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5 Design & Styling Rules That Are Worth Breaking (If You Want an Unforgettable Home)

Today’s story starts as many do around the hallowed halls of EHD: We see a photo we like, we share it with another person and suddenly, it becomes a blog post. The photo in question? This one from Jersey Ice Cream Co (also, see below). My eyes instantly went to the curtains; hung on a low wooden built-in drapery rod, and hovering at least 8 inches off the ground. This, of course, goes against every rule ever written here and elsewhere about how to hang curtains, but it quickly charmed me nonetheless.

Sure, the rest of the room was also incredibly darling with a color palette that felt well-worn and comfortable. Maybe the “off” curtains only work because the rest of the space was “on.” But it got me thinking…what other rules am I willing to let slide if the room can carry that kind of design edict sidestepping? I scrolled around, looked through my saved folders, surfed through my favorite publications and designers’ profiles, and landed on five plus a few wild cards.

First, let’s talk about “rules.” Look, I’ve been in the design writing game for 13 years. I’ve written about every guideline imaginable. And good design principles are good design principles, especially if you’re not in the professional interiors game. But as anyone who recognizes my byline might know, I tend to be a bit of a contrarian at times. Not because I like a fight (or don’t believe in the rules) but because above all else, I hold interesting rooms in high esteem. And sometimes, interesting means not going by the book. To be unforgettable, you must first be different from everything around you, even in subtle ways.

If you’re interested in the same thing as me—rooms that fight the mold and kind of do their own thing but still make it work—keep reading friends.

The Rule: Hang Your Curtains High, Wide, And Long

Rule followers head here: You’re Hanging Curtains All Wrong

Generally speaking, poorly hung curtains can ruin a room. I’m one of the first people to admit that. But sometimes, a designer comes along and says “I see your rules and raise you my own. I do what I want.” And you know…you look at the space and think “Yeah, I guess you do.” I love that kind of design bravado, whether I’d do it in my own home or not.

Above is the photo that sparked this post. Whispy, floating gingham curtains that I’d never in a lifetime think to hang this way. I’m not necessarily telling everywhere here to run out and copy this look, because broken design rules can be very hard to pull off, but as I mentioned at the start of this post, it works because 1: the curtain rods seem like a handcrafted detail that make sense for the architecture of the home, and 2: everything else is just right. When everything is “just right,” I personally think a space needs a little funk thrown in. These curtains are that funk.

Curtain panels that end at the window sill? I’d never, ever dare. But Studio Shamshiri makes their own rules and that kind of confidence makes you a believer. The key here, I think, is that the curtain panels and sheers are fully inset into the window, so the hem of the panel kisses the sill of the window. I’m not sure I’d be as convinced this was a viable option if that wasn’t the case. Or would I…

Guess I was wrong. I earmarked this photo because I would have either put up cafe curtains, put up Roman shades, or taken draperies to the floor (only to be smooshed by the bench seating and likely also get dirty from dining). It’s what amateur designers like me do: overthink things to not break the rules. But Another Human Design was all like “nonsense, put up the curtains” and well, it works. Perhaps because the design scheme of the dining nook is already unconventional with its color palette. If it was going to be bold already, keep making bold decisions down to the curtains.

The Rule: Area Rugs Should Be Large Enough that At Least Your Furniture Legs Rest On It

Rule followers head here: How To Choose The Right Rug Size For Your Living Room – 5 Formulas Guaranteed to Work (+ 36 Shoppable Picks) & Design Mistake #2: The ‘Too Small Rug’

Of all the design rules I’ve held closest to my chest, rug size is tops. Furniture legs should *always* at the very least rest on a rug in a living room set up; better yet if the rug is large enough to house all pieces…right?!? While I generally still very much agree with this mostly because it can be very grounding for a space and make it look larger, these rooms help me see there are always exceptions.

I feel like I could easily start each of my paragraphs with the statement “I’d never think to do this.” And while I won’t write that over and over again, just know, I’m thinking it. Especially here, in a room that ran on The Design Files. I’m not entirely sure why the designer didn’t shift things forward to rest on the rug, but frankly, I really like it. It makes the sofa stand-alone, and being that it’s quite sculptural (and likely very expensive), that’s something you want to do. Suddenly, the couch is both seating *and* art.

A look I don’t see often enough that I really love is lots of smaller rugs essentially quilting a floor together. I notice it often in English designs (which tend to break a lot of rules, actually), and for the most part, it comes off charming, and casual, and carries with it a certain je ne sais quoi that’s hard to pull off with a proper rule-following area rug size. This rule-breaking room was found on Domino, and is the home of fashion stylist Sarah Corbett-Winder.

Big armchairs, small rug. Not a combo I’d bet on working, but the fact that everything here is fairly eclectic, the slightly too-petite rug adds to the quirk. Nicole Harding Design shared a caption on this photo that mentioned “homemaking” as a focus of their design philosophy and I think that might be the key to this whole thing (the image and all rule-breaking in general): imperfect moments make a home. Anyone who has the money to hire a designer can certainly have a picture-perfect house with all the details just so, but it takes a bit of bending to feel more personal, collected, and warm.

Same story here in this dining room by Anna Marie Rhodes (via House & Garden). The grout lines are imperfect, the ceilings have a slight dip in them, the fireplace isn’t exactly square. It’s an old home with a lot of life journaled in its history book so a correctly sized rug under that table might actually feel more wrong than right.

One of my favorite things to see is the inside of creative people’s homes. They have good taste, they often tinker with the interiors themselves rather than hiring someone, and they always break the rules. Being creative pretty much inherently calls for that. Rikke Baumgarten is a Creative Director and also the owner of this home I found on Domino that skirted rug laws (and also coffee table laws, too). And look, I’d love to see that same rug two to three times its size, but then maybe, it would compete with the ceiling.

The Rule: Your Light Fixture Should Be Centered Over Your Dining Table

Rule followers head here: Our Dining Room “Rules” Cheat Sheet

Here’s a rule I’ve had to break many a time based solely on the fact that I have no control over my junction boxes as a renter, and I almost never can get my table centered under a light fixture. I drove myself mad trying to find a solution in my last dining room, but now, I kind of don’t care. Having things off-center can oftentimes make your eye work a bit harder, faced with something it didn’t expect to have to make sense of. And that’s what creates interest. So yeah, go ahead and maybe don’t fight so hard to center your lighting fixtures over a table.

While I’ve never had a choice in the matter, this dining room from Domino (the Milan home of fashion designer Federica Viero) seems to have deliberately shifted where that amazing pendant hung from. The move makes me stare longer, and wonder what else might be off (like the decor pieces on the right side of the table instead of in the traditional center, or the art hidden behind the palm fronds).

The more I look at this breakfast nook by Meet West, the more I wonder if the off-centeredness of that pendant is a trick of the camera or not. It very well could be centered on the whole setup rather than the table. But either way, I’m into it.

I’ve loved this Studio Ashby kitchen since the first time I saw it in Arch Digest. The designer mentioned how much the homeowner pushed them to go outside the box. So many of Studio Ashby’s rooms I admire are linear, clean but interesting, rule-following yet innovative, but this one feels looser to me. Maybe it’s the meandering mural backsplash tile, or possibly, the off-center pendant over the table (ding ding ding!).

The Rule: Art Should Be Hung At Eye Level (About 57-60″ From The Ground Up)

Rule followers head here: How to Hang Art Correctly

Something I learned by digging around for this section: Great rooms often do not have art hung any which way. Probably because rooms like the one below have art that was acquired (not bought online because it looked nice like I tend to do), and likely was hung by a professional. So…I only found one example but I still wanted to show it. Let’s take a look:

The modern piece in the above home from The Design Files is hung well above that 60-ish inch mark from the ground up that I’ve so often written about in my career. But it’s all I can look at in this room, in a good way. My guess is it’s hung as high as it is because there is a sculpture underneath it and it’s giving that room to breathe, but even without that point, I’d be intrigued by it. As I’ve mentioned a few times, when things are purposefully off in a room’s design, it tends to be magnetic to your eyes. They go straight there, which is a good technique if you really want someone looking at a thing, like an art piece.

The Rule: Gallery Walls Should Be Evenly Spaced & Have A Finished Arrangement

Rule followers head here: How To Actually Make A Gallery Wall: Our No-Fail Formula We Use Every Time (+ Our Favorite Original Art Resources)

It’s no secret I’m a gallery wall aficionado. I had one in my old dining room and bedroom, and now in my current living room and bedroom. And I’d probably have more if I had more wall space.

There are a few things to talk about regarding the art in this office by David Brian Sanders (shot by an old colleague of mine Joe Schmelzer). First off, the spacing looks like the pieces were hung by someone who kept switching between their left eye open and their right eye open, never the two at the same time. AND I DO NOT MEAN THAT AS AN INSULT. I’m fairly in love with it. Some of the frames look like they even might be touching, and ::gasp:: what kind of design vigilante would dare to do such a thing? I thought it worked at first because all the photos and the frames themselves were so similar and consistency is key to pulling off something a little funky. But then BOOM, I realized the random colorful print. And that actually is why I think this *actually* works. Because it was never meant to take itself as seriously as a series of black and whites in coordinating frames would normally.

Ugh, what a great place. The home of artist Adam Spychala has this amazing gallery wall that starts in a single layer above the sofa and builds up to a peek on the far right side of the space and it’s freaking fantastic. The whole left side might be perceived as “unfinished” to some, but that someone would be an absolute square who doesn’t appreciate the looseness of some artistic rooms. 😉

The same can be said for Brian Patrick Flynn’s ridiculously gorgeous entryway. Packed to the gills with art, mirrors, prints, objects…but then left with room to grow above the doorframe on the left.

Some of you may think this isn’t a gallery wall, and you know, you’d be right. But it’s still a grouping of art that’s worth discussing, particularly the scale. With art arrangements, I tend to like to see a good balance of sizes. One large anchor, a few other pieces just a bit smaller, and maybe even a few small or oddly-shaped frames thrown into the mix. But this room by Studio Mellone from Elle Decor throws that out the window with an overscale painting and then four considerably smaller frames hung much lower in comparison (and on the floor). I think this helps to shake up the seriousness of the room and not be so precise.

A Few Rule-Breaking Wild Cards

There were two images I saved during my research, hoping a category would pop up for them but that never happened. But, I do think they loosely break some rules of their own so I wanted to include them:

If I’ve learned anything about myself and my design style leanings in the last few years it’s that I love to look at rooms like this, but I actually prefer something a bit more modern and streamlined to live in. Regardless, I just love how these shelves are not styled. They are purely useful for storing mugs, dinnerware, teapots, vases, and cookbooks. It’s loose and free and I’m jealous of that kind of unencumbered placement enacted by designer/homeowner Octavia Dickinson. We’re drilled on “shelfie styling” and for good reason (most of us need some visual order in our lives) but don’t forget that sometimes, undone is just done enough.

POW! Now, quite opposite of that last rustic home is this clean-as-a-whistle library by Summer Thornton. It’s a study in opposites and juxtaposition of traditional and classic decor and architecture and contemporary art that steals the show. The hot pink and white work stands as a beacon of the unexpected, and again…something I’d never dare to do.

So, how are we all feeling right now? Bold? Brazen? Scared? Shaking our heads and clutching our pearls? If today was a lesson in anything, it’s that we don’t have to be so rigid to have a beautiful home. I think if we follow an 80/20 (or 90/10 if you’re just getting started) rule-to-rule-breaking ratio, we will all have homes with just a bit more “human” in them. None of us are perfect and that’s what makes us all so beautiful. The same should apply to our homes.

Until next time,

Your friend in breaking rules, Arlyn

Opening image credits: Left: Design by Arlyn Hernandez, Styling by Emily Edith Bowser, Photo by Veronica Crawford | Right: Photo by David Tsay | From: A Spanish Living Room

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1 month ago

I love the ethos of this post! In my own 1970s ranch house, the gallery walls aren’t perfect; the ceiling pendant light over the dining table isn’t centered; some art might be hung a little too high; and not all furniture touches the rugs –AND every single decision was intentional. The end result is a colorful, considered, comfortable home that’s filled with meaningful, personal art and every room is truly a moment where I’ve thought about sight lines and the “feel” when you’re in it.

1 month ago

Perfectly imperfect. I just love how inviting and friendly those interiors seem. There’s plenty of attention to detail and quality, yet they don’t feel too exclusive or cold as to make guests uncomfortable. This type of design reminds me so much of my grandparents’ farmhouse, which was so special to us. It had some interesting quirks that made it fun and approachable.

1 month ago

I love this post! Seeing the interesting ways that people have played around against the rules actually makes it easier to creatively visualize my own spaces; vs. just seeing things (beautifully) played out in the standard ways.

emily jane
1 month ago

Arlyn! It’s not the first time but….. * I am currently considering drilling a 4th (what.!#?) hole in my dining nook ceiling in order to get my swagged pendant light perfectly centered over my pedestal table -but permission given just might shift my thinking! *I am floor-to-ceiling gallery wall obsessed and especially enjoy hanging art over doorways in my living room. *I recently borrowed a rug from the bedroom that I was absolutely certain was too small for the living room (to temporarily anchor the room while I get my true soul-mate of a rug cleaned and repaired) and was shocked by how much I liked the sofa legs sitting cleanly on the hardwood floors whilst the chairs across the room proudly planted their front legs on the maybe-I’m-not-too-small rug. *Also, I currently have two instances where after wrestling with the ‘high & wide’ curtain rule, I felt resistance dissolve upon realizing curtains that kissed the window sills in my comfortable but not particularly elegant living room was the retro or ‘off’ charm the space had been longing for (as if it had been begging me all along ‘stop trying to make me something I’m not with those way too… Read more »

1 month ago

These are really cool. Thanks Aryln!

1 month ago

This was an interesting post to read! I think it is interesting how almost all of the examples are from outside of America. I think it is a good reminder that our design “rules” are often just design preferences based on our styles in America. One thing I love about the current state of design is that international design is so accessible and we can be inspired by not just different styles but design coming out of completely different cultures and “rules.” It is a good reminder not to take our rules too seriously.

1 month ago
Reply to  Thora

I’m British and it’s frankly impossible to centre a pendant or hang a gallery wall neatly in our old houses because they’re so hilariously crooked: my first flat looked like a drunk cartoon, with a door frame, door, coving, floor and ceiling all at different angles. Many of our fireplaces are designed off centre deliberately, I think to fit two flues in one chimney breast? In my current Edwardian house we have multi-paned windows of the same design on each floor, but because they’re all different sizes the grids all look different. Neat, perfect furniture just looks odd: trying to do that Ikea kitchen system where you hang the bracket on the wall then hang the cupboards from it is impossible: our walls don’t do that! (Doesn’t help that they’re made from bungaroosh.) I’ve learned to lean into the lunacy.

1 month ago

These all seem to have room to grow — there’s a spot for the next thrifted painting or the teapot gift without redoing the entire room.

Cici Haus
1 month ago

I love the “my house is lovely but doesn’t take itself seriously” vibe of these. It’s kind of like my “trick” of leaving something big and obviously out of place (like a kid’s backpack on the stairs) while tidying the rest of the house so visitors think the tidiness is the norm and I hadn’t bothered to clean up 😉

Also, we have a big library in our media room and it’s styled with actual books that we actually read, not just pretty ones, so it’s a bit haphazard (and several rows are dedicated to kids books). Sometimes it bothers me, but mostly it feels like home

1 month ago

The next Fix It Friday from Instagram: no reno bathroom refresh

1 month ago

Thanks Arlyn, this is one of my favorite posts of recent times. It offers so many varied styles and viewpoints, and is very inspirational to a couple who is on the “we’ve built a super cool house but now what” struggle bus. I also really like your writing style, so thanks, this post has been a treat!

1 month ago

The curtains in our kitchen window just kiss the sill, because otherwise they’d be wet all the time!

1 month ago

These offbeat, breaking-the-rules look it totally my preference! I find seeing all “perfectly” designed rooms to be pretty dull. I live in Maine and have always lived in older, quirky houses. So I guess this just validates and mirrors my personal style more. Love these examples and will probably be tweaking some of my house/rooms with some of these looks!

1 month ago

I love everything about this post and I have several more Instagram pages to follow. Thank you.

Jade Dolan
1 month ago

Loved this post! Breaking design rules can truly create unforgettable and unique spaces—thanks for the inspiration, Arlyn!

1 month ago

Nope I just can’t get with the too small rugs!

1 month ago

Wow, I loved this Arlyn! So fun to see all these great examples and all the wiggle room out there—gives me a jolt of courage to try some new things. Thank you!

28 days ago

This is what I come here for, not the latest prairie dresses! Most of the time playing by the rules makes for the boring, bland decor we see in magazines these days! Every single category had me enthralled by the creativity and individuality of rooms with a little something askew. I loved spotting all the hidden and off-centre gems. It was like playing Where’s Waldo! More of these posts please! Bravo Arlyn!

Sarah F
26 days ago

I like the 80/20 or 90/10 idea! Great post. Thanks!

26 days ago

Hi I tried to comment on this post a few days ago – about how non-inclusive it is to see a wall of blank spaces with “View this post on Instagram”. I guess you rejected my comment? I’m trying one more time because I’ve been following Emily for more than a decade, and I know she seeks feedback on how people are going with the blog.