Smart Decorating Tricks for Any Space

Learn how to decorate all the rooms in your house with these expert tips.

Illustration: art wall
Photo: Virginia Johnson

Much of decorating is woo-woo mystery but some is just plain math. Four big-time design pros share the ratios, proportions, and equations that add up to a simply great room.

01 of 11

Rules for an Art Wall

Illustration: art wall
Virginia Johnson

Known for designing elegant, classical spaces, Bunny Williams ( has a special genius for grouping artwork. The advice here is for a salon-style hanging in an entryway, but Williams’s formula can transform any blank wall.

A. Height and Width
A cluster of artwork needs an anchor, like a console or a settee, and the item you choose will help determine the display’s dimensions. In general, the top edge of the highest frame should be about seven feet from the floor, and the lowest piece should end five to six inches above the furniture, with the center of the arrangement at eye level. Let the edges of the outermost frames extend three to six inches beyond the sides of the furniture.

B. Size and Specs
Mix rectangular and square pieces of art, choosing mainly works of similar size. The exception: You’ll need one piece that’s a third larger than the rest to ground the vignette; it can sit in the center or to one side. To add dimension, opt for a variety of mediums (watercolors, photographs, sketches), scale (some close-ups, some pulled-back perspectives), and frame styles and colors (but keep the frame widths comparable).

C. The Space Between
“The more tightly you group art, the more impact it has,” says Williams. In fact, a close-fitting collection can be greater than the sum of its parts. It reads like a deliberate, related display rather than a bunch of random pieces. So leave just two to three inches between frames.

02 of 11

Rules for the Living Room

Illustration: living room
Virginia Johnson

Striking a balance between comfort and design in this hardworking area can be a challenge. Decorator Brad Ford ( has your number(s) for living in harmony, whether your space is symmetricalor free-form.

A. Rug
“If your rug just fits under the coffee table, it’s too small,” says Ford. Look for a style that spans close to 60 percent of the room, leaving at least 12 inches of floor space all around. And don’t forget to factor in furniture. If your sofa has a skirt or sits very low to the ground, keep all four legs on or off the rug. Higher models with distinct legs can sit with the front legs on and the back legs off, if you like.

B. Art Above the Sofa
“Art should never be the same width as the sofa,” says Ford. A better setup: Choose a painting or a print that’s two-thirds as wide as the couch, and position it so that its midpoint is about 60 inches from the floor and centered. The bottom edge should be 8 to 10 inches above the sofa back.

C. Coffee Table
As with artwork, the optimal coffee-table size is determined by the sofa. Go for one that’s two-thirds as wide as the sofa and a couple of inches lower than the seats (typically 14 to 16 inches high). “Leave 18 inches between the table and seats so that people can walk by but still reach their drinks,” says Ford. Side tables should be the same height or a few inches shorter than sofa arms.

D. Throw Pillows

Deck out a standard seven-foot sofa with three 20-inch-square pillows. Put two on one side and one on the other; an odd number is best so the look isn’t too perfect. Try a different pattern for each, or pair a matched set (say, in a bold motif) with one that contrasts (in a subtle print, like a pinstripe). On a love seat, two throw pillows will suffice.

E. Lamps
For table lamps near sofas and chairs, make sure that the bottom of each shade is at eye level when you’re sitting. Otherwise you and your guests will end up staring (and squinting) at bare bulbs. “I like the middle of the shade to be 36 to 42 inches from the ground,” says Ford.

03 of 11

Rules for the Living Room: The Floor Lamp

Illustration: floor lamp
Virginia Johnson

Sixty-eight inches is the ideal floor-lamp height, since it conceals the bulb whether you’re seated or standing. Ford’s tip: Try a floor lamp on one side of the sofa and a table lamp on the other. “Having something slightly off keeps things from feeling contrived.”

04 of 11

Rules for the Living Room: Pattern Mixing

Illustration: pattern mixing
Virginia Johnson

When it comes to prints, stick to one standout per room. Designate the boldest pattern (such as a botanical design) to one of the room’s three key components—walls, sofa, or rug. Then bring in two or three smaller, understated designs (like dots and stripes) that are at least half the size of the dominant print but in the same palette.

05 of 11

Rules for the Dining Room

Illustration: dining room
Virginia Johnson

Proper scale makes it an inviting gathering place rather than an untouchable showcase. Decorator Amanda Nisbet ( pulls up a chair to share her calculations.

A. Dining Table
Elbow room is essential. (“You’re here to eat—remember?” says Nisbet.) The table should be large enough for each guest to claim a 24-inch-wide expanse. Center the table, but if the room is very large, you might want to position it closer to one wall, for coziness.

B. Chairs
Allow for at least a two-foot passageway between the wall and the backs of pulled-out chairs. But don’t fret if that’s about all the space you have, says Nisbet: “You want the room to be warm and intimate. Think of how people always gather in the kitchen.”

C. Chandelier
A chandelier’s lowest point should be 36 inches above the center of the table to avoid blocking anyone’s view. Don’t be afraid to go big: “You have to remember to fill the vertical void as well as the horizontal,” says Nisbet.

D. Buffet
Look for a buffet that’s 36 to 42 inches high and just deep enough to hold a serving platter. Tailor its length to the room’s proportions and err on the side of too long.

E. Rugs
“Rugs are important for buffering sound so you can hear dinner conversation,” says Nisbet, who likes to fill the dining room, leaving just a five- to six-inch perimeter around a rug’s edge.

06 of 11

Rules for the Dining Room: The Mirror

Illustration: sunburst mirror
Virginia Johnson

You can give a sideboard some grandeur by hanging a large mirror about four inches above it. Make sure that the buffet is six inches wider than the mirror on either side.

07 of 11

Rules for the Dining Room: The Tablecloth

Illustration: tablecloth
Virginia Johnson

A generous drape is the safest bet: Allow 15 inches or more of overhang on each side. But don’t go too long; the cloth can touch the floor but shouldn’t pool.

08 of 11

Rules for the Dining Room: The Curtains

Illustration: curtains
Virginia Johnson

Nisbet’s number one curtain peeve? When the fabric doesn’t reach the floor. “Curtains should skim the floor or have a half-inch break,” she says. “Or add two to three inches if you want them to puddle and have some volume.”

09 of 11

Rules for the Dining Room: The Sconces

Illustration: wall sconce
Virginia Johnson

Mount the fixtures at least five feet above the floor. If you’re installing them over a buffet, leave three to six inches of space between a sconce and the edge of the mirror or art that it’s flanking.

10 of 11

Rules for the Bedroom

Illustration: bedroom
Virginia Johnson

Opinionated-in-a-good-way designer Elaine Griffin ( is a walking encyclopedia of decorating proportions. Here’s her advice for keeping this space dreamy but defined.

A. Art

“After the bed itself, the wall above the bed is the most visible real estate in the room, so don’t leave it empty,” says Griffin. “Fill it with something that makes you smile.” The art should occupy no less than two-thirds of the area above the headboard but not extend beyond its edges. Steer clear of minuscule dimensions “unless you have a four-poster bed, which is already busy. In that case, a small, simple piece hung low works well.”

B. Headboard
“I like a headboard to be four feet tall, so you can see it when the pillows are standing up but it doesn’t overwhelm the other furniture,” says Griffin. Anything much larger makes low ceilings feel even more cavelike. Higher ceilings can handle a grand headboard, but scale up other pieces to keep the room balanced.

C. Bedside Tables
These look best when they’re a couple of inches lower than the top of the dressed bed—24 to 27 inches high. “Pillow top fanatics may have to go taller,” says Griffin. Tables don’t have to be identical, but their heights should hit within two inches of each other.

D. Lamps
The sweet spot for bedside lamps is 24 to 27 inches tall. “You don’t want a tiny lamp on a big table or a small table with a towering lamp,” says Griffin. “And while lamps don’t have to match, the look is more pulled-together if they do.” The tops of the lamps should be the same height; if your lamps are slightly off, cheat by putting pretty books under the shorter one’s base. And if you don’t have a lot of table depth to play with, use an oval or rectangular shade rather than a round one.

E. Pillows
Start with at least four pillows, arranging them in descending order, with the largest in back, Griffin says. (Yes, that means the big, fancy shams actually go behind the sleeping pillows.) Then you can put small, decorative pillows in front if you’d like. “No matter how many pillows you have, the secret is to vary the sizes but stick to this order,” says Griffin.

F. Throw

“I think every bed needs a folded textile on the end—it’s a finishing touch,” says Griffin. When folded, she adds, it should drop at least 6 to 12 inches on either side: “If you have a queen-size bed, most standard throws will be too small. Instead, use a twin-size blanket. It’s perfect.”

G. Bench
A dinky bench at the foot of the bed can look like Little Miss Muffet’s tuffet, says Griffin. Pick a style whose length is two-thirds the width of the bed frame. The height range is more forgiving—anything from an inch to a foot below the top of the bed will work.“But don’t bring in a bench unless you have at least three feet of free space opposite the bed—the room will feel crowded,” says Griffin.

H. Rug
An area rug should be significantly larger than the bed itself—at least a foot larger on each side—but you don’t have to position the bed wholly atop it. “It’s OK to turn the rug sideways if that suits the room,” says Griffin. If you prefer a pair of small rugs flanking the bed, seek out ones that cover 75 percent of the space from the end of the nightstand to the foot of the bed.

11 of 11

Rules for The Whole-Room Palette

Illustration: whole room palette
Virginia Johnson

A rule of thumb for coming up with a cohesive scheme (in any room): Choose one color for 60 percent of the room, use two accent hues (15 percent each), and spice things up with a “pop” color that’s brighter than all the others (10 percent).

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