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Home design: Finding beauty in subtlety

To create this soothingly elegant living room, interior designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles balanced a palette of neutral colors with a mix of rich textures and unique shapes.

Burnham Design

To create this soothingly elegant living room, interior designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles balanced a palette of neutral colors with a mix of rich textures and unique shapes.

Creating a noteworthy room with subtle elegance is a bit complicated.

Understated style "rides the fine line between too sparse and too cold," said designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the FlynnsideOut design blog. "A lack of objects makes a room feel unfinished, and a lack of color can also read of lifeless."

But finding the right balance can be worthwhile. Although bold decorating has been in the spotlight for a while, a more neutral room, if well designed, "will never become tired," Flynn said.

How do you design a room that's low-key and beautiful, not bland and boring?

Soften every surface

Without warm, vibrant colors, you can create warmth in understated rooms by filling them with soft, elegant materials that look and feel appealing.

"Think of a camel cashmere sweater," said designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles. "It's the simplest thing in the world," but it's timelessly beautiful and feels great.

Materials like cashmere, silk and "breathable fabrics such as linen or cotton blends" bring a sense of warmth and comfort, Flynn agreed.

He recommends wood surfaces softened by whitewashing, smooth stone surfaces and "broadloom carpet that adds texture and softness underfoot."

Use natural and artificial lighting for a soft glow. Sheer curtains can maximize daylight, while "in the evening, it's about lamps," said New York-based designer Jon Call of Mr. Call Designs. Space out lamps to evenly spread light throughout the space, eliminating bright spots and dark shadows.

Compelling shapes

In a subtle room without busy patterns or bold colors, find other ways to create interest, Call said. One strategy is using objects with interesting or intricate shapes that draw attention to workmanship and creativity.

Burnham recently designed a bedroom with a large bed that featured beautiful wood carving, bringing some excitement to an otherwise subtle room. Flynn seeks out furniture with "interesting detail, such as fretwork or inlaid paneling."

Contrast and layer

Monochrome doesn't mean only one shade; mix a variety of tans, beiges and creams into a neutral room.

Also use a variety of contrasting textures. Silk will maximize light, Call said, while materials like linen and cashmere absorb it. So use them together: Pair a linen sofa with silk pillows, for example, or a seagrass rug with a silk-covered chair.

"Think of what materials and shapes are missing, and then keep adding until they fit together like a puzzle," Flynn said. "The key to a well-balanced room is a mix of natural materials."

Eliminate what's not special

In a subtle but striking room, "everything you do use should mean something," Burnham said. "Either it's an interesting shape, or the finish is unusual or the fabric is so fine and special."

Eliminate items that don't contribute much. If letting go of them is difficult, Burnham suggests this exercise: "For everything you bring in, you take two things away."

Flynn agreed: "Editing plays a huge role in understated rooms," he said. "In a dining room I did in Atlanta, I used all dove gray tones in the room, and every single element had highly sculptural qualities that made the play on shapes and texture the prominent story."

Home design: Finding beauty in subtlety 07/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014 4:21pm]
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