Breaking Design Rules

By Kate Riley May 18, 2011

A reader recently wrote in and asked an important question when it comes to designing a space.  Leah W.  wondered whether some design rules were made to be broken and were there a few examples or illustrations for successfully breaking those rules? 

I asked Courtney to tackle this topic, and he is back this month with his fabulous insight!  Courtney asked a group of designers to look at issues that they encounter on a regular basis with their clients, and asked what are those design rules or commandments that are made to be broken?

Design Commandments Made to be Broken, by Courtney Lake

“When I was researching this article, I was reminded of the countless essays I wrote in high school where I used the definition of a word or phrase to introduce an idea.  Strangely, using this clichéd approach makes sense when you are writing an article on breaking design rules.  There are some deeply held beliefs that have engrained themselves within our design psyches.  For better or worse, they prescribe how we have decorated our homes for decades. So when you “break” them, what exactly are you doing?  Well according to Webster Dictionary you are breaking:

One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere…..

Design rules give guidelines for how furniture, lighting and accessories should relate and interact within your home.  But what if you “rocked the boat” as every good designer does, picking those which make sense for your space and tossing out the rest?  Before you break these design rules, it’s best to understand why they are important.

A solid understanding of the principles of design is crucial if you want to break them successfully, so I asked four design experts their opinions on what design commandments should be tossed aside.  They each gave insight on some old and new rules that we all should gleefully break to get the homes we want. 

Design Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Not Place Large Furniture in a Small Room

Common sense tells us that if a space is small, we should scale the furniture to fit the room.  Wrong!  Design legend John Dickinson built a career out of placing out of scale furniture in rooms.  A large bed can easily be placed into a small bedroom or a large couch in a small den.  The tricks to bending this design commandment are placement and color.  As long as the furniture doesn’t block the natural sightlines of the room and is within the same color palette, the furniture will read as a unified whole, tricking you into thinking the room is larger.




Candace Olsen


Design Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Not Mix Loud Colors & Patterns

Decorative painter Kristen Fountain Davis of K.F.D. Designs in Atlanta, GA ignores this rule when talking with her clients.  Bold colors with loud patterns are normally avoided because it causes visual chaos if done incorrectly.

However, Kristen has “a passion for loud design” and thinks that if bold elements are tempered by other features such as a solid color wall or neutral furniture, then bold color and pattern can peacefully cohabitate. The key to breaking this design commandment, says Fountain Davis, is “remembering to give the eye a place to rest.”


KFD Designs

sherrill canet green living room

Sherrill Canet


Design Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Not Paint Your Ceilings

Interior design partners, Deb DePeter and Becky Tellefsen of Living Livelier don’t understand the current pre-occupation with white ceilings.  Historically, ceilings have been painted with murals, covered in gold leaf and adorned with mirrors, so when did ceilings become an afterthought?  White ceilings were originally were thought to expand a room’s height and reflect more light.  DePeter and Tellefsen consider the ceiling a 5th wall and give it the attention it deserves!

The secret to breaking this design rule is actually quite simple according to the design duo; “paint the ceiling a few shades lighter or darker than the walls.”  But if you want to go bolder, they also love the idea of going for a really outrageous color or stencil on the ceiling, and having the more neutral walls below take second stage to what happens above.



Deb DePeter and Becky Tellefsen


Sara Story


Commandment #4: Thou Shalt Not Have a Ceiling Fan

Ceiling fans get a bum rap as unsightly dust magnets in a room.  However, if you have ever lived in a humid state or a state where AC is not the norm, a family comes to depend on them for air circulation. 

Bryn Dunn of Bryn Alexandria Interiors believes that function trumps aesthetics in this case, stating “I personally love the feeling of a fan on me while I sleep and I would never replace a fan in the bedroom with a chandelier as so many decorators do.”  According to Dunn, you can have a ceiling fan in your room, “but you have to make sure it’s good looking or blends in with the ceiling so it somewhat disappears.  Keep it simple and sleek.”


Elle Décor




Design Commandment #5 Thou Shalt Not Mix & Match Metals

Mixing metals has considered dangerous territory for a long time. The idea of matching finishes was created to give visual harmony, which it does, but it also makes for a room that is flat.  Fortunately, designer Nichole Loiacono of NL Design thinks this rule is antiquated and believes that various metal tones can occupy the same space.

To successfully break this rule one must understand the patina of the metallic pieces you are bringing into the room. Weathered brass, antique silver and muted golds play well together without clashing; the patina of the metals becomes the unifying factor rather than the metals themselves. Loiacono likens breaking this rule as a “metallic free for all” where “silver and gold can be together at last.”

kera mann dining room

Kara Mann


Carrie Hayden, House Beautiful

Cardinal Design Commandment: Thou Shalt Not . . . Follow Any Rules!

When all is said and done, design is about style, form and function.  Each space will have its own unique challenges which may not always fit an existing design rule or commandment.  As the definition states, rules guide a particular activity but just like anything, they change to fit our needs.  So who cares if you break a few to get a space you love.  Throw caution to the wind and be a design rebel.  By breaking a few rules, you just may make a new rule of your own.”

Wow, Courtney, so inspiring!  Thank you for taking the time to answer Leah’s inquiry and for giving us all a few examples of how to break design rules with flair!   I love breaking that last commandment, I always mix metallic sheens. 

Be sure to hop over and say hello to Courtney at his blog Life Out Loud, he’s always creating something marvelous.

courtney bio banner


Naturally this article begs the question . . .

There are a lot of design “rules” – which ones have you broken? 




  1. I am THRILLED that Courtney gave mixing metals a thumbs up! I have brushed nickel window hardware in my living room, but am dying to paint my black quatrefoil mirror gold. Now that I know from an expert that it’s ok, I’m just dying to do it! Thank you!

  2. I think no matter the current trend, you should always have a little of your own personality in your space and if it’s totally in an opposite direction-You just have to OWN it and it works!!! I love mixing what’s in for the world with what’s in for me!

  3. I love the idea for this blog entry. I recently took an interior design course and the professor told us that there really are no rules in interior design – it’s so freeing! I define the success of a design by how it makes one feel. Does it make you feel cozy? Modern and sleek? Open, airy and whimsical? All are “right” and all could be completely different. Great article and great inspiration!

  4. Thank you for this! When it comes down to it, you have to go with what you like! When I can’t decide what to do, I just pick what I’m drawn to and it will all usually come together because it reflects me.

    I especially appreciate the part about the ceiling fans. I just took down (an ugly) one and put up another even though I thought the “prettier” thing would be a fun light fixture. I love having a fan though!

  5. Ok, now I feel slightly better about our living room (Texas-large funiture in a Hawaii-small home). Although I think the feng shui is still off . . . but that at least gives me something to work with.

  6. This is an awesome post and right on! It is SO true that some rules should not be followed. Just because I may like things in a certain order doesn’t mean that’s the only beautiful way. For the most part, you just have to love it and be confident about it – and then you can make anything work!

  7. I mixed everything. Iron with lace. Rusty reds with pastels. It was all under the Vintage Umbrella – the theme that made it all “fit”.

  8. Hello Kate and Courtney,

    Having lived in hot/humid Houston for 21 years, I so totally agree on the ceiling fan debate. You would have to pry my bedroom fan out my cold dead hands before I would replace it with a chic chandy.

    Comfort trumps chic in my book any day.

    As I see it, if I create a living space….stand back and know that it makes me smile, then that’s enough validation for me. I could not care less if I mixed bold patterns or metals. If it makes me want to spend time in that space, then I’m a happy girl.

    I have recently been painting my ceilings a very pale blue…LOVE IT!!!!!! (walls are pale grey)
    My sister- in- law thought I was crazy until she gave it a go…now she loves it.

    Thanks for this fun post.

    Janet xox

  9. I am a design rebel! You were talking my language in this post.

    Best part of the post was what was said “When all is said and done, design is about style, form and function. Each space will have its own unique challenges which may not always fit an existing design rule or commandment.

    There still has to have style, form and function and then go for it!

  10. Wonderful article! It’s definitely time to update our ideas about design. my favorite rule to break (or think about breaking since I don’t have a house) is mixing black and brown and also mixing different wood tones. Work it people!

  11. Oh I think I have broken all of them!! Happily so!

    Art by Karena

    Come and enter my New Giveaway from Serena & Lily!

  12. Oh Courtney, I SO agree about the ceiling fans! Living in Texas they are a must! I too am a big fan of painted ceilings. I love all of your list of commandments to be broken. Great post!

  13. Brilliant article–thank you so much! I especially appreciate the advice about mixing metals: I have seen it done successfully–but I couldn’t figure out why! Now I know. Love it.

  14. Thanks Kate and Courtney!! You’re the best! And I especially love the ceiling fan “rule”… :) It’s so helpful just to have a little bit of guidance in how to navigate these tricky areas. xoxo, Leah

  15. I also would never put a chandelier in our bedroom – we love having our ceiling fan every single night! But, I bought a stylish one that mixes well with our bedroom and I think it looks stylish and divine:

    I also love how some designers put large furniture in to make a small room feel bigger! Thanks for a great post!

    Becky B.
    Organizing Made Fun

  16. These are great! A nice reminder that just about anything can work if you’re creative enough.

  17. Courtney killed it with that painted ceiling! Loved that.

    I have dreams in our “future home” of having an all white inspirational studio space where I can create my pet portraits… with the only colors being my paint supplies! Well, now, the paint supplies AND a great, bright ceiling. My color loving heart is beating wildly!

  18. I finally took the leap this past year and mixed metal finishes! My 90’s house is filled with polished brass fixtures and since I can only replace them slowly, I am mixing metals left and right, but with some discretion (using complementary finishes). I am so glad Courtney gave me validation :-)

  19. I break design rules ALL the time. I say do what what you want :) And yay for painted ceilings!!! All mine are painted.

  20. Well, the truth is that I have broken them all. I find that there is often a fight between Feng Shui and design rules. I mean, if it offends then don’t do it. Go with the flow and he character of the home. I’ve look at over 1,000 homes year, and many mostly high end and some times it just doesn’t work. In my opinion, go with the flow and don’t rush design. Simple is always best~

  21. CEILING FANS! yes, we have them in nearly every room, lol. We don’t have central air here, but it can get hot, so it helps to cool the air in the room we are using at the moment, so we don’t have to run the AC as much. Saves money. We have ones that I believe blend in to the ceiling. I wouldn’t be without them.

  22. Great article, rules are meant to be broken aren’t they?!
    I think having my bed in front of the window is a bit of a no-no but had to as this was the only place it would fit!. Also doing away with my dining room to make way for a larger kitchen, and opting for an outdoor dining area instead.

  23. I like the ceiling fan in our bedroom too because the room is on the second floor and we’re with those hot Texas folks! I just wish I picked a prettier fan! I didn’t realize there were so many better options out there! Great article Courtney and I love the photos you chose.

  24. Great post, I really liked the part about big furniture in a small room. It had me thinking whether the opposite is also true – should a large room have big furniture or would it be possible to make it nice with smaller pieces?

  25. We had 3 ceiling fans in our bedrooms and added one to the living room and one to the kitchen. We paid my sister’s bf to put them up and I praise him for it. It’s a tough job! it gets to be over 100 most days in the summer. We don’t have central air and a few window units. Often, if we have the doors open and the fans on it’s enough to keep the rooms cool. I don’t care if ceiling fans our out of style. It’s for survival for a lot of us. :)

  26. I don’t really follow any rules except, “I can’t live with that”. So even if I’d just made something, I’d get rid of it if it doesn’t look right (eg like in my latest blog post), even if it took me long time making it.

  27. Love this post. We have a ceiling fan in the bedroom. My DH insisted he had to have it. I don’t like it but I can sure live with it. I really don’t even notice it anymore.

  28. Another person from Texas here and I applaud the practicality of embracing the ceiling fan. I tried going without one in my sewing room for almost two years and I ended up moving all my sewing stuff into the living room because it was just unbearable. Now, I have a ceiling fan in there and I can sew all day long. It’s a must down here!!

  29. Great post! I just getting started decorating our house, and I can’t wait to break a few rules! I’m happy to see ceiling fans get a thumbs-up, since they are so often disparaged. It doesn’t get hot enough here in Maine to have central air or lots of AC units, so a ceiling fan is a great way to keep air moving and keep it cool enough to sleep comfortably. And in the winter, ceiling fans in the house help distribute the heat, important for saving money on the heating bill! Sometimes function is more important (as long as you can get something stylish too).

  30. great post! thanks Courtney and Kate!
    I love mixing metals. so beautiful.
    – {darlene}

  31. Thanks so much for breaking the ceiling fan rule! I am generally against them but my boyfriend cannot let them go. They do offer a nice breeze but can be so ugly. The options you posted are gorgeous! Hmmm….


  32. Courtney & Kate,

    Thanks for such an insightful and liberating post. I thought all the points were “spot on”! As many others have already commented, my family and I couldn’t live without our ceiling fans…beautiful chandy or not. Although we’re in NC, we use our fans year-round… changing the direction in the winter to draw the warm air down to help with heating.

    Design is soooo subjective, so I think that Courtney summed it up best with the statement ” When all is said and done, design is about style, form and function.” So true!

    Thanks again for a great post. I’m going to share it on my Facebook page so others can read that it IS ok to break the rules!

    Warm Regards,
    Stacey :)

  33. loved this. especially the bit about the ceiling fan. I always try and crop them out of my pictures but there is something peaceful and definitely more comfortable about a ceiling fan. We live in an old house. A lot of the windows have been painted shut. Ceiling fans are a life saver.
    Great post.

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