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Unlikely Alliances: Add Style to a Room

Martha Stewart Living, September 2007

The rules of decorating are so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that we rarely consider challenging them. Keep colors complementary. Follow the architecture. Don't mix periods or pedigrees. All the furniture should coordinate. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

It's often the elements you don't think will go together that bring real style to a room, adding a jolt of personality and the freshness of the unexpected. Consider the concept of harmony, which characterizes the best interiors. Harmony is achieved by a synthesis of different tones, a careful blending of seemingly incompatible elements. Just as a choir made up solely of tenors or sopranos can't produce the full brilliance of a musical score, a room decorated exclusively with antiques or modern furniture, or fitted out in a restricted palette, will end up, at best, a one-note wonder that quickly loses its appeal.

Think about the notion of balance. It is what we strive for in our lives -- between family and career, indulgence and discipline, exhilaration and relaxation, ego and empathy. To create a room that is balanced requires juxtaposing objects that, at first, seem to be contradictory or clashing. If you are thoughtful in your composition, you can put together an ensemble that embodies the Chinese yin-and-yang principle, which holds that all of life can be understood by the complement of opposites -- male and female, light and dark, hot and cold, positive and negative.

Furnishing a gracious and handsome room, like assembling a savory sandwich or planting a splendid garden, depends on the nuanced contrast of textures, colors, and shapes. Consider juxtaposing the refined and the rustic or highly decorative pieces with simple shapes and watch how your room grows in richness, becoming a reflection of your own complex and multifaceted personality.

Of course, you need to be at once careful and fearless when breaking the rules. There must be method to your madness. On these pages, we show how seemingly contradictory elements create exciting rooms.

Old and New
Living with antiques doesn't mean living in the past. Mixing them with new designs highlights their timeless beauty.

Rooms can contain old-world treasures and still embody an up-to-the-minute spirit. Paired with a modern Parsons table, antique Italian side chairs stand out. Wing chairs are updated with pewter nail heads, and sterling candlesticks gain new dimension when encased in handblown hurricane lamps. The pendant fixture keeps it all contemporary.

Simple and Elaborate
Even an impeccably pared-down loft space with clean-lined modern furniture will benefit from touches of glamour.

Too much minimalism can be monotonous. An ornate Murano-glass mirror over the fireplace adds sparkle and complexity. Embroidery and passementerie on the cushions of the daybed inject subtle luxury without betraying the spirit of the room. The extravagant flowers contrast with the understated elegance of the sleek glass coffee table.

Neutral and Color
Fear of color is no reason to remain stuck in neutral. The trick is to keep contrasting shades all in the family.

The key to enlivening a neutral room is to brighten it with several shades of the same color. In a mostly pale room, a plaid blanket makes a strong statement. The chandelier, the wall-mounted bedside tables, and the cushion on the dog bed reiterate the blanket's several shades of blue. Orange poppies add a vivid, albeit temporary, secondary color.

Big and Small
Bold moves and grand gestures have an even greater impact when staged within intimate surroundings.
It's counterintuitive to pair a slim Hepplewhite sofa with giant throw pillows and grand side chairs, but the result is surprisingly effective. Two diminutive tables replace a conventional cocktail table, adding versatility. Even the artwork plays with scale-expansive shadow boxes that focus attention on the delicate beauty of Chinese porcelains.

Solid and Pattern
Several vivid patterns can coexist happily, as long as they are paired with big doses of equally strong solids.

White and beige aren't the only suitable backgrounds for pattern play. The secretary and walls are painted in two close but different tropical shades that play up the op-art-inspired chair fabric and the rich imagery of the hand-tufted rug. The secretary is lined with a Popsicle-bright faux-bois paper that is reiterated on the candles of the sconces.

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