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My Top 3 Design Tips. EVER.

I do a lot of media interviews where I am asked what my biggest/best design tips are. I rattle them off quickly and then they are published in random magazines or websites – but rarely have they made it here, on to this blog. In fact, when I brought up the subject of this post, 1/2 of my team didn’t even know what my answer would be. So, it seemed time to put them into one place, here on the blog.

If you are a seasoned home decorator, or hell, if you are a designer, then you know that there are no rules, ever, BUT these are guidelines that will help anybody decorate their home with confidence and avoid some big pitfalls at the start. Also, read on to shop a sale I’ve curated with that features my favorite items to get you started as you decorate with these principles (P.S. there’s a discount code at the end to make things even easier).

Tip #1. You can mix however many styles you want, mid-century-country-hollywood-regency-industrial-traditional – ALL OF THEM together as long as you have a consistent color palette peppered evenly throughout the space. This is the number one problem I see – not telling a cohesive color story through furniture and accessories. Choose a few colors that you’ve always loved, add some neutrals, throw in some accent colors, and then shop and style ONLY within those colors.

blue beachy green lakehouse coastal_cohesive color palette

Now if you are a color genius, or an extremely confidant diy-designer then of course you can do whatever you want – and I’ve seen rooms look great with 94 colors in them. Most of our clients, as well as myself, like an eclectic mix of styles, right? But I warn that if you have a ton of different styles in a ton of different colors all thrown together in a room, it can look like a thrift store (especially if you have lots of vintage) or even worse a big, busy, messy, cluttered mistake.

Keep it consistent, cohesive and pepper those few colors around the room evenly with a good dose of a neutral spread around. I’m going to write a whole post/video about how to choose the right color palette for you, but the quickest way to do it is to look in your closet, see what colors you seem to be most attracted to, (make sure it’s a combination of cool tones and warm tones so it feels balanced), then add some highlights (lighter versions of some of those colors) and lowlights (darker, more muted version). Then neutrals, black, and whites are you friends in most color palettes.


Tip #2. Finding the right scale can be tricky when building a room, but there is something simple that I always go back to: A large room should have large furniture, medium rooms should have medium-sized furniture, and small rooms, (you guessed it) should have more petite furniture. Once the sofa is chosen, scale the rest of the furniture and accessories to that sofa.

midcentury pink palm wallpaper green mint chesterfield livingroom_scale of furniture

Take Nicolette’s makeover, for instance – that room was big, that sofa is large, and therefore we had to get larger club chairs and a nice big coffee table (although that coffee table was glass which is good because it’s visually light in a room of heavier furniture). You can have some smaller pieces – or we could have done two petite chairs in place of one of the larger club chairs, but there should be a few pieces that are in scale with the room, that really make it feel intentional and balanced.

midcentury living room cup of jo emily henderson_scale of furniture

Now, Joanna had a smaller living room, big for New York, but smaller than most new home living rooms in the rest of the country. Her sofa is medium sized both in length and “visual weight” and has slimmer lines keeping it looking in the middle-sized range.

Tip #3. Every room needs a combination of vintage and new. While I love a ton of vintage, it can start to look like you bought it all at a garage sale (unless it’s all high end name-brand vintage). At the same time, if a room is full of all new things, it can look generic and lose personality. Mix vintage and new, and even mix brands and makers to get the room with the most soul.

dining room blue brass simple traditional white_vintage and new

This room started with an antique dining table and that vintage console – we added that wallpaper, chandelier, chairs (all new) then filled it in with some vintage and new accessories. The contrast/mix is what makes the room look lived in and full of soul.

silver trunk antique modern bachelor living room_vintage and new

In this project the new sofa, coffee table, and rug are mixed with the vintage chairs, accessories, art, etc. The vintage pieces have new upholstery which help it look more high end. Again, please note the consistent color palette (black, gray, ochre, brown, neutrals with some green to add life through plants).

tallboy dresser land of lod art_vintage and new

In this vignette, the vintage dresser is accessorized by some vintage paintings (in new frames) some old books, and a new geometric lamp and new vase. It’s the mix that really creates the most interesting rooms full of personality.

I do have a few more design principles up my sleeve, but those are my three most favorite, most published, and most helpful to those problems that cause all your design agonies.

Alright, to help you guys get the ball rolling with implementing these principles into your own spaces, I have curated a sale on around each of these principles, featuring some of my favorite items (both big and small) to get you guys on the right track when it comes to following these principles. And even better, you can use the code EMILY at checkout to get an extra 20% off your purchase.

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7 years ago

Emily, this makes so much sense to me! When I think about my bedroom, I’m realizing that the reason why it stresses me out so much is because I have so much small STUFF. I have a medium-sized room and it needs medium-sized furniture and storage, rather than a million small boxes. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more vintage pieces also because I can see how those details will help keep my room from looking like an Ikea or Target showroom. Thank you!

Always an honor to learn from the decorating goddess herself! Thanks for sharing your tips; I am looking forward to your post on choosing the correct color palette!

7 years ago

Yess!!! Love this. Super excited for a follow up on “guideline” 1!!

Cyndi J
7 years ago

Thank you! This post gives me confidence that the new decor I’m planning will work: light gray walls, medium gray sofa and chair, with two–possibly three–accent colors. And mixing styles because the new chair and sofa on order are modern and so are the new foyer and dining room chandeliers. Add in vintage faux bamboo china hutch and dresser turned media center (that I’m refinishing) and a couple of vintage bergere chairs in an antique silver finish with charcoal upholstery and abstract artwork. I can’t wait to get started!

7 years ago

Emily this sale is insane!! Thanks for creating and promoting – so fun to shop 🙂

7 years ago

It is all making sense now why nothing in my house works! I can’t wait for more of these design guidelines. Would love to hear the best way to pull together a color scheme, because I am stuck loving too many colors and not honing it down to a few. Please Help!

7 years ago
Reply to  Jonie

Yes! I struggle with too many colors. Looking forward to the color piece. And all tips were helpful!

7 years ago

I can’t wait to start shopping this and hear more of your design rules. These are spot on!

7 years ago

We went with a very pale off-white for the walls and upholstery. We have a lot of antiques, so the white keeps it from feeling heavy and somber. And we can easily add color with pillows, art and oriental carpets. It follows your rules–narrow color range, mix of styles harmized with color. As for size, the living/dining/kitchen is open but has different smaller “rooms.” So the furniture is more medium size. We removed two chairs and it really felt easier to breathe.

7 years ago

Gah, these tips are so on point. I finally learned these through the painful and expensive process of trial and error. Just recently, I did a quick refresh and switched out all my brights for neutrals. Now my apartment is brown town but I love it. Guess what’s in my closet: neutrals.

Thanks for the great tips as always.

7 years ago

Great tips! That’s exactly what I have been studing today at NYIAD interior design course 🙂 Now I feel even more confident about it! Thank you Emily!

7 years ago

Love this, thank you! Would love, love, love a post about picking colors. It always feels so daunting and permanent to me. Your thoughts would be great. As always, thanks!

7 years ago

Hello! I have a brass tray from Libya like the one used as a coffee table in the first picture, and I have been hoping to convert it to a table! But I don’t want to damage the brass. Do you know how the legs were added to the table in the picture above? Thanks!

7 years ago

One of my favorite thing about this post is that all of these tips work regardless of lifestyle/budget. The best.

7 years ago

LOVE this sale Emily! And I’m definitely realizing why my room is such a disaster – pinks, greens, purples, very few neutrals, ugghh.

7 years ago

Oh my goodness, thank you for this post! I always love your tips and using a color pallet is so smart, why have I not thought of that y’all. Thanks Ms. Em

7 years ago

Please provide guidelines (feet) of what is a large room, medium room and small room. I think mine is large but it may be medium.

7 years ago
Reply to  Irene

Oooh, this would be neat, too. Something like “If your living room wall is over so many feet wide, you need a sofa so many inches wide.” Thank you!

7 years ago
Reply to  Liz

Heck, the sizes of the coffee table and chairs, too! This is what made the “End of bed benches” post soo helpful. I/we don’t know this stuff, and I go very wrong with proportions. I love design and could think about it all day, but my college education was in Computer Science. ; P

7 years ago

Well put Emily!!!! Love the tip on mixing old and new! So true!

7 years ago

I am shocked that there are not more comments on this post. It sums everything up perfectly! We moved into our new house last Fall and it ended up using blue as our main color choice for the living/dining rooms. The kitchen is all white, so with the blue the whole place looks amazing. Thanks!

patty blaettler
7 years ago

I’m also surprised that there aren’t many more comments. This is a fantastic post.
One tip which I’ve kind of learned through you is if you want to focus on a certain color: for heaven’s sake, don’t paint it on your walls! Bring it in through furnishings, fabrics, etc… It makes for a much more sophisticated space.

7 years ago

THIS is why you are my favorite design blogger!! I can’t afford a designer for my new house and these tips are SO HELPFUL for the average girl trying to make her house cute. More of these tips please and can’t wait for the video about picking your color scheme! You rock!!

Random thought: any chance you could do a post on patio furniture? I have no idea how to make my deck look stylish!

7 years ago

Yes, girl! That first rule in particular–rhythm through repetition. Repeating a color, even different tones of the same color does so much to unify a space. And thinking of things as parts to a whole. That one item may look too dramatic/blah/fuzzy whatever, but as part of the whole room is balances things out. Designing is like cooking. Sometimes I’ll watch Top Chef and they’ll say things like “more acid” while adding lemon juice or “needs umami” while throwing in some wild mushrooms. It’s like that!

7 years ago

Yes please tell us what defines a small, medium and large couch? 🙂

7 years ago

I’ve learnt so much in the last couple of minutes. Thank you!

7 years ago

Great tips! Question on #2: What if you have a small bedroom (8×11)? Other than switching to a double bed (no thanks!) and a smaller dresser (but then where do I put my clothes and my husband’s? We’ve paired it down, but we’re not minimalists), I can’t really make the furniture much smaller. I’d love an upholstered headboard, but fear it would overwhelm the tiny room and make the bed stick out farther into the walking space.

7 years ago

You are my interior hero. I love you tipps and style. So inspirational! Thank you!

7 years ago

wow so expected

7 years ago

I’ve always felt ‘design-challenged’ so I really thank you for the tips. I love the blue accents throughout the top photo. I’m going to stick with just a couple of favorites (warm colors, deep reds, dark orange) and try the same!