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Country Decorating Ideas

Types of Country Decor

©Ballard Designs This antique reproduction tin gains a bright new use as the base of a table lamp.

Country decor has been around for centuries, a fact that adds to its charm and appeal. In this section, we'll discuss different types of country decor in detail.

In With the Old: Antiques and Reproductions

Where do we look for decorating inspiration? Our romantic side loves to recall the mythical "good old days," a time of rough-hewn goods and tender sentiments. Heir­looms that work as well today as they did "way back when" include quilts (with their surprisingly contemporary geometric shapes and colors), heavy cutwork table runners, pewter candlesticks, copper pots, and real wood furniture, from budget-friendly pine and oak to elegant maple and cherry.


For a lighter look, don't forget wicker and rattan; they've been front-porch favorites since breezes were the only air-conditioning.

When you're looking for special pieces to complete your fresh country rooms, don't rule out real antiques: Depending on their rarity, they may be no more costly than modern reproductions. What's more, many are not nearly as fragile as people think, since they were made by hand to last for generations.

Even factory-made Industrial Age pieces from the mid-1800s to the 1930s have earned the patina of age and can cost much less than you'd expect. You won't find a modern queen- or king-size bed among antiques, and you will want to choose a reproduction high chair or crib for safety's sake, but otherwise antiques deserve a second look.

Another option: Search out beloved icons as reproductions from Colonial Williams­burg, Jefferson's Monticello, and many other sources. But remember: The goal is not a period-perfect room; it's one that resonates with the soul-restoring warmth of history, updated for life today.

Alluring Artifacts From Many Lands

What if you crave a little more exotic inspiration? We cherish the colorful heritage of "the old country"-- whether it's from our own family's country of origin or not. Our enduring affection for European country style is part of that romantic perspective. So is our love of furnishings from other cultures around the globe, from Eastern Europe to the Far East.

©Ballard Designs Charming exotic touches give a worldly air to any room.

Since the days of sailing ships, American homes have been enriched with rugs from the Orient, porcelain from China, silver from Mexico, and so on. Since the 1960s, our modern outlook has placed new value on "primitive" artifacts, so intricate baskets, dazzling silks, wood carvings, and woven rugs from developing countries have also found a home with us.

So what's the new difference? Careful editing that keeps the warmth and leaves the clutter behind. That's the essence of country decor!

One thing you will appreciate is that country pieces from various cultures tend to go surprisingly well together. A reproduction French armoire from the local furniture store, a pretty mix of odd-lot English teacups from a neighborhood flea market, and an old print from your college trip to Italy can be charming to­gether.

For a look that's a bit more eclectic, try a bold, carved mask from Africa instead of the print from Italy and a cinnabar box from China instead of porcelain from England.

Pieces from different eras can be a bit trickier to mix, but you can balance smooth and rough, opulent and simple for exciting results. For example, a 1940s fruit-motif tablecloth can keep company with a Della Robbia-style still-life if it's displayed in an unpretentious frame, and an ornate, gold frame can dazzle, empty, on a simple white mantel.

And, since we're talking country here, remember that a genuine bird's nest, shell, or piece of driftwood has a natural grace that's worth displaying in any decor. When it comes to fresh country style, it's all in the mix.

And, chances are, the mix is already a factor, since you probably aren't starting with an empty house or apartment. If you've inherited or found pieces that you love, they may already go together, since the things people like usually share certain consistencies.

If your current mix doesn't quite mesh, relax. In this article, you will see ways to use color, visual balance, and other design strategies to create a coherent, pleasing look, using furnishings you already own.

Once you've decided on a general look that appeals to you and fits your lifestyle, you can shop intelligently for necessary pieces and collectible accents that work. And here's a nice bonus: Knowing your style means that you will be able to spot the bargains and the one-of-a-kind treasures.

Let Your Rooms Evolve With Genuine Finds

When you're out there shopping, do remember that "fresh" isn't often found in stale, mass-produced attempts to replicate nostalgic, rustic finds. Fresh country may be a bit sentimental, but it's not corny. Some new retail or craft-fair accessories designed to summon a country feeling miss their mark, because the cute or rustic effect is too calculated.

©Santos Furniture Eleven impressive feet tall, this china cabinet is made of hand-carved alder wood with juniper trim.

Choose carefully, or pass them by and take your time collecting genuine old items or handmade artifacts that show some artisanship and are meaningful to you.

Before you shop, make room for a fresh start. Sell or give away nonessential items that you don't like, and make a list of the key, big pieces you will need to replace before unloading major furniture items you no longer want to live with. You may find a perfect pair of candlesticks while you're still searching for the right dining table, but what if you have the table first? Fresh country says, resist the temptation to buy ho-hum accessories.

While you're waiting to find the accents you love, you don't have to live with a bare-bones environment. Paint the walls a rich, eye-filling color. Line a craft-store basket with a colorful napkin (look for leftover singles at bargain prices), and fill it with supermarket apples or oranges. Stand a few fresh flowers in a plain water glass about a third as tall as the flowers. And stack up some bargain-pile hardbound books you always meant to read. Result? Instant, inviting style, without compromise!

Express Your Personal Vision

Which fresh country approach appeals to you? You can blend different styles with a practiced hand, but for the easiest success, base your decorating scheme on one of the new classics you will find in these pages. And don't worry; you won't be pigeonholed. Even within a certain style category, you will see a wide range of looks and the furnishings that make them happen.

New Traditional

Do you love golf or tennis in a beautifully maintained setting? Do you enjoy the symphony, opera, or historical museums? Do you think meals at home are worth using the good silver and china once a week or more, even if you're dining on carry-out? Do you love Oriental rugs because they're not only elegant, but also because they're a smart way to disguise the mishaps of daily life with kids? Would a visit to Jefferson's Monticello or Washington's Mount Vernon inspire you? If you think laid-back and gracious can go together, welcome to new traditional style.

©Ballard Designs This elegant 18th-century-style stool gets a kick from a leopard-print cushion.

New traditional style is symmetrical, graceful, and elegant but not excessively formal. Georgian and Federal styles popular around the time of the Revolutionary War serve as the foundations of new traditional style, and they still deliver a pedigreed look today. The look took a hit after the uptight 1950s version fell from favor, but today's liberated approach has brought Federal style back in a big way.

Our fresh version pairs traditional wood pieces with cushy, comfortable upholstery and replaces yesterday's small tea table with today's more hospitable coffee table.

Neoclassical, white-painted trim looks fresh and unstuffy when paired with bright turquoise, jade, coral, and cranberry walls (tones that, surprisingly, are historically accurate). Rich colors such as these create a vibrant background for heirloom-style furniture, crisp white linens, and the sparkle of brass, glass, and silver. For an airy, more contemporary look that's in subtle contrast to white trim, paint the walls cream, peach, or celadon (pale gray-green).

Eighteenth-century style furniture is key to the new traditional look, but genuine Queen Anne, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, and Chippendale pieces carry stratospheric prices today. Luckily, the popularity of this look means that beautiful reproductions abound at all price points.

And don't forget Oriental rugs, Chinese porcelain, and other finds from the Far East that are as close as your nearest ethnic shop. Now, as in days of yore, these treasures add depth and resonance to your rooms and your lifestyle.

American Rustic

Do you love camping, hiking, and a fast game of touch football in the backyard when you're supposed to be raking leaves? Do you enjoy watching old movies with old friends? Do you make eating dinner as a family a priority several times a week, whether it's made-from-scratch chicken and biscuits or the quickie version? Would you love to visit Old Deerfield, Green­field Village, or just about any re-creation of the Old West? If you savor the simple pleasures, the heartfelt and homespun, grab hold of American rustic style.

Friendly and down-to-earth, American rustic style has been popular ever since pioneer ranchers and farmers carted their few, handmade possessions into new territories. Today, American rustic style can be found in cozy cabins, massive log ski lodges, spreading prairie farmhouses, and South-west adobe pueblos -- or suburban houses that you want to look like any of the above.

Pine or oak furniture in Shaker or Arts and Crafts style, simple cotton or wool fabrics, and rustic implements of weathered brass, copper, pewter, and tin create an invigorating, no-fuss atmosphere that's perfect for rough-and-tumble family life.

European Country

Do you love gardening and long, brisk walks? Do you enjoy exploring art museums and touring old cathedrals and houses? Will you read anything with an English setting, from new mysteries to 19th-century classics? Do you try new wines and recipes now and then to make everyday dinners a romantic adventure? Do you think a French or Northern Italian restaurant is a great place to broaden the kids' horizons? Is your most cherished dream to visit Europe (for the first or fifth time)? If you adore the romance and culture of European life, bring it home with European country style.

©Ballard Designs Nothing grounds a refined European-style room like a traditional styled area rug.

England's Victorian country homes gave us casual flowered chintz (originally from British India but inspired by England's lavish gardens), dogs in the living room, fine porcelain, and books everywhere. The Italian and French countryside gave us colorful Provençal fabrics, wondrous art, and a whole new approach to food that pairs passion with freshness.

These are all world-class looks, but pull them out of the predictable, and make room for cultural accents from your own native land or favorite travels, whether that's Ireland or India, Poland or Puerto Rico. In the global village, country rules.

Vintage Charm

Do you love an endless stroll down the streets of old towns or a leisurely swim at a vintage resort? Is your idea of fun browsing flea markets and antique shops? Do you collect old cookbooks or make Grandma's favorite recipes around the holidays, no matter how frantic things get? Would you rather eat in a retro roadside diner or an old country inn than a swanky four-star restaurant? Do you adore old vanity sets, quirky vases, sentimental children's books, and funky kitchenware? Do you love the cottage look of whitewashed wood and painted wicker furniture even if your mother says they're a bit on the shabby side? If you love to mix the funky, sentimental, pretty, and whimsical, come home to vintage charm.

Once-loved old furniture, cookware and dishes, knickknacks and fabrics from the 1920s to the 1950s are still fairly plentiful and affordable, so if you didn't inherit them, check out the resale shops and estate sales. Pastel-colored quilts and chenille bedspreads from the 1930s, bits of old lace, crystal-drop chandeliers and sconces, and maple and walnut dressing tables and dining room groups can give your home a look that's chic, fun, and familiar.

Some old favorites, such as pastel Depression glass, can be expensive, but you can pick up some wonderful bargains. If you find furniture that's still sturdy but the finish is worn, that's part of its charm. If you want a cooler, more unified look, swath everything in white paint, and when it's dry, use fine-grit sandpaper to "distress" the new finish and give it the patina of age. (This trick works with new, unfinished furniture, too.)

Modern manufacturers now offer many vintage-look items at retail, which can help you fill in major pieces in sync with the look you love.

Contemporary Country

Do you love racquetball or tennis but dream of hang gliding? Are you energized by the latest night spots and modern art exhibits, but are just as happy with a pick-up ball game in the park? Were you quick to rediscover retro comfort food along with the latest ethnic fare, and do you make time now and then to create a dish or two yourself? Do you love serene neutral tones sparked with strong colors and have no problem weeding out clutter? If this is your scene, take a look at contemporary country.

Forward-looking and flexible, contemporary country makes a statement that's at home anywhere. This free-spirited look is just as suited to urban pioneers as to those in the wide-open spaces. Contemp­orary country thrives on a variety of designs with strong, simple lines and great colors. Check out African or Native American handicrafts, Shaker furniture, and handmade, one-of-a-kind ceramics and art furniture.

Warmth matters: Where modern style may be steel and black with a jolt of red, contemporary country is more likely to be brass and deep chocolate or taupe, accented with coral, cranberry, or other off-red hue.

While it's most dramatic in a modern architectural setting with lots of windows on the great outdoors, contemporary country can also thrive in a vintage walk-up or a loft with exposed brick walls. The secret is to pare down to the essentials, then add back the dramatic finds that speak to you.

Contemporary country is inspired by low-slung prairie style and mid-century modern style. But any design with strong and simple lines works fine. Antique Shaker-style or hearty Arts and Crafts-style furniture are great examples of the unity of form and function modernists prize. (Luckily, you can easily find affordable reproductions of these two popular styles.)

Other sure bets are your favorite finds such as old farm implements, baskets, and strongly patterned Native American weavings. Mix them in with modern upholstery for a look you can live with anywhere.

Eclectic Country

Do you love soccer, yoga, or just about any kind of dance? Do you appreciate Asian art, old French furniture, early American wrought iron, and modern-design fabrics? Do you enjoy fusion cuisine, down-home cooking, and ethnic fare of all kinds? Is your dream trip an international cruise with many ports of call? If this sounds intriguing to you, explore eclectic country style.

Eclectic country style may be the freshest take on country yet. Not since the 1960s has America been so tuned in to the cultural richness of the world. Today's eclectic country style borrows freely from a wealth of exotic, organic influences.

©Ballard Designs Made in the United Kingdom but based on a 1920s French clock, this appealing replica recalls the flower markets of Paris.

Sure, American style has always included elements from afar brought back by seafaring ships. Paisley shawls, Oriental rugs, Chinese porcelains, and African mahogany and jewels are just some of the treasures of the East that have long embellished Western life. However, unlike in the Victorian era, today's eclectic style isn't about acquisition and clutter. Instead, it's about carefully selecting pieces you love from several eras and cultures and using them in a livable, balanced way.

In this way, pottery from Asia, basketry from Africa, and sari-silk pillows and a dhurrie rug from India look exciting with an antique armoire, a modern serpentine sectional, and a plain Shaker table. Worldly yet never too serious, eclectic country's deft diversity invites the world inside.

Look Ahead

Whichever style you choose, look through these pages to get great decorating ideas for your fresh country home. Let's start our discussion of fresh country decor with a fresh take on traditional styling. Continue to the next section for detailed decorating advice.

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