• Wei Shen

Understanding the purpose of interior "decorating", you won't stuff your precious space with trash.

Interior decorating can be much trickier than it seems. You need to create a cohesive look while maintaining a unique style that reflects your personal experience and taste, without compromising the essential function of your space.

But quite often, we are easily carried away when seeing a gorgeous item in a boutique store or coming across with some online shopping temptations. The WOW factor is irresistible and sometimes results in irrational purchases.

Yes, it can be an amazing designer's lamp with elegant details; or a perfect piece of sofa that makes it the focal point of that showroom; or a group of graphics smartly arranged on the wall, above a humble but beautiful vintage credenza. But don't forget, everything comes together in its unique way to form an incredible interior scene. The fact that you love certain items in a staged scene doesn't guarantee that you will get the same nice result when you put them at your own place.

Samely, trilled by tons of magazine photos like those below?

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Undoubtedly, many photos from magazines or the internet look very tempting.

Is it possible to have a similar look at your home? Yes!

Is it easy? No.

If you really want to copy a look, you need to meet at least two requirements: first of all, similar ceiling height, similar natural lighting; then you need to get each piece of what you see in that photo and hopefully have the right materials and proportions of all architectural elements at home.

So, instead of duplicating, the wiser and more sustainable approach is to study your own place and plan your decoration from scratch. Therefore, you need to be equipped with some basic notions of why and how to decorate an interior space.

It's impossible to address all aspects and methods of decorating by one article, so today we are only going to talk about a few essentials, such as the relationship between decors and space. Bearing some rules in mind, you will be able to dissect different design situations you encounter. The more you practice, the more sophisticated the result would become, and the more flexibly you will be able to implement them.

Subject and background

Most of the time, decorations are not items that exist to conduct a practical function in your daily life, let's say, they are something extra, or not necessities. They are used for enlivening a stark living environment, for subliming the space quality, etc. In other words, if your home doesn't look better with them, you don't need them.

Decoration, as a spatial feature or visual attraction, the most important function is not how impressive themselves are, is how great they interact with their surroundings.

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Let me ask you, who is the leading role in the 2 pictures above?

Most likely, the grand pianos.

Of course, the piano has its inherent function. But when talking about visual effects, it also works as a room decoration. Then what do you see behind the piano? Yes, window frames, big plain-colored drapery, or simple shades, as well as a bright exterior view. The garden scenery framed by the window provides a humble, implying, transparent background, which in fact accentuates the elegant silhouette of the grand piano in the foreground. The shiny lacquer (first image) and the nice patina (second image) of the piano become more poetic under such circumstances, hence, evoke some emotional responses.

In other words, the beauty of the grand piano, as a major decor, is strengthened by the background.

How about the 2 images below? Are the prominent objects still pianos?

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In the first image, I believe what draws our attention at first glance is not the piano anymore, but the oil painting above it. Why? Here the upright piano has a stronger relationship with the wall and integrates more with other surrounded objects which are mostly in neutral colors like black, white, brown, and tinted grey. The small dose of mustard yellow in the oil painting effortlessly stands out and makes the framed painting the focal point in this scene.

Although the piano is not as dominant as that of the images mentioned earlier, this is no less than a wonderful interior scene.

Similar stories are told by the second image. The white upright piano totally blends into the white wall, white chair and bookshelf, and generously gives the show stage to the enormous illustration print of a seastar. The striking view is yet balanced by other functional objects and decors, such as a much smaller wall frame in a dark tone, an orange table lamp on top of the piano for reading the score, a few vegetation pots to add liveness...In conclusion, a very pleasant nook at home with strong personalized touches.

Above are examples of great relationships between subject and background. Bad examples are coming below.

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In the first image above, the huge, colorful painting is simply competing with the piano below. They are weakening each other's character by sharing a half-half proportion in both physical volume and visual weight, no mention that the wood grille wall is already a rich background for the piano and even for the entire room. A number of small objects on the piano top crashed together with the strong style of the painting just make the scene overly busy and unpeaceful.

As to the second one, the overwhelming wall arts with black frames spread strong contrasts all over the background wall and make the scene looking too contrived. A more careful arrangement of those frames seems to be absent. On top of that, the grand piano in front is being put in an awkward situation. Why? Judging by its position, the piano is supposed to be the focal point of this corner, but the background wall is just distracting us tirelessly by screaming"look here! Look here!"

Adding decorations is not always preferable to leaving the space blank.

Worse cases below:

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In the first image above, the piano with 2 identical table lamps on top looks pretty dominant in front of its background-a light grey wall. The color palette is quite neutral and elegant. Imagine without the wall frames, this can be a very ordinary residential nook, not super bad. But when the 9 colorful wall frames are added to the wall, the scene suddenly loses control. Everything seems trying to get attention, but none gets any success. The place feels busy and non-breathable, consequently, no pleasure is found by the beholders.

The fundamental purpose of decoration which is simply to make an interior space nicer is obviously lost here.

On the second image, a beige-colored wall serves as a background, which is fine. The piano has a very special color, which makes us believe that it is supposed to be the leading role here. Unfortunately, the wall frames and photos prove us wrong. They are drawing a lot of our attention by the low image quality and carelessly chosen color scheme. This seems not bad enough, a huge sculptural table lamp and a floral pattern upholstered bench successfully turn this space into a catastrophe.

The relationships between the subject and the background are exemplified above by scenes with a piano. Now let's move on to the next question. What kind of relationship between primary and secondary subjects will create beautiful, harmonious decoration?

Quality over quantity

Piling up low-quality items is no better than leaving the place empty.

Let’s continue with some bad examples.

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In the first image above, the green couch in a relatively large volume has a predominant role in front of the beige wall. Ideally, all other decors are supposed to be as supportive as possible in order to accentuate the couch, since in this case the couch cannot be taken as part of the background due to its strong visual presence. Nevertheless, 3 huge green-based decorative images on the wall make it an awkward situation, and the carpet pattern, brass ceiling lamp, gold-finished coffee table, the bird sculptures, etc, don’t help at all. Finally, you cannot tell what the background is nor where the focus is. All you can feel is overwhelming instead of a harmonious outcome.

Apparently, who created this interior scene was trying to “match” things (e.g. colors, materials) together, which is a common mistake that amateurs make when decorating.

Same with the second image. The moss green couch with brownish patterned pillows is strong enough to be the statement of this space. An empty white wall and a floor in a more solid color instead of this pattern would really help form an elegant corner of this house. However, the decorator spent a lot of energy on creating a frame wall of botanical art prints. I bet you know that framing is a costly service and, in this case, probably costing more than the images themselves. No mention that aligning them in such a meticulous way on the wall is quite a project. Well, my point is that you may spend all your dedication to enhancing the aesthetics, but degrading it, No.

Below is a good example I find for visualizing my point. I take the scene with a green couch for simpler relevance.

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In this image, what draws our attention immediately are the 2 green armchairs. You notice the delicate lines, and the nice contrast between the velvet upholstery and the light wood frames because nothing in the scene is disturbing your focus. Then if you look carefully around, you can find that the general ambiance here is constructed by a light grey/beige color scheme. The wall, the rug, the couch, and even the big painting are doing a great job in constituting this subdued background. But when you look closer, each of them also has its own characteristic materials and details, which adds depth and some texture to the entire interior space. On top of that, a small dose of black, brown, and deep green bring liveness and subtle variations to the place, all of which is creating harmony between the background and the accent-the green armchairs. In this example, nothing is competing with others. Everyone has its own role and all of them echo with some of the others, but not “match” in a brainless way.


People tend to find beautiful examples from the internet or magazines, hoping to get some inspiration. However, the help from those examples is limited if you don’t know what really makes them work. What’s worse? You will easily get overwhelmed and feel lost. What’s the worst? You end up buying the same or similar items which you find appealing from different project photos.

That is the last thing you should do.

Interior design is far beyond decorating, and decorating itself is also a complicated subject that we can discuss for months and years. Today we started on this by talking about why we should prioritize the relations between background and the subject in an interior space. Next time, we will continue discussing how to switch the roles between the two.


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