The 5 Interior Design Rules You Should Never, Ever Break

Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Always do this. Rules, rules, rules. Where’s the fun in that? By 

We definitely think you should design and decorate your home the way you want. But adhering to just a few simple mandates brings order to the chaos, says Leslie Stephens, owner of Leslie Stephens Design in Richmond, VA.

“When we walk into rooms that are designed using specific principles—geometry, proportion, scale, pattern—we can relax, our brains are at ease, it just … works,” she says. “As humans, we thrive on order, and that’s what good design is—using rules to make sense out of what is otherwise random.”

And once you know the rules, you can play with them, says Baiyina Hughley, a Los Angeles interior designer and blogger.

“There’s an art to the way the eye sees design in terms of color, shape, texture, and proportion,” Hughley says. “First you have to understand it, and as you get more confident in applying those rules, you can really have some fun.”

These timeless principles prove that “rule” doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.

Rule No. 1: Layer your lighting

Photo by LMB Interiors
Unless you’re going for the feel and comfort of an interrogation room, make sure you’ve distributed light equally around your room. Start by considering natural light sources—which can be maximized and accentuated with mirrors for a full-room glow—and fill in any blanks with a combination of lamps, wall sconce lighting, and overhead fixtures.

But never rely on a single source—especially if it’s overhead lighting.

“It actually makes me nauseous,” Stephens says, insisting that overhead lighting can be skipped altogether in most bedrooms.

“I had a client tell me once, ‘We don’t need any more lights—we have a light on the ceiling fan.’ That’s a no-go. You want your light to come from different places, to encourage people to explore all areas of the room.”

Manhattan interior designer Tina Ramchandani, of Tina Ramchandani Creative, is on the same page.

“Layered lighting is the best way to set the emotional tone of a space. One source of lighting will always struggle to carry an entire room,” she says.

Rule No. 2: Keep your base neutral

Photo by California MOD
Put away the paintbrushes dripping with statement colors. It might sound boring, but plenty of designers agree—painting with neutrals is a smart way to ensure that your space ages nicely and doesn’t drive you crazy before you’re ready (or have the budget) to switch things up.

Amber Clore, owner of A.Clore Interiors in Sanford, FL, says keeping “the bones of the room” a neutral is a rule she rarely—if ever—breaks.

“We’re so inundated with different design options these days, and keeping a neutral base makes it easy to keep the room looking timeless,” she says.

If you’re craving color, express yourself with art and accessories—not paint.

“If you love purple, pull that in with an accent pillow; or if green is your thing, find artwork or a side chair in a shade you like,” Stephens says. “But don’t paint your walls green. It’s time-consuming and expensive, and you can wake up one day and look at that green and hate it. If you’ve just got some pillows or art to switch out, though, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Rule No. 3: Avoid matching furniture

Photo by GABBY
Furnishing a room is not a vacation package, so take a pass on the all-included furniture bundles (you know the ones: sofa, loveseat, end tables, coffee table, recliner, and lamps for one low price).

And even if you’re not buying a full-meal deal, steer clear of the matchy-matchy trap by mixing furniture styles. Hughley recommends an 80/20 formula, in which the majority of the furniture is the same style and the remainder represents a different era or design trend.

“If everything in your house is traditional wood furniture, it can get boring pretty fast,” she says. “But if you throw in a few surprising wildcard pieces of a completely different style, that makes it fresh and gives the room some soul.”

Rule No. 4: Pile on different textures

Photo by Matthew Cane Designs
Got a thing for pretty, shiny objects? We get it. But everything that sparkles is not going to make for a well-designed room. You’ve got to mix things up. That means making sure your bedroom isn’t just a sea of silky fabrics, sequins, and mercury glass.

“Every room should have five textures: shiny, matte, smooth, flat, rough,” Hughley says. ‘Adding an array of textures always makes a room look more expensive.”

Rule No. 5: Decorate in odd numbers

Photo by Clark & Co Homes
It’s well-worn advice, but it’s still worth repeating. The “Rule of Three,” which holds that anything presented or arranged in odd numbers is inherently more engaging and interesting, is sacred in the design field (and in marketing, advertising, education, and a host of other disciplines).

Following this rule can mean the difference between a polished space and one with a ho-hum, amateur vibe.

“When it comes to accessorizing furniture like side tables and shelving, pairing things in groups of three is a timeless standard,” Ramchamdani says. “Arrangements with odd-number groupings always look more appealing to the eye than those with an even number.”