ec*lec*tic: deriving ideas, styles, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources (from the Greek eklektikos – to ‘pick out’ or ‘to choose’)
Let’s not kid ourselves. All interior design, like many other forms of artistic or personal expression, involves choosing from a “broad and diverse range of sources.” If your style is “modern,” there will nonetheless likely be echoes of the traditional or hints of the contemporary in your choices. If your focus is antiques, chances are good you’ll still weave in 21st-century elements and conveniences. And let’s not even pretend it’s a good idea to have a room done entirely in reds, or greens, or woods, or metallics. There are limits to just how “unified” any room should be.
Eclectic interior design goes beyond subtle differences, however, and revels in its own variety. It seeks to shock us with its apparent randomness while soothing us with its underlying coherence. Therein lies the challenge of well-done eclectic – diversity that is somehow pulled together into a satisfying whole.
It may sound intimidating, but there are some general guidelines (to call them “rules” feels like a violation of the spirit of the form) to help you successfully assemble an “eclectic” room or household. Keep in mind that, unlike many design styles, the eclectic by its nature incorporates uncertainty and a certain amount of tension between elements. If all goes well, that tension will prove complementary to the unity of the whole rather than simply making company nervous and leaving you wondering why no one in the book club wants to meet at your house anymore.
It might even make everyone jealous at how interesting and unique your place is compared to theirs. Not that we’d ever admit that’s a consideration!
Because eclectic design, by definition, involves disparate elements, it’s important to consciously incorporate coherence, or unity, into the mix as well. “Eclectic” should never mean “messy” or “confusing.” It’s intentional, however edgy it may sometimes seem.
First and foremost, look for a unifying element that is unique enough to fit your needs but universal enough that you’ll actually be able to find pieces that utilize it or can be made to include it. The most basic and versatile is color.
Imagine a favorite range of blues which can pop up again and again in fabrics, on painted surfaces, in art, on backdrops, or even on appliances. Don’t get too matchy-matchy about it – you’ll know what “goes” and what doesn’t when you see it. You can use these blues (for example) as a simple way to tie together furniture or accessories which otherwise express very different sensibilities or use textures, which in other settings might clash.
A similar cohesion can be accomplished with a recurring use of relatively neutral metals like chrome or brass. A wide range of styles and items already incorporate these metals regularly, which means a few visits to your local resale or consignment shop (we happen to have a particular favorite where you could start) might just do wonders for your burgeoning inspiration.
A third way to hold disparate pieces together is to build around a few favorite standout items. These might include that 70’s couch you love, which drives your mother-in-law crazy, or the oddly detailed baroque armoire you insist on using to display your “collectibles.” Of course, these center-of-gravity items don’t have to be furniture. A room can be anchored by a fireplace, a vase, a painting – even a rug or particularly intriguing light fixture.
Ask yourself what complements each anchor item without worrying about “matching” it. (As Stacy and Clinton used to say about dressing on What Not To Wear, the individual pieces don’t need to “match” – they need to “go.”) Look at colors, materials, shapes, even textures for inspiration. It’s not a mathematical decision so much as an instinct and a willingness to try stuff out and see how it looks and how it feels. If you’re hoping for scientific precision, this is probably not the style for you.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of neutral or simplified backgrounds to frame diverse elements coherently. You’ve no doubt noticed in the various galleries or museums you’ve visited that the walls tend to be safely off-white, and the actual accoutrements of each room remain as unobtrusive as possible. This allows very disparate elements to exist comfortably in the same space, sometimes side-by-side, with minimal clash.
At the same time, the selected elements aren’t randomly assembled. They are selected to represent a theme, a time period, an artistic movement, or a specific subject matter. Our homes aren’t museums; hopefully, we’re allowed to touch most of the items we live with. But we can certainly learn from their ability to combine complexity and simplicity to both provoke and uplift us.
In short, eclectic shouldn’t be mistaken for “busy” or “crowded” any more than it should be thought synonymous with “random” or just plain “weird” (unless that’s what you’re going for). It’s unorthodox, and perhaps even at times risky, but it’s always done with purpose. It should always be, in some way, an expression of you.
So far, we’ve looked at ways to hold “eclectic” together. That’s all well and good, but if unified were all you that concerned you, there are far easier ways to accomplish that. Whatever else “eclectic” involves, it has to include some variety. Maybe even some recklessness – at least at first glance. Keep in mind that the following are not hard and fast rules (what fun would THAT be?); they’re guidelines. They’re meant to be helpful, not limiting. Sometimes fences set us free, yes?
Here are a few ways to break things up without it all breaking down.
One Of These And One Of Those
The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is to look for comparable items in different styles. A dining room table may accommodate a half-dozen chairs, which in order to be functional will have to be roughly the same height and width. Within those limitations, however, you can mix materials, colors, and aging (how fresh or weathered an item looks) with relative freedom. Always remember the power of color in tying diverse elements together as well, as long as you think in terms of color families or ranges and not absolute matching or – god forbid – painting everything.
Another almost universally effective way to add that eclectic touch is to seek out contrasting textures. This can mean something pretty basic, like alternating rough surfaces with smooth, or shaggy fabrics alongside tightly woven pieces with precise designs. Or, you can get more daring. Woods with metallics or bamboo plus plastics – you’ll sometimes be surprised what works. It’s all about finding ways to stretch whatever unifies the room without losing cohesion altogether.
Don’t mistake mixing textures with refusing to use the same texture twice. Think about good jazz, the Hamilton soundtrack, or all those Marvel superhero movies (whichever is closest to being your thing). There are a variety of themes woven throughout each of these. They’re stretched and changed along the way, sometimes so much that you don’t immediately recognize them when they come up again. As you become more familiar with the whole, however, you realize these themes hold the total work together and help to give it meaning. They bring unity to variety.
Don’t worry. You don’t need Lin-Manuel Miranda to design your living room for it to be just right for you. (Presumably, you’re not taking it on tour or even selling tickets.) The point is to find a good mix between contrast and consistency. It’s a balance you might have to play with a bit before you’re comfortable. Then again, that’s half the fun, right?
Then And Now
Textures aren’t the only thing you can vary. A slightly trickier strategy is to combine older and newer pieces. This is really a variation of style-mixing, but with an added emphasis on the implied time frames of various items. Your traditional “Americana” style might be fresh from the local craft furniture outlet, but it radiates 19th-century sensibilities. Aged a bit, and it might just as well be your great grandmother’s headboard or Amish curio. What post-modern accessories or 21st-century technology might unexpectedly complement that piece? What makes them different, and what ties them together?
Take A Visual Breath
Finally, remember the power of neutral or plain backdrops to frame or unify diverse elements, as we discussed above? It’s sometimes the absence of unnecessary visuals or textural busy-ness that allows things to play nicely together, at least visually speaking. That approach has a corollary when we’re looking to emphasize separation and variety. It’s something all great visual artists, musicians, architects, public speakers, and successful relationships instinctively recognize and incorporate.
Leave a little space here and there.
Don’t fill every shelf. Don’t cover every part of the rug. Leave openings on that mantle – and they don’t have to always be centered or symmetrical. Crowded is not always the same as interesting. Using your space well doesn’t always mean using all of your space.
If you have more interesting pieces than you have square footage, take another tip from your local gallery or museum and keep some of the good stuff hidden away for a time. When you’re ready, you can change things up so that even the elements you retain feel fresh and new. Eclectic, more than any other style, lends itself to a little experimentation and reworking from time to time. It may even require it.
Go Big AND Go Home?
If your circumstances allow it, don’t be afraid to swap things out entirely when you’re ready. A piece can be a great fit and provide maximum enjoyment for a season, and then one day you realize it’s time to move on. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not trading in your children or pets or anything. It’s furniture and art and pillows – accessories to your life, there to complement and serve you. And life changes.
Perhaps you’ve had a change in your life you’d like to follow up with a new look, a new feel, to express a newer you. Maybe this past year has been less pleasant than you’d hoped, and you wouldn’t mind a bit of a reboot, one in which your surroundings reflect your evolving self. This may not require lots of big-ticket purchases.
Remember the power of a few anchor pieces mentioned above, or consider the ability of a few interesting items to change the whole feel of a room or home. Experiment with moving things around, or pulling a focal point item for a time before bringing it back again in another part of your home later on.
Hopefully, some of these guidelines will prove helpful as you experiment with bringing a little “eclectic” into your life. The most important, of course, is to be you, and don’t be afraid you’re “doing it wrong.” As long as the items you choose serves your purposes and makes you feel the way you want to feel, the rest is what it is.
If you need a little help or inspiration, come wander with us a bit and see what results. We can talk about bringing diverse elements together, adding variety to your current safe spaces, or leave you alone to create your own magic. It’s always your call.
Come on. It might be fun.