3 Tips For Mixing Style Themes

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Kim Salmela grew up with Finnish parents in a home steeped in modern Scandinavian design, but as an adult she studied in Milan and fell in love with the antiques of old Europe.

“My parents were like, ‘You’re crazy,’” says Salmela, president and chief creative officer of Hotel Maison, a Los Angeles-based furniture company. “They were purists.”

But Salmela didn’t see any reason the two styles couldn’t co-exist peacefully. In fact, she enjoyed the contrast.

“To me, putting an 18th or 19th century piece into a contemporary room is even more modern than a strictly modern design,” Salmela says. Her furniture collections are inspired by boutique hotels and meant to fuse modern sensibilities with old world charm and exotic destinations.

Thanks to travel and the global economy, today’s rooms are a lot more eclectic. There’s more leeway than ever before to depart from faithful adherence to one particular look or era.

And there’s a practical reason to stray.

“When you stick to a very strict path, the rooms end up looking very dated very fast,” says Jeffrey Bilhuber, a New York designer and author of “The Way Home: Reflections on American Beauty” (Rizzoli, 2011).

The key to mixing styles is to cast one in the lead, and let others play supporting roles, Salmela says. “You can’t be fifty-fifty. People will just be confused. Commit to one and have it be 85 to 90 percent of the room. Then contrast that with another style.”

The supporting player shouldn’t be one piece orphaned all alone, though, says S.A. “Sam” Jernigan, an interior designer with Renaissance Design Consultations in Auburn, Calif. There should be at least one mate somewhere to keep the piece from looking like a random interloper, and that mate needs to be of similar scale and visual dominance for symmetry, she says. 

For strategies on melding contrasting styles, consider these eclectic pairings:

Minimalist Modern and Victorian

“If there’s a polar relationship where one party likes modern and one party likes traditional, try to meet in the middle with fabric,” Bilhuber says. “Put modern fabric on traditional furniture.”

Or try the reverse. Get furniture with clean lines and choose textiles that recall the Victorian era, such as patterned pillows, throws and rugs, says Blanche Garcia, founder of B. Garcia Designs in Montclair, N.J., and a personality on HGTV’s Design Star.

Bring Victorian touches into a modern room with accent pieces such as artwork, Garcia says. “The Victorian era was known for lots of tchotchkes. I’d keep those toned down and succinct, though. Do one bold statement rather than a lot of pieces everywhere.”
Don’t forget to make the most of elements that are common to both styles, such as dark colors, she says.

Log Cabin Rustic and Mid-Century Modern

Garcia says this style combination is not as much of a stretch as some people might think.

“[Mid-century modernism] was an age of people realizing they wanted to get back to basics. The whole flower child movement was very earthy,” she says. 

Try log cabin-style wallpaper on an accent wall or ceiling, or put a faux bear skin rug on the floor, Garcia suggests, but keep the larger pieces in the style of the mid-century era.

Try a rustic ottoman with a cognac leather sofa, or find a table with a tree trunk base.

Again, there’s a color palette that’s common to both to help cross the divide: Oranges, reds, kelly greens and navy blues are at home in either setting, Garcia says.

Choosing Styles and Finding the Right Blend

If competing themes make it hard to know where to start the harmonizing process, take a “visual inventory” of all the furniture, artwork and accessories in the home, Bilhuber says.

That doesn’t necessarily mean physically laying everything out and looking at the spread. It’s just as helpful to walk through the house or apartment with a digital camera and take photos, then group images together on the computer in a portfolio-style format, Bilhuber says. What goes with what? What seems out of place? What pieces do you just love, and what pieces are less important?

“Eventually, a hierarchy will emerge,” Bilhuber says.

Tags: victorian, modern, rustic