Paint your walls a bold color and friends will likely praise your creativity. Invest in a standout piece of furniture or striking work of art and your decorating is bound to earn compliments.
But creating a noteworthy room with subtle, understated elegance is a bit more complicated.
Understated style “rides the fine line between too sparse and too cold,” says designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the FlynnsideOut design blog. “A lack of objects makes a room feel unfinished, and a lack of color can also read as lifeless.”
But finding the right, subtle balance can be worth it. Although bold decorating has been in the spotlight for a while, a more neutral room, if well-designed, “will never become tired,” Flynn says.
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“Every once in a while, it’s nice to have a space that’s just simple and clean,” he says.
Without warm, vibrant colors, you can create warmth in understated rooms by filling them with soft, elegant materials that look and feel appealing.
“Think of a camel cashmere sweater,” says designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles. “It’s the simplest thing in the world, but it’s timelessly beautiful and feels great.”
Materials like cashmere, silk and “breathable fabrics such as linen or cotton blends” bring a sense of warmth and comfort, Flynn agrees.
He also recommends wood surfaces softened by whitewashing, smooth stone surfaces, and “broadloom carpet that adds texture and softness underfoot.”
Use natural and artificial lighting for a soft glow. Sheer curtains can maximize daylight, while “in the evening, it’s about lamps,” says New York-based designer Jon Call of Mr. Call Designs. Place lamps to evenly spread light throughout the space, eliminating bright spots and dark shadows.
Flynn recommends mixing a variety of tans, beiges and creams into a neutral room.
“I usually add several shades and tints of the same neutral tone throughout the space to give it depth,” he says.
Also, use a variety of contrasting textures. Silk will maximize light, Call says, while materials like linen and cashmere absorb it. Pair a linen sofa with silk pillows, for example, or a sea-grass rug with a silk-covered chair.
“Think of what materials and shapes are missing, and then keep adding until they fit together like a puzzle,” Flynn says. “The key to a well-balanced room is a mix of natural materials.”
In a subtle but striking room, “everything you do use should mean something,” Burnham says. “Either it’s an interesting shape, or the finish is unusual or the fabric is so fine and special.”
Your coffee table may be a neutral color and simple material, she says, but “maybe it’s a vintage coffee table that has this amazing provenance or patina.”
Eliminate items that don’t contribute much. If letting go of them is difficult, Burnham suggests this exercise: “For everything you bring in, you take two things away.”