Name some favorite foods: dark Belgian chocolate, a great steak, fresh peaches, homegrown tomatoes. These are just a few items on my short list, but I'd never mix them together to serve in a casserole. Some wouldn't even work as part of the same meal, so I enjoy them alone or with things that make for a better pairing.
The same sensible restraint applies to home design. Every space or structure has multiple "ingredients" that work together to create the right design recipe. These include color, lighting, materials, surface textures, contrast, scale, proportion and other elements.
Getting the mix right is a balancing act where each item or feature has to work in context with the others. Some are like spices best used sparingly, while others are staples you can pile on generously.
Most people have diverse tastes when it comes to architectural and design elements, but just because you like a variety of looks or styles doesn't mean they should all be featured in your home simultaneously, especially within the same room. Even deliberate mixes of various styles, typically called eclectic, need some discipline and balance to work well.
Good eclectic design sometimes looks random and informal, but it's usually not. The best spaces feature a harmony that emerges from clear priorities. There often will be a dominant focal point, such as a fireplace or a kitchen island, where your eye will go first when you enter the room. Then you'll notice some other strong elements -- a rich paint color on the walls, detailed millwork or flooring, great texture on an upholstery fabric.
Avoid the overwrought
Finally, there will be small surprises -- sculpted cabinet pulls, a subtle rug border -- that you come across as you spend more time in the room. The key is that you enjoy these elements in a repeating sequence as your eye moves around the room, lingering on the good stuff but never getting overwhelmed.
By contrast, strong but undisciplined designs have a chaotic and unsettling effect. So many things are competing for your attention that it's impossible to let your eye rest anywhere before moving on.
The result is a sort of disorienting visual vibration, like re-creating the Las Vegas Strip right in your very own home.
Overwrought designs often happen when people inadvertently try to include too many of their favorite things in one place. Embarking on a kitchen remodel, they come across a beautiful contemporary glass tile for the backsplash, pick out a porcelain farmhouse-style sink like their grandparents had and buy a suite of sleek stainless-steel appliances.
Then there's the Tuscan-style cabinetry,trendy low-voltage track-lighting system and the wide-plank pine flooring to match what's in the family room.
'Safe' beige is no solution
Curious about the final look? Keep waiting, because you won't see this kind of remodeling in any legitimate magazine on the subject, except perhaps in the "Never Do This" section.
Taken individually, any of these ingredients can contribute to a good design and some might work well together. But combine them all and you're likely to end up with a confused and confusing look that costs far more than a simpler, more coherent design.
Tract-home developers and real estate agents know this. They've seen strong designs go awry and scare off potential buyers, so they play it safe and lean toward neutral decors. That's a solution of sorts, but few people want to be beiged to death in their own home.
So how do you get the right balance and still have your home reflect who you are? The easy answer is to hire a professional designer to help with the array of color and materials choices that any remodeling project involves. Even if it's just a single consultation, this is money well spent.
You'll notice also that good designers create a design board, a working palette of paint colors, trim materials, surfaces, fabrics and textures that are assembled together. .
But to hone your own sense of what might work in your home, do a few simple exercises to demonstrate how you instinctively react to different decor elements. First, squint until your eyes are nearly shut, and "look" at the room around you. You'll detect only extreme contrasts of light and dark, typically window and door openings.
This is also what you'll see first with your eyes wide open, but the squinting trick makes smaller elements disappear and helps eliminate the distractions. Next, open your eyes just slightly so that everything is still blurry but you begin to register colors.
The most vibrant or intense hues will appear first. You might also see some heavy textures, because they create prominent patterns of light and shadow. Now look at that same room with your eyes open, focusing especially on the elements that caught your attention during the squinting exercise. After those register, are there secondary features that your gaze wanders upon?
Practice this exercise in different environments and you'll be much more conscious of the things that compete for your attention. Then it's easier to see your own home that way. If there are too many attractions or focal points, or there is no natural hierarchy, odds are good that some culling is due.
Finally, when you assemble the ingredients for a new project, group them together so that you can see how they interact. Context is everything, and it will steer you toward better choices early in the process when you have more options and less invested.
For more emphasis, use intense colors, heavy textures and glossy surfaces that reflect light and get your attention. To tone some things down, try muted colors, smooth surfaces and matte finishes.