From the Subtle to the Obvious: 40 Ways to Design a Room with YOU in Mind

I’m sure we could all find general guidelines on how to design a room. Probably many of those guidelines would come from successful designers who make their living off of creating beautiful spaces. But sometimes designing a room is much more challenging to the layperson than what it seems it should be. Why doesn’t that painting feel right in my space? How can I balance that huge piece of furniture? How can I have a single focal feature…when I’m looking at five in one room?

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It’s these questions, and many more, that deal with subtle parts of room design, that may pose the biggest challenge in creating a harmonious space. In this article, we’re going to look at various guidelines for room design success in a variety of different areas. Best of luck to you in your room design adventures!

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Determine the room’s purpose.

The best way to design a room is to determine what functions need to happen in that room. Even small rooms can accommodate a variety of tasks by strategizing these functions – sliding a chair up to a table on the wall instantly becomes a “desk” without changing anything else in the room’s décor or layout.

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“When people have great rooms, they put their television in there, their kids play in there, they’ll even eat in there,” says designer Katie Leavy of Washington DC- HGTV. When space is at a premium, it will actually make designing the room easier if you can narrow down the room’s purpose(s).

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In other words, you’ll want to let the real purpose of a room determine not only the décor of the room but also its design. In fact, it is this real purpose of the room that should be the foundation and the strongest voice in the space’s overall design.

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Where possible, it’s always a good idea to incorporate a “command center” of sorts into public functioning spaces such as the kitchen. Because so much happens in this hub of the home, having an easily accessible space to control and/or structure the chaos is an element of excellent room design.

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Choose multi-tasking furniture.

Two armless chairs pushed together can resemble a sofa, but they are much more maneuverable and versatile to meet seating needs as they arise. This is an excellent room design option for the home that experiences more than its share of entertaining events.

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Maintain proportion between the room and the furniture.

Sofas are becoming larger and more plush in mainstream furnishings; however, this doesn’t necessarily equate to “better.” In some cases (e.g., smaller spaces), the larger sofas actually make the room design worse.

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There are smaller-scale sofa options available these days that take up less space physically than big-box sofas but don’t skimp on the comfort, which is key. In determining the furniture that would work best in your room design, pull out some graph paper and a measuring tape, and color things in so you can see what you have to work with visually before you buy.

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As a general rule, it’s best to always match furniture’s scale to the room’s overall scale. An oversized sofa in a small room will look out of place and make the space feel cramped. Similarly, a tiny sofa in a great room might struggle to feel or look effective. Keep proportion in mind as you design a room.

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Create a sense of visual flow.

Ideally, as you design your room, you’ll be able to emphasize the best parts of your space while de-emphasizing the underwhelming or negative characteristics. This is an important part of room design – strategically bringing out the best so that it seems, essentially, like a perfect space (even when it’s not!).

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Begin with a piece that invites someone into the room. This could be something lively, complex, bright, dramatic, sculptural, artistic, or intriguing. Pique curiosity of people at the door; let them wonder what it is that is making this, say, living room feel different from other living rooms.

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Raise the eyeline by strategically designing the room with some higher, taller, and/or more vertical pieces. While most furniture sits at waist-height or lower, that doesn’t mean the room has to end there! Frame out the upper space with a taller floor lamp, a gorgeous piece of wall art, or some shelving.

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Include something cozy in your room design; no one wants to linger in a cold, harsh-feeling room, but if there’s at least something in there to warm up the space, “cozify” it, it will be a much more welcome space. This can be something simple, like a soft throw pillow, cashmere blanket, or comfy chair.

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Don’t forget to accompany the cozy object(s) with something that wows. Incorporate an oversized, super shiny, or visually loud piece in the room’s design, preferably positioned in a can’t-miss-it, prime-time focal space. Like this crystal chandelier over a round glass coffee table.

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In keeping with designing a room that is inviting and familiar-feeling, it’s never a bad idea to incorporate something natural into the space. In general, natural objects help to round out the edges, soften the lines, and overall bring the interior design down to a beautifully organic, relatable level. Even modern and minimalist spaces are well-served with a hint of Mother Nature in their midst.

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Despite what most realtors will tell you when you’re trying to sell your house (e.g., “Get rid of anything personal”), you can certainly incorporate personal items into your regular design. Think of family photos, pieces that have sentimental value, favorite books, or other items that truly mean something to you. Of course, these don’t need to be front-and-center in the design.

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Consider adding a “weird thing” into your room’s design. The weird thing is what stops the eye and prompts people to ask, ‘what the heck is that?’ or ‘where on earth did you find that thing? This could be anything, really – artwork, miscellaneous décor, sculpture, etc. There are two trains of thought on designing a room with the “weird thing” in mind:

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Weird Thing Idea 1: Make an investment into a large-scale item that oozes with personality, history, culture, and/or global appreciation and travel. Make this a focal feature of the room itself.

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Here’s a look at the back of this unique sofa. For the bamboo lover in all of us, no?

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Weird Thing Idea 2: Opt for multiple smaller-yet-related weird things to place randomly throughout your space, to keep the eyes moving and pique curiosity. It’ll add layers of interest to your room’s design.

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Last of all, as you consider what makes a room one that you want to really spend time in, you’ll find that finishing touches play a simple but significant role in the space’s overall design. You want your room to not just look real; you want it to actually be real. A stack of books, a bowl of fruit, a basket of magazines or newspapers, an unfolded throw.

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Commit to a cohesive style.

As you peruse the interwebs and glossy interiors photos and literature, it is easy to love many things about many spaces – even completely opposing styles. While we all probably love bits and pieces about a variety of decorating styles, it would be a disservice to any space to try to incorporate everything we loved into that single area. So as you design your room, determine the style you want, and stick with that.

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It doesn’t mean that, if your space reflects a certain style, you dislike all other styles. Not at all! It simply means that your particular room’s design, for this moment, will be cohesive and will flow. This creates positive energy and beautiful spaces. A good friend once told me, “I enjoy good design in any style, even if it’s not my favorite style. The key is that it must have integrity and commit to its own style.”

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When you stick to a single style, your decorating efforts actually are made easier because the range of options for your space is narrowed. Of course, your personal touch is still required – don’t buy everything as a matching set, for example, because that’s the generic kind of cohesive that makes for a boring room design.

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That being said, you probably don’t want your space to feel stale a year or two down the road. So don’t confine yourself to one specific look as the end-all of your design efforts. Instead, let your space follow the pattern of your life; that is, allow it to change as you do.

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“Remember that your home should always be evolving, just as you are… Your nest should always be a place of comfort and inspiration” states Kelly Framel of online magazine The Glamourai – Elledecor. Embrace the fact that designing a room will be a lifelong work in progress (albeit a fun, satisfying kind of work!).

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Plan for well-placed lighting.

No one likes to sit at a dining table with off-centered lighting, especially if you’re the one sitting on the unfortunate darker side of the table. The same goes for lighting in any room – design the space with lighting in mind, so that all areas benefit from being well-lit and/or dimmed as the need arises.

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Don’t fear blank space.

Some of us may feel like the only way to ensure a room is designed well is to pack it full of decoration. This is unfortunate, because one of the most gorgeous foundations a room can have is plenty of soothing, breathable white space. Blank space is luxurious almost anywhere, particularly in designing a room. Eliminate a coffee table, keep a wall blank, slide furniture away from the wall “just because.” Embrace the ability for air and light to flow in, around, and through your space unchecked.

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Look at various furniture options.

One way to approach a dining room’s design is to consider whether or not a dining bench might be more appropriate (and desirable) than dining chairs. You’ll need to consider the lack of back support that a bench has and weigh that trait against the ability to squeeze in more people when needed and decide which element works best for your life and room design.

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Choose well-designed functional items.

So, your bedroom needs a ceiling fan or else you’re going to roast, slowly but surely, to death. Ceiling fans have gotten a bad rap in not-so-distant history, because many of them have been ugly, squeaking things. You may shudder at first, but when it comes down to it, there are tons of well-designed and aesthetic functional pieces (such as ceiling fans) out there. When your space requires a pragmatic component in order to be physically functional and enjoyable, opt for one that’s beautifully designed.

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Let your seating options be plentiful.

If you’ve ever walked into a room where there’s no obvious place to sit, chances are, you didn’t stay there for long. Having a place for everyone to be able to sit, should they desire, is key in a well-designed room (at least, a room that involves entertaining and visiting). Seating doesn’t need to be confined to just couches and chairs, though. Think benches, ottomans, floor pillows, stools, etc.

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Despite its lack of padding, I can’t imagine this (anteater?) bench being anything other than the best seat in the house. Rub its head for good luck, right?

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Turn storage into part of the room design.

Most of us, save the stout minimalists out there, require space for the more-than-meets-the-eye amount of “stuff” that makes our lives tick. Rather than bemoan the fact that your storage space is limited, flip your thinking around to focus on, “Look how beautiful my storage is!” Whether it’s woven baskets, cube ottomans, matching or coordinated tubs, built-in shelving, or any other storage method, make it a beautiful part of your room’s design.

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Include a chair in the bedroom.

Most bedrooms will do well to have a place to sit down and relax that is separate from the bed. A chair tucked away in the corner of the room, squeezed next to the nightstand, for example, is sufficient. This is because bedrooms aren’t always just for sleeping. They are often retreats from the rest of the household and/or day, and having a comfortable place to sit is an excellent design choice to facilitate this function.

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Design around a signature piece.

Sometimes, it is a beloved piece that you already have in your possession that can be the springboard to an entire room’s successful, even perfect, design. “It can be one tile, one chair, or one pillow,” says designer Katie Leavy. So, instead of trying to design a room beginning with the style you like, work backwards – design the space by considering what styles are inspired by a beloved signature item?

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Think outside the box.

Some of the most memorable interiors are those where the design is deliciously atypical. A nature-themed bathroom, for example, complete with trees on the shower wall and a bucket on a floating shelf, is both fun and functional. Remember: Your space doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s. It shouldn’t look like everyone else’s, in fact. Because that look has already been done, by everyone else. Design your room to suit you.

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Plan for easy accessibility.

Keep at least one drawer and shelf within arm’s reach of the bathroom sink. This is a room design requirement for tiny, functional spaces such as the bathroom that will help to maintain organization in even the most streamlined-looking bathroom. (Because you can hide necessary items away, thereby not detracting from the décor or the function.)

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Play with contrasts.

This is where room design gets fun! Make choices that are unexpected as you mix and match, play with contrast, and challenge design expectations. Upholster antique furniture with modern fabric, mount gilded faux taxidermy, or display an abstract and boldly painted set of (faux) skulls. The juxtaposition of these designs is visually appealing, intelligent, and ultimately quite fun.

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Work with groupings.

Many designers swear by the magic of grouping objects by odd numbers – threes or fives, for example. This works well for objects on display, either on a tabletop or on a wall. Working in pairs (e.g., two objects) is often more feasible when dealing with furniture, such as club chairs or side tables. Whatever number you choose to group your objects in, be sure to keep it proportionate to the objects themselves and your available space overall.