Mad About . . .

My Seven Design Principles

1st April 2021
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Everyone will have different “rules” and I stick that word in inverted commas because they may be your personal rules, they may simple be a set of guidelines you like to stick to to ensure you get your space right for what you need. Think of them more as a set of principles; when they’re yours you have no problem sticking to them. So however you have put them together – whether it’s gathering and adopting from other people or working it out for yourself on your own terms then I think it helps to write them down and keep that list to hand when you are planning or buying for a space. There is, I might add, space for you to write this in the planner even though I haven’t specifically named a page as such.

the home of anna unwin vintage sourcing, image by michael sinclair

So what are mine? Well I probably have about six or seven that I really stick to and put together they bring the eighth, without which the space isn’t yours.  Some of yours may overlap with mine. Feel free to take the ones you want and add your own. It is, as I so often say, your home your story.


This, like many of my principles, started out as something I did instinctively (and out of necessity) and then it became something that I firmly believe is crucial to any successful room. Vintage/antique/pre-loved, call it what you will – even one person’s junk being another person’s treasure – your room will never be its best without it. Old brings character, tells stories, grounds a space and adds depth. A modern home filled with shiny new stuff will always be shiny and new and just a bit shallow. If you know the source anyone can go out and buy the same stuff and make the same space. But stick an old chair in the corner and it instantly makes the space more personal. Without something from another time or place, your space will be bland. At its most basic it will be the pictures on the walls but the patina of old furniture, and not to mention the comfort of something well-made and well-loved, is priceless.


interior e-design by topology from £299 per room

interior e-design by topology from £299 per room – the sofas are the same but in different materials

Bo Concept Immola chair covered in corduroy fabric at madaboutthehouse.comBuying furniture in matching sets is another of my personal bug bears but remember these are my principles not yours. For me a three-piece suite smacks a little of “add to cart” and not about taking the time to see what you really want to have in the space. Search instead for the sofa that works for you and what you are doing in the room, as well as the chair – maybe a high back, maybe one that is wide enough to curl up on. Perhaps your room lends itself better to two sofas and no armchairs. But if you have a three piece suite that is serving you well, then perhaps, if you come to reupholster, consider doing one of the chairs in a different material to the other. Or keep the chairs as a pair and change the sofa. I do own a pair of matching chairs but they are completely different from everything else in the room. I am also a fan of inverting this principle and covering two different chairs in the same material. Or having two different bedside lamps with the same shade. It all speaks to someone who took the time to create the space they really wanted. And yes I do have six matching dining chairs; there is, to make it more complicated, a fine line between something looking personal and contrived. If you have collected six chairs over the years that’s personality. Setting out to buy one of each from the shop to deliberately create a mismatched look is contrived.


Bo Concept Immola chair covered in corduroy fabric at madaboutthehouse.com

The Bo Concept Immola chair is very modern but covered in retro corduroy here next to vintage rugs and modern tables

I am asked about this a lot and I think it’s inevitable that most of us will be mixing pieces of different eras in our homes. Very few people start from scratch with an empty room and should that be the case it’s so expensive that you might be given/lent something by a family member to start you off. Mixing periods successfully often comes down to practice and eye. As I have said before mid-century modern likes everyone. If you have an ornate, and possibly, heavy Victorian piece then don’t isolate it or it will look odd. Try and add something else to be its friend – a candlestick in the same colour, a darkly floral cushion, an ornate lamp base (with a plain shade). It’s all about the balance and remember no-one likes to be on their own – same goes for Victorian dressers.


The living room; artwork by Caroline Devernaud hung above the FOA Sofa by Christophe Delcourt for Collection Particulière with a Roksanda bag on top of it. Nickel floor lamp with spherical base; François Châtain floor lamp. CREDIT: PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL SINCLAIR, STYLING BY OLIVIA GREGORY

The living room designed by Roksanda Ilincic image BY MICHAEL SINCLAIR, styling BY OLIVIA GREGORY

The most successful interiors will use the rule of contrast successfully. Again, you might be doing this instinctively. So, for a busy floral cushion, you might contrast it with a plain or slice through the froth with a sharp stripe. A sculptural lamp stand might have a very simple or even very flowery shade. In its simplest form it might be about colour but it’s equally important to remember shape and texture. Rooms tend to be straight lines and hard surfaces and you need to mix that up a bit. A round coffee table in front of a rectangle sofa, round cushions, if space is tight, or even making sure there are curves and organic forms in the artwork. Chances are if something’s not working you can put it right by looking at, and changing, the shapes. Don’t forget materials; a velvet chair with a linen cushion, old wood with sleek brass. To paraphrase that line, which I never understood when it was about maths, but which makes so much sense when it’s about decorating: For every colour and material there is an equal and opposite shade and texture. It’s Newton’s third law of motion apparently.


pink ceiling

pale pink walls and darker pink ceiling via @theottohouse

I know you have heard this one before but that’s because it’s one of my guiding principles in interior design. There’s nothing wrong with white paint if that’s what you truly want or like but it’s not right for every room. Firstly, white needs natural light to bounce off and give it its brilliance. So if you haven’t got lots of that then step back to the off-whites and softer creams. Secondly, white is the default shade beloved of builders and decorators but it’s not necessarily the best for your room. If you’ve spent a small fortune on tester pots for the walls then don’t throw it all away with a white ceiling and woodwork. You don’t wear a white top with every outfit do you? Take a little more time to see if a toning, or contrasting shade would work better with the colour palette you are using. Pale walls and dark woodwork is modern and fresh and always looks more considered.


florence broadhurst floor lamp

this florence broadhurst floor lamps plays with shape and scale

As a basic rule of thumb when it comes to scale bigger is better. Except for sofas and we’ll come to those in a minute. But for rugs, curtains, vases, lamps and plants the bigger the piece the more dramatic the statement and, it’s true, the more expensive and luxe your room will look. In short, go big on the accessories and scale it back on the furniture. Just because you can fit a mahoosive modular sofa into a room doesn’t mean that’s the best look for the space. Much better to have something slightly smaller that isn’t crammed in but has room to breathe. It’s called negative space and just leaving a corner empty, or a small gap between chair and wall, brings that breathing space and makes you feel more relaxed. Squashing everything in will instantly bring a feeling of tension because it makes you instantly aware of the boundaries of the room and how everything is fighting to be in there. An emptier room, or one with smaller furniture will be more relaxed. But, this ties into the contrast point – keep the furniture smaller and the accessories big.


Perch light by umut yamac for moooi

Perch light by umut yamac for moooi

As Diane Vreeland said: “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika… it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.” And I couldn’t agree more. Put another way it’s about adding something a little unexpected to the mix. Something that might, on paper, jar, but just works like the paprika, or the squeeze of lemon to bring the wow. Clashing colour and pattern can do this, so can adding an outrageous lamp or something that is totally over the top. I have my much loved 6ft tall brass palm tree lamp to which has been added (in my office) a swinging paper bird on a brass perch which was sent over to be photographed and has yet to return to its coop. I have a bouquet of plastic (sustainable) Lego flowers which, to my mind, is more interesting and, yes, tasteful, than a bouquet of dusty dried ones. It’s about taking an idea and pushing it just a little but further than might be comfortable. It’s also about adding some humour and eccentricity to a room and we are often afraid of both of those things.


Bring all those elements together and you will have lots of this. Which is what you want.

And if you’ve read this far I can let you know that I will be taking the weekend off and returning on Tuesday. I’m giddy with excitement at the idea of four days off even if they will be spent in my own garden sheltering from the rain.


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  • Jane Dale 2nd April 2021 at 9:32 am

    The thing about ‘taste’…….a designer once said to their client, “Do you know why you have good taste? Because I have good taste.”

  • johanne tremblay 1st April 2021 at 3:42 pm

    Have a nice long weekend, Kate!🐣

  • Kes 1st April 2021 at 2:08 pm

    Very interesting reading. I’m really enjoying the push you’ve given me to not default to white paint – currently in the process of painting our whole bedroom dark green, including radiator, woodwork, window and wardrobe doors. My partner and I just moved into a new home with a North-facing conservatory painted brilliant white and I am ITCHING to repaint it as currently it’s both dingy and blinding!

  • Longdenlife 1st April 2021 at 10:35 am

    I have four old farmhouse style wooden dining chairs and after looking at them for a few years trying to work out why I wasnt so keen on them, decided to decoupage the frames (leaving the oak seat plain) with different bright floral papers so they look almost as they have been covered with liberty print fabric. Done three, one more to go and loving them. They really bring depth to the kitchen which is decorated neutrally, apart from lots of artwork on the wall (and greenery).

  • Eileen 1st April 2021 at 8:24 am

    Interesting reading! Seems I also instinctively followed the first 4 priciiples from that first teenage bedroom makeover! but stumbled on the next – it’s beige that sends me into shudders, maybe because that was the 70’s default? or just because having grown up in the light of northeastern US, at least white looks clean. Enjoyed your Marks & Sparks, yesterday too! Enjoy your holiday x

  • Kate 1st April 2021 at 7:49 am

    Agree with all! Thanks for sharing!
    Have the best holiday, Kate! 🙂

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