Decorating 101: Interior Design Basics

If you weren't born with the ability to imagine a room complete with furniture placement, wall hangings, and rug and accent choices, it is something you can develop and hone over time. Learn the basics of home decorating, including design principles, decorating styles, and answers to decorating challenges.

Interior Design Compared With Interior Decorating

Interior design and interior decorating are often mistaken for the same thing, but the terms are not completely interchangeable. Interior design is a profession that requires specific schooling and formal training, including space planning, furniture design, and architecture. An interior decorator does not have that formal training and focuses on the aesthetics and the surface appearance of a space. Who you would hire depends on whether you have any structural work or space planning to be done or you need someone to plan the decor only.

Elements of Decor

Your first step should be to select a style for your home interior. This will promote the design principle of unity and harmony, thinking of the entire home with a unifying theme. It can be as simple as choosing shabby chic instead of formal or traditional instead of contemporary. From there, you can refine it to a more specific style, such as French country, Tuscan, or modern Victorian.

Balance is another principle—distributing the visual weight in a room. You can do it symmetrically, as is common in traditional interiors, or with asymmetrical balance as seen in casual interiors.

Within each room there should be a focal point. In a living room, it could be the fireplace or a piece of art. It sets itself apart by scale, color, or texture.

Contrast and variety add visual interest to a room. Keep rhythm in mind with repeating elements of the same color, texture, or pattern, and a progression of sizes or colors.

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Choosing a color palette is an essential part of interior design. While you could have a different style and color scheme in each room, often you will want to tie the whole dwelling together. Consider the right colors for a small room as well as colors and patterns for a large room.

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Mixing patterns in home decor is one of the more advanced parts of interior design. Patterns do not have to match, but they need to complement and coordinate with each other. This is done by considering color, size, and scale.

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Tips to Get Started With Your Decor

A major pitfall that traps untrained decorators is editing. A good interior decorator can scan a room and understand what items work in a room and when something is too much, tasteful, or requires embellishment. A few tips in this area can make or break your room's design choices.

One room element that can usually use an editorial eye is how pillows are placed. Pillows can be a nice accent adding to the room's color story, or in some cases, even create a focal point for the room. However, some people have a tendency to overdo it with pillows. Avoid overloading a sofa to the point that a guest has to move all the pillows just to sit down.

Choices of artwork can be important for a room, but equally consider how you display it. A rule of thumb is to set wall hangings at eye-level. Similarly, the height you set the chandelier matters. A common mistake people make is hanging a chandelier too high or close to the ceiling. Drop it low enough that it brings light into the room and is noticed. If you hang it above a table, make sure that when you sit up from the table, your or any taller guests cannot knock into it.

Furnishings are a big investment and account for a large part of the budget of room decor. If you are on a tight budget, there are some items you should splurge on. The two most important pieces of furniture—likely the items that will get the most use—are your sofa and bed. Spend more on those pieces. Save on area rugs, accent tables, and wall art. A mixture of high-ticket items with less expensive options is a trick of the trade that makes the room still feel stylish without breaking the bank.

Furniture, decor prices rose 10.6% over the past year. How to decorate on a budget, according to interior designers

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Last year, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. At 28, I was living alone for the first time. It was tremendously exciting, but I also had a problem: I had no furniture. For weeks I slept on an air mattress that would be mostly deflated by the time I woke up. After almost a decade living with roommates, when everything felt shared and temporary, I longed to make the new space feel like my own. I wanted each item, even my wine glasses, to say something about me. But I was soon intimidated by the high costs of couches and tables and considered going into debt. Instead, I spent a lot of time wistfully scrolling online through all the beautiful things I couldn't afford. More from Personal Finance:

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Tips for staying on track with retirement, near-term goals With inflation hitting furniture prices of late, many other people are also likely finding it harder to decorate at a reasonable cost. Household furnishings and supplies were up 10.6% this summer compared with last, according to the consumer price index. Yet there are ways to creatively use your budget, said Athena Calderone, author of the design book "Live Beautiful." "While it can feel really stressful to decorate on a small budget, the good news is that constraints are far from confining," Calderone told me. "In fact, they're often the source of true creativity." Here are some tips for saving money on furniture, home goods and decor.

1. Know when to splurge and when to save

Elizabeth Herrera, a designer at Decorist, an online interior design company, tells people to tune out the trend cycles and follow their hearts while they're buying furniture. "This way they won't be wanting to redecorate every few years," Herrera said. People should also know which items are worth splurging on, she added: "It's fine to purchase lower-cost, trendy accessories to refresh your space, but keep the larger pieces classic." It's easier to tell when core items, like your couch and dining room table, were cheaply bought, experts say.

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This is also the furniture you want to last. "Think long-term," said Becki Owens, an interior designer in California. "If you are patient with the process and invest in quality pieces when you can, you will have items that you can build on." "I have pieces that are 20 years old in my home." If the goal is longevity, Owens also recommends buying your core furniture pieces in durable materials and neutral colors. "You can always change decorative layers like textiles as the trends change," Owens said.

2. Buy secondhand pieces

The trick to finding bargains on these sites, Calderone said, is to type in the right keywords. (She recently wrote an entire article on the phrases to plug in when looking for vintage vases online, including "old urn" and "large antique clay vase.") "Play around, type in lots of different variations and have fun," she said. "And don't be afraid to negotiate on price, either," she added. "Take a risk and submit lower offers on auction sites and see what happens." "I've been known to offer as much as 50% less on items, and they've been accepted."

3. Look to emerging artists

The handmade nature of artwork often means it's on the pricier side, Calderone said. Still, she says she's found some incredible art from emerging artists, particularly on Instagram. Two of her favorites are Art by Lana and Aliyah Sadaf. Other works by newer artists, who tend to charge less because they're just starting out, are available at websites such as Tappan and Saatchi, Calderone said. You can also search for original art in your price range on websites such as Art Finder.

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John Sillings, a former equity researcher, helped found Art in Res in 2017, after realizing how much people struggled to make a big one-time purchase on artwork. The art on the company's website can be paid off over time without interest. The typical painting on the website costs around $900, which comes out to $150 a month on a 6-month payment plan. "The mission is to make fine art more accessible," Sillings said.

The thrill of the hunt

Now that I've been in my apartment more than a year, the place is filled with furniture, and I can hardly remember when it was empty. Unsurprisingly for a Manhattan tenant, I'm actually already running out of room. But it reminds me of some advice I got from my mother when I first moved in. I was complaining that it would take me time to decorate the place, and she said that that was a good thing, that much of the fun is in the process. When it was over, she said, I'd wish I could go back and do it again. She was right, although I still have a little more space to fill.

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Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

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