Don't be Afraid to Mix It Up

eero-saarinen-in-his-own-chairI love walking into a room and finding a design scheme that is completely unexpected.  Sleek, modern pieces mixed with traditional antiques and fabrics can be lively and fresh.

In fact, one of my favorite dining rooms is in a modern home with floor-to-ceiling windows, modern art decorating the walls, and the owner’s ornate antique Chippendale dining chairs paired with an IKEA all-white surfboard-shaped dining table. It’s fabulous and clever, all at once.

But eclectic design, as it can be called, has to be carefully planned, and not hastily contrived.

Here’s the key to accomplishing a tenable mix of antique and modern pieces: Select a common thread so that the design looks seamless and intentional. For example, the use of color is an easy way to unite different styles and periods. Eero Saarinen meets Louis XVI? It can be done, and why the heck not?

Fabrics are another way to fuse different design styles. A square, mid-century modern sofa can be paired with elegant French antique chairs by upholstering them in either the same fabric, or in similar colorways. Even something as simple as covering the more delicate chairs in the same fabric used for the sofa’s throw pillows can unite the diverse styles of furniture.

In a living room that is primarily traditional, adding a modern accessory, such as a Lucite coffee table, will shake up the room and transform it into an instantly chic haven. Just add a few modern vases or some sleek art to complement the coffee table.

Another way to achieve an unexpected touch and to mix styles, upholster traditional pieces in contemporary fabrics – such as a wing chair covered in a bright, saturated fabric. No one will expect grandma’s hand-me-down to be updated in bright pink linen!

Painting the furniture the same color is another way to blend styles. Ornate English antique chairs painted a bright and contemporary white are instantly updated, and pair nicely with more modern pieces painted the same color.

In one family room I designed for a client, we used a very modern sofa, with a clean, straight outline and a contemporary body fabric. I added an ottoman (to be used as a coffee table and foot rest) that featured elaborately turned legs.

The rest of the furniture, a few side tables and a game table, were in the simple Parson’s style with chunky, square lines. The fabrics used on the ottoman and sofa were what united these styles, and the ottoman’s traditional legs were stained the same dark brown that was used for the more modern tables. Everything works seamlessly because they share the same color scheme.

Another way to mix it up is to just do it with abandon. Use your instincts. I am adamantly against suites of furniture, especially in bedrooms or living rooms. Mix it up! For a bedroom, pick an old, round antique table with chipped paint from the flea market and pair it with a modern, chunky headboard (I love the Overlapping Squares Headboard from West Elm).

For the other side table, find another antique piece that is square, and paint it the same color as the round one. Or use an upholstered headboard with a soft, traditional silhouette and, while channeling your inner Mad Men set decorator, add some side tables from the 1960s. By mixing styles, you add instant interest and intrigue to a room. Layer on some interesting accessories, and mix those up as well.

Similarly, take a cue from the dining room I mentioned above, and use a traditional set of antique chairs with a mid-century modern dining table. It also works the other way around; for example, an old farm table mixed with modern metal chairs (such as the steel chairs used in French bistros in the 1930s and 1950s). Don’t be afraid to mix materials, either!

There is no limit to mixing styles, just put some thought into it. Be creative, and most importantly, have fun!

July 16, 2009

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Erin Vosti Lal

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