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Decorating Styles

Cool Contemporary Decorating

This contemporary living room gains warmth from natural fibers and color.

Contemporary decorating style embraces uncluttered, light-filled spaces, open floor plans, minimal furnishings, and slick finishes. Within those perimeters, though, different avenues can be pursued. One approach is dramatic in a subtle manner; the other is a stand-up-and-take-notice kind of decorating, saturated in vibrant color. Which route is for you?

Unlike the old days when modern meant stark, laundry-white walls, today's monochromatic rooms are done up in soothing shades like sand, gray, or cream. A burgeoning interest in the environment has designers also culling tones from the outdoors such as pale green and blue to offset light wood and metal furnishings.


Gone is the outdated marriage of black and chrome that was hot in the '80s. Materials such as metal, glass, and stone are brought together instead, in numerous innovative ways.

Furnishings are likely to include clean-lined chairs and tables in intriguing shapes and forms as alternatives to antiques. Upholstery is impeccably tailored, and slipcovers often include pert dressmaker details like a row of dainty buttons or a demure bow.

No jarring patterns, no ubiquitous accents of red. If there are window treatments, they are slimmed down and designed to blend rather than contrast with the wall color. Choices include fabrics that drape well like silk, rayon blends, and wool; or shades and blinds of aluminum, vinyl, or split bamboo. No flounces, no frills. In sophisticated bare-bone settings such as these, artisanship is what counts.

The proper accessories add to the look but avoid the bric-a-brac buildup. Clean, uncluttered surfaces enhance a contemporary space. What would suit the occasion?

A collection of silver desk objects from the '30s and '40s displayed on a glass-topped table, a pair of salvaged finials on the mantel, or a grouping of dusky but pretty pottery (also from the '30s and '40s) lined up smartly like soldiers in a built-in bookcase. Pairs of lamps, urns, and vases will provide harmony.

Clean lines and no fuss epitomize contemporary design style.

Along the other popular contemporary road: Bold color sings through rooms, defines living areas, and helps to create detailing, which is often lacking in a new design. Ranch houses respond better than older houses to this sort of treatment, but color will enliven all sorts of spaces and forge gallery-like scenes to help enrich vivid paintings, prints, and posters.

Combine mid-20th-century modern furniture with new designs like skinny upholstered chairs and leather-covered seats with built-in shelving. To prevent a buildup of kinetic energy, large upholstered pieces such as sofas are best done in neutral fabrics.

A careful arrangement of shapes and forms -- round, square, or rectangular -- will interject more interest than a hodgepodge of patterns. If you want to make a statement, a custom-designed area rug that echoes the room's colors can be the icing on the cake.

Architect-designed fixtures, high-tech elements, and luscious materials create a contemporary aura for kitchens and baths, be they of the quiet and serene school or lively color camp.

But just changing surface materials can catapult a room into the present. Stainless steel, tile, laminates? Research all the possibilities. If you're remodeling the kitchen, consider a layout that allows for a sleek, functional island in a modern shape; choose no-nonsense industrial-style appliances; and consider the pros and cons of in-vogue (but also long-lasting) materials like cement that can be tinted in appealing earth tones for counters and floors.

Select lighting fixtures and hardware carefully as they'll play a more prominent role in rooms that are devoid of clutter. Everything in a contemporary setting from audio gear to grooming supplies should have its place, which -- on the flip side -- means less cleaning and daily tidying up for you.

Get the Look

  • Conceive an aura of calm with all-natural materials like leather, suede, and cement.
  • Hunt for affordable reproductions of classic furniture designs displaying geometric forms.
  • Minimize accessories.

If you like your design scheme to be a little more diverse, eclectic decorating may be the style for you. On the next page, learn how to maintain a balance between furniture and objects that -- on the surface -- appear to have little in common. To learn more about interior design and get tips and information on decorating your home, visit:

  • Interior Decorating: Get tips on how to decorate your home and read about organizing a project and selecting an interior design that fits your lifestyle.
  • Home Decorating Tips: Learn about home decorating styles and get tips on how to plan and complete decorating projects.
  • Decorating a Room: Find out how to decorate a room from floor-to-ceiling.
  • How to Design a Kitchen: Create a kitchen that works for you and get tips on how to choose and place appliances and create a decorating scheme.
  • Kids Rooms: Get tips on decorating your child’s room, with information on colors, smart strategies, and money-saving tips.