Paint your walls a bold color and friends will likely praise your creativity. Invest in a standout piece of furniture or striking work of art and your decorating is bound to earn compliments. But creating a noteworthy room with subtle, understated elegance is more complicated.
Understated style “rides the fine line between too sparse and too cold,” says 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, subtle balance can be worth it. Although bold decorating has been in the spotlight for a while, a more neutral room, if well-designed, “will never become tired,” Flynn says.
“Every once in a while, it’s nice to have a space that’s just simple and clean,” he says.
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,” says 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 agrees.
He also recommends wood surfaces softened by white-washing, 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,” says Jon Call of Mr. Call Designs in New York. Place lamps to spread light evenly throughout the space, eliminating bright spots and dark shadows.
Flynn also recommends dimmers to control light precisely.
▪ Compelling shapes. In a subtle room without busy patterns or bold colors, find other ways to create interest, Call says. 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.
“I usually add several shades and tints of the same neutral tone throughout the space to give it depth,” Flynn says.
Also use a variety of contrasting textures. Silk will maximize light, Call says, 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,” says Flynn. “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 says. “Either it’s an interesting shape, or the finish is unusual or the fabric is so fine and special.”
There are fewer items, but better ones. Your coffee table may be a neutral color and simple material, she says, but “maybe it’s a vintage coffee table that has this amazing provenance or patina.”
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 agrees: “Editing plays a huge role in understated rooms,” he says. “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.”