Monday, September 5, 2011

Mixing it Up: Mixing and Matching Pattern to Perfection

All too often, it seems that we are afraid to mix and match pattern in our decorating because we are afraid of making a mistake and having an overall look that resembles a clown's closet.  With that fear, the tendency is to "play it safe", opting for obvious color and pattern choices and sure-fire options such as solid colors so that we can avoid the whole issue.

Another option is to make our fabric choices solely from the mix of coordinating patterns in a particular manufacturer's or designer's collection.  While this latter option is preferable to just choosing matching solids because we don't know what else to do, and while this option can also produce some dynamite results, it still limits our choices.

Of course, you want to use common sense when mixing pattern, because decorating mistakes can be costly.  But experimenting with fabric samples costs nothing (or next to nothing).  Even if you think patterns won't mix, get some samples and try it anyway.  You may be surprised.  Look through some old issues of Traditional Home or any other decorating magazine that features an English decorating sensibility and you'll see a mix of patterns and colors that might surprise (and delight) you.  For example, in the photo to the left, this family room offers a varied but cohesive look with its mix of florals, paisleys and stripes.  It's this type of amalgam that gives a room character, eschewing the too-studied "matchy-matchy" or the all-too-safe use of solids in favor a look that seems to have developed over time.  Experiment and have some fun!


  • Once you get more confident and comfortable with mixing pattern, you can become more adventurous.  Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference and what you find pleasing.  Do remember, however, that however you choose to "mix it up", you need to provide the eye not only with a focal point to focus on, but with a place to "rest". This can be as simple as mixing an all-over pattern with a simple, small-scale pattern on an open field. 
  • Mixing pattern adds visual texture, depth and interest.  Take your cues from the arrangement of squares in a patchwork quilt and examine the interplay of pattern and why it all works together (or, in some cases, why it doesn't).  In the photo to the right, the fabric samples from a customer's English cottage style guest room could easily work together in a quilt, harmonizing as they do through similar colors, themes, patterns and fabrics (informal cottons as opposed to formal silks, for example).  In the meantime, the photo to the left shows how these same fabrics and patterns look in the finished room.  Note the dominant pattern of the "feature" needlepoint pillow and how the surrounding, quieter patterns complement the floral design without distracting from it.    Also note how the muted tone-on-tone pattern of the creamy matelasse coverlet allows the eye to "rest" (as mentioned earlier) while still providing interest through use of texture.
  • A general rule about mixing patterns is to use a large scale print with a medium and small print. And don't forget your geometrics! For instance, you can mix a big, bold floral with a small paisley and then add in a nice check or stripe. 
  • If you're really stuck on where to start, pick out a focal fabric or pattern and then take your overall color scheme from this.  For instance, the fabric samples from a master bedroom in the photo to the right show a feature needlepoint  fabric with a background color of pale robin's egg blue and a floral pattern of reds, greens, tans, browns and ecrus.  This fabric is the dominant pattern in the room, and the surrounding fabrics, trims and even rug sample all serve to support the theme of the feature fabric.  To use a movie analogy, you could say that the feature fabric is the "leading lady" and the complementary fabrics the "supporting cast".    Also note that the fabrics here are tied together by their rich and sumptuous fibers, comprising silks, damasks and velvets.  Much like a jewel-toned silk would look out of place in the light and airy "countrified" guest room above, so would a cotton calico look incongruent in this particular mix. 
  • As you can also see in the photo above and to the right, trims are a great way to "tie" fabrics together.  In this case, the rich brown velvet and the red silk damask are tied together through the use of a red and brown rope trim, for instance.   
    • Another useful rule of thumb when mixing pattern is to use colors with the same color temperature (i.e., warms versus cools).  For instance, compare the light, cool tones of the guest room shown earlier with the warm, rich tones of the family room shown in the first photo above.  If you're not sure how to do this, take a cue from fabric manufacturers, who often include in the selvage strip an inventory of the individual colors included in the fabric. These selvage strips can be very helpful with color selection.
    • When mixing patterns, toile is one of those patterns that translates to different media very well.  In fact, the conventional wisdom with toile is that "too much is never enough", meaning you will often see toile wallpaper co-existing with a matching toile window treatment and even a toile fabric on the furniture (bed, wing chair, etc.).  Another common way to complement toile (instead of matching it) is by combining toile with a check pattern in the same colorway (the effect of the clean geometry of the check serving to anchor the toile).  But there are other options that don't have to be boring.  In the example to the left, the window treatments are fashioned from a lovely tone-on-tone green damask that provides texture and an interesting play of light without upstaging or competing with the green toile.  In fact, the pattern in the fabric is almost the "negative" image of the pattern in the wallpaper.  The overall effect is wonderfully harmonious.


    Above all, decorating should be a fun and creative exercise, so why would we want to limit ourselves when there are literally thousands of options out there?  All that's needed to tap into these fantastic reserves of pattern and color is a little self-confidence and a little strategy. 

    Copyright 2011 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton


      1. I stopped by for a visit today and saw you hadn't posted in awhile. I hope all's well and that you're enjoying Autumn!