Dorothy Draper, the mother of American interior design, was a master at mixing patterns, with her liberal use of motifs and colors. She paired glossy black-and-white checkered floors and thick-striped wallpapers with furnishings upholstered in chintz, plaid and houndstooth check. Her ability to blend contrasting colors, scales and shapes made her artfully composed spaces feel like an immersive experience.
Pattern adds instant dimension and personality to a room, but it’s a little scary when thinking about where to start.
“Pattern-mixing requires some skill, and like selecting a paint color, people are afraid they are going to get it wrong,” says Cheryl Luckett, an interior designer in Charlotte.
We see interior designers expertly mixing patterns on Instagram and in glossy magazines, but how do you do it in your home when you don’t have formal training or a professional eye? There are some basic rules for getting multiple patterns to coexist harmoniously.
Start by selecting a main motif that will set the tone. “You need to have one statement pattern to start with, and then go from there,” says Edith-Anne Duncan, an interior designer in Blacksburg, Va., who recommends using a floral or chinoiserie wallpaper or fabric as a launching point.
Then layer in supporting designs. “Pattern-mixing is a chorus, and you need altos, sopranos, tenors and a bass line,” Luckett says. She advises mixing patterns with large and small scales, juxtaposing motifs that have movement (florals) with designs that have structure (geometrics), and embracing repetition through a cohesive color scheme.
The best way to see how patterns interplay is to experiment. “Just try things and be a little more bold. Oftentimes, you’ll be surprised,” says the Los Angeles-based designer, artist and photographer who goes by the name Dabito. “For me, pattern really just creates so much depth and visual interest. It can help give a dull space some life.”
There are a handful of classic designs that are go-tos for the pros. Here, Luckett, Duncan and Dabito share some of their favorite motifs and how they like to use them.
Drawing inspiration from Asia, these scenic patterns range from flora and fauna to imagery of people and dwellings.
One of Duncan’s favorite chinoiserie patterns, Brighton Pavilion by Schumacher, is a floral and bird motif that she prefers as a wallpaper in dining rooms and bedrooms. Wallpapering an entire room can be a pricey project, though. For the budget-conscious, Duncan recommends framing two panels of the paper and hanging them on the wall. “You can really get some impact that way,” she says.
Duncan also likes to use Brunschwig & Fils’s Xian chinoiserie as an accent pattern on window shades or an armchair, and she suggests pairing it with a geometric design. In her Blacksburg home, the designer upholstered a chair in the fabric and juxtaposed it with an animal-print wool rug and two sofas covered in a medium-scale geometric pattern.
Chinoiserie also works for wallpaper in a small bathroom. “Powder rooms should be a fun and exciting place to do a bold wallpaper,” Duncan says.
Dabito has been embracing his love for chinoiserie through antique art deco Oriental rugs that incorporate florals and birds. Ranging from minimalistic and subdued to more energetic, the vintage floor coverings make a great statement piece. “I could cover my entire house in rugs,” Dabito says. “It really grounds a space.”
Designers like to use bold floral chintz when seeking a more animated or energetic look.
“There is movement to florals that is very pleasing to the eye,” Luckett says. “That type of pattern lends something to the mix that others cannot. It has a fluidity and commotion.” Her favorite is Schumacher’s Pyne Hollyhock chintz.
For something more vibrant, unexpected and whimsical, there’s Josef Frank’s designs for Svenskt Tenn. Or to embrace a more classic aesthetic, there’s Colefax and Fowler’s Bowood, Rose Cumming’s Cabbage Rose and Lee Jofa’s Althea, among others.
“People who are afraid of color can find a chintz pattern that is subtle,” Dabito says. He recommends using the feminine florals as a bed coverlet, headboard upholstery or shower curtain.
Chintz also plays well with other patterns. “You want another fabric that is structured, so there is contrast between the two,” says Duncan, who recommends pairing florals with a striped, plaid, gingham or other geometric pattern.
“Plaid immediately adds an air of sophistication,” Luckett says. Tartan, tattersall and glen plaids evoke a refined and masculine feel, perfect for a formal living room or study, while madras has a casual association that can set the tone for a more laid-back space.
In her office, for example, Luckett paired a vibrant technicolor plaid pillow with jewel-tone velvet textiles and a black-and-white chevron rug. And recently, for the One Room Challenge design event on Instagram, she designed a rustic living room with a large-scale brown Thibaut plaid on an accent wall.
For another space, Luckett accessorized a gray sectional by mixing soothing gray plaid pillows with soft green velvet and greige ikat textiles. “It had a rustic feel with the leather and weathered wood,” she says. “For me, pattern has to speak to the space and the people.”
Although plaids may have a more masculine or traditional feel, Luckett says you can change that by dialing up the color. “That’ll modernize it,” she says. “Change the vibe of a really traditional pattern.”
A simple check can be introduced through upholstery and decorative touches. Duncan’s go-to is Schumacher’s Bermuda Check, a classic gingham. “The scale is perfect for smaller pieces, say a side chair or accent chair,” Duncan says. “Or it would be a great lamp shade.”
You can mix the check pattern with a statement floral, chinoiserie, larger-scale geometric or a solid in the same color as the check, Duncan says.
“Mixing scales is always the best option,” she says. “You could even mix a much smaller gingham pattern with the medium-sized Bermuda Check.”
For larger-scale pieces, Luckett recommends the buffalo check pattern, which originally was made in a black-and-red checkered wool. “It’s familiar, and it has a refined feel to it,” she says. Aside from the popular lumberjack scheme, consider other colors. Luckett recently used a coral and cream buffalo check to upholster an ottoman in a little girl’s nursery, paired with floral draperies.
Stripes pair well with fluid motifs like florals and chinoiserie, but they also work with busy geometric patterns.
“My favorite pillows come in stripes and different colors and weights,” Dabito says. At home, he is a fan of decorating with Southeast Asian Hmong textiles in linear designs. “They are very simple, and I use a lot of them,” he says.
Duncan recommends Brunschwig & Fils’s new striped fabric, Bayeaux Velvet. “It’s a velvet that has the structure of stripes, but has movement with shading and a gros-point texture,” she says. If the linear design is dynamic and energetic, like with Bayeaux Velvet, it can be used alone as a foundational pattern in large applications, including in furniture upholstery or draperies.
The familiar, neutral color scheme of zebra, antelope and wild cat patterns pairs well with a variety of colors. For example, in a bedroom, Luckett used a dusty blue and cream floral-patterned headboard with cat-print pillows and Greek key-bordered shams.
Luckett, who is known for her ample use of color, says she almost always includes an animal print in her designs, and that they are an anchor point for her. She recommends modernizing them by choosing an unexpected hue. “Try it in navy blue or blush,” she suggests for leopard prints.
For grounding a space, she favors a speckled antelope-print wool rug. But if you aren’t ready to take the plunge, try animal prints in small touches like trays, coasters, picture frames or vases.
Geometric patterns, including Greek key, modern hexagon, art deco arches or a simple chevron, work well with busy landscape and floral motifs, because their structure offsets the fluidity of those designs.
Luckett likes to use geometrics to add cultural influence to spaces and to help clients embrace their heritage. “We aim to reflect the cultures of the clients we serve, and traditional prints like batiks, ikats and mud cloths allow us to do that,” she says.
In her Charlotte home, the designer gave her space an “Afro Southern” feel by mixing traditional chintz drapery with mud cloth textiles. “I’m African American, but also extremely Southern, so I want that to be reflected in my home,” she says. “You can tell that about myself just by the patterns that I’ve used. Those really speak to who I am.”