors.
  • Today's popular geometric shapes are perfect for creating a crisp contemporary look that most home buyers want. Be aware of the effects of patterns that you will be introducing into a room. 
  • Painting wide horizontal stripes on the walls can visually widen a small room. 
  • Keep patterns to a minimum in a small space. 

Texture in home design

Living room interior design picturesThe textured mirror over the fireplace creates an interesting focal point

Everything around us has texture, whether smooth or coarse. Texture is that one element of home decorating that really jazzes things up! If your home design seems boring to you, it may be lacking this essential component. 

In the absence of wild patterns and bright paint colors, texture will add some excitement and interest to any room.

  • Varying the textures of things you can touch (tactile) and things you look at (visual) will liven up a space.
  • Avoid heavy brocaded fabrics in dark colors in a small room designs.
  • Light fixtures can have texture as well. For instance, polished chrome can be smooth and sophisticated, and wrought iron can add a rustic feel.
  • Shiny, satiny fabrics on bedcovers, window treatments, or accent pillows will illuminate a space. A glass tiled back splash in bathrooms and kitchens will illuminate as well.
Fireplace mantel vignetteCreate a vignette with textural objects from nature
  • Avoid heavy brocaded fabrics in dark colors in a small room design.
  • Use fabrics with texture rather than pattern on larger pieces of furniture, such as an upholstered chair, so as not to overwhelm small spaces.
  • Create a vignette with elements from nature to add interest to a boring space.

Scale and proportion in home design

Scale usually refers to the size of an object in relation to the human body, or to the room itself. Proportion refers to the size of an object relative to other objects in a room.

ArmoireThe "roller coaster" effect is softened by the tall tree in the corner

To demonstrate how scale and proportion work together, think about how dining room chairs should be in scale to the dining table, and the chandelier above should be in proportion to the table below.

A room works better when the furniture is similar in size and scale. If you mix overly tall furniture into a room full of shorter furniture, the effect can be uncomfortable. Your eye will travel up and down like a roller coaster as you look around the room-- the rhythm will be off.

How do you know if your scale is appropriate? After you have moved your furniture in, stop and take a look at the tops of your furniture, starting from one end of the room and making your way around. Have you managed to maintain a gradual line, or is your eye bouncing up and down? If the line has extreme highs and lows, you might consider different furniture or making adjustments in that room.

The "roller coaster" effect can be softened by adding artwork, lamps or plants to add height where needed.

Rhythm in home design

Rhythm is a key element of the home interior design rules-- it is the path that your eye follows when you enter a room. Successful room designs will encourage the eye to move around a space in an organized fashion, taking in every element of the arrangement. Well constructed rhythm will unify and bring a sense of balance to a space. 

In the world of interior decorating, rhythm is built upon five precepts: contrast, repetition, gradation, transition and radiation.

Kitchen with islandContrast of dark kitchen cabinets against a white countertop creates excitement

Contrast - Rhythm occurs when design elements of opposing colors or shapes are used together. For example, the contrast of black countertops against white kitchen cabinets creates excitement in interior decorating.

Repetition - Rhythm also occurs when a design element is repeated throughout a space, such as similar colors, patterns, shapes, textures, lines and forms. Using similar elements creates unity and ties the room design together.

Radiation - Radiation is a balance and repetition of elements designed around a central point.  The most obvious example is a round table with a center piece, dining chairs, and maybe a round light fixture radiating off it. It's the repetition of circular objects that create a sense of balance.

Gradation - Rhythm can be achieved by accessorizing with like objects in different sizes, from small to large, or by using one color in varying shades of light to dark. The eye will follow the gradation line in a smooth rhythm. A row of different sized candlesticks on a fireplace mantle is an example of gradation.

Transition - Transitional rhythm is fairly subtle; it is how something transitions from one element to another. The goal is to successfully guide your eye in an uninterrupted fashion from one part of the home to another. For instance, a row of similarly framed pictures can lead the eye to flow smoothly down a hallway or a staircase.

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