Eclectic décor still needs some common elements

While asking new clients about their likes and dislikes, a husband and wife recently volunteered that their apartment back home was “eclectic,” or in their own words, “Nothing goes with anything; they’re just pieces that we’ve accumulated over the years because we liked them.”

That was fine with me as I’ve always been a firm believer that clients have every right to furnish their homes as they see fit. After all, it’s their money and they’ll be living there long after my job as “the arbiter of good taste” is finished. As a designer I’m here to help them make informed decisions and as few mistakes as possible and, hopefully, help to give them the biggest bang for their buck — an admirable goal at any time, but especially so in today’s uncertain economy.

Soon after my meeting, I began to think about the real meaning of eclectic as it applies to furniture and interior design. Does it really mean putting together “anything and everything”? Or is it a term, like so many today, that has been misappropriated and can do with some updating and redefining. I think so.

It’s safe to say that basically an eclectic style doesn’t rigidly adhere to one style, but is rather a blend of furnishing styles from a mixture of sources and time periods. It’s characterized by a freedom of expression and great individuality, which my new clients seemed to readily exemplify. After all, the dictionary does define eclectic as “composed of elements drawn from various sources and then selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods or styles.”

But in actuality, eclectic goes well beyond that because there are several basic fundamental principles that need to be adhered to in order to achieve the best possible results. Eclectic really isn’t some kind of a jumble of whatever catches your eye. It will work to the greatest advantage only when the basic principles of design, which are line, color, texture, mass and form, are understood and work together to create a unified look.

Keeping these principles in mind, it’s still not a bad thing to begin with the premise that if you buy only what you love, somehow it will all work. And, do you know what, most times it does! When putting together different furniture, fabrics, finishes and objects from diverse periods and cultures, it’s still possible to create a room that is wonderful and unique to you alone and that will be admired by all who see it. In fact, it can probably be said, that the more original your design, the better. Just don’t get so carried away with your own inventiveness that you create some kind of a hodgepodge or jumbled assortment of random items.

And remember that diverse styles can mix especially well when the background and furniture forms are kept simple and when the materials used have something in common, i.e., coordinating fabrics used on each piece.

In the example shown of the great room in a home in Kona, Hawaii, that I worked on with my wife, interior designer Barbara Woolf, the overall eclectic look comes from a mixture of contemporary, Asian and even lodge design. The contemporary incorporates clean lines, a good use of space without feeling overcrowded as well as the use of strong bold colors evidenced in the sofa and pillow fabrics. The seating is a mixture of traditional, contemporary and Asian influences in its overall appearance.

There’s an Asian altar table, lamps and coffee table, as well as antique Chinese game chairs, a side table with an African theme and numerous Asian objets d’art. The feeling in this room and throughout the home is one of a comfortable lodge reminiscent of Isak Dinesen’s famous “Out of Africa” and exemplified by the beamed ceiling, the wonderful stone floor-to-ceiling fireplace, fly fans and the extensive use of wood trim.

By the way, the rugs were acquired by our clients on a trip to Turkey and rest on a beautiful bamboo floor accentuating the warmth and welcome of a comfortable lodge. They are wonderfully juxtaposed to the modern painting that overlooks the room from atop the mantel.

This is but one example of the various styles that can make up an eclectic design. In a well-done room, you can see how good design works to make all the different styles work cohesively — and not appear as if everything had just been thrown together.

If you want to have an eclectic room, try to choose one dominant look and then use a few pieces here and there from some other style. If you’re unsure about what colors to use, then try to lean toward neutrals, which can go a long way to helping the different influences come together and work as a whole.

I suppose that eclectic design is as popular as it is because it’s a great way to go if you can’t come to terms with choosing one style for your home. It allows you to forgo the “this has to match” mentality and experiment to create an interesting mix of furniture and accessories. But please do remember that your goal is a controlled contrast of diverse elements.

And by the way, my clients’ new home here will be pretty much contemporary-loft style, a change they’re sure to enjoy.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to

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