Which comes first: The color on the wall or the color in the fabric? Like the chicken versus the egg, the question is open to debate, but design pros tend to answer "fabric."
Fall in love with a beautiful print, discover a luxurious length of linen or lose your heart to an antique quilt. The idea for a room begins with the mood and colors of the fabrics you choose.
To learn how to translate fabric into a decorating scheme, a good place to begin is "Home Furnishing With Fabric" by Leslie Geddes-Brown and Lucinda Ganderton (Ryland, Peters & Small, 191 pages $19.95).
Solid colors, especially in upholstery, give you the greatest freedom. If you cover your sofa with one of the new neutrals -- a beautiful gray, for instance -- you can create sophistication by adding pillows in a rainbow of subtle blues.
If, on the other hand, you choose brown cotton viscose for the sofas and leather for your chairs, you might want to add the surprise of crimson walls.
Strong colors are a good solution if you "dislike clutter or, for that matter, cannot afford a great deal of furniture," Geddes-Brown says.
In addition to color, texture is key. Imagine a room done in cream, taupe and white. If you execute the scheme in tactile wool and cashmere, you'd have a look Geddes-Brown calls "urban sybaritic."
Try that same color combination in cotton and you'd evoke "summer nights on the veranda."
Modern take on cottage florals
In silk, you'd switch gears and create glamour, especially if you relied on the shimmer of satin and understated beauty of matte silk.
If you're interested in fabrics that burst with color and pattern, an inspiring resource is "In Print: Brilliant Ideas for Using Vintage Fabrics in Your Home" (Chronicle, 160 pages, $24.95). It's written by Cath Kidston, the British designer known for using cottage florals in a modern way.
Wary of draperies done in oversize florals -- she warns that they can feel traditional and cliched -- she finds that a chair covered in a blousy chintz "always seems to work."
"A simple tablecloth looks good in a big floral," she says, "as does a single splash of print used for a headboard or a bedcover."
As for mini-florals, Kidston gives them style by mixing in shirting stripes or baby polka dots. Curtains in mini-florals have a whole new look when backed by gingham checks.
One fabric that Kidston has almost single-handedly brought back from obscurity is oilcloth, favored by housewives as a covering for kitchen tables. She loves it on upholstery.
"Prosaic kitchen chairs and stools can be transformed with shiny seat cushions," she says. "But it is also fun to use oilcloth on grander pieces of furniture," such as French bedroom chairs.
For a modern twist on fabric, turn to Metropolitan Home's "Decorate" by Michael Lassell (Filipacchi Publishing, 256 pages, $45). There you'll find a bedroom where the artwork is created out of nine vintage handkerchiefs, each hung so it floats away from the wall.
You'll find a living room where translucent floor-to-ceiling fabric panels swing open like shutters.
And you'll find a bedroom entirely lined with gently rippled sheers. Walls, windows, patches and flaws are all hidden by white polyester fabric hung from recessed hardware and weighted with a tiny ball chain sewn into the hem.
The effect is serene -- and intriguing. Designer Abigail Turin loves the fact that the outline of the windows is visible, and that you can see the shadows cast by the eucalyptus trees outside.
Fabrics are a call to inspiration. Saris make wonderful bed curtains, and linen can soften a kitchen if you use it under the counters, instead of wooden cupboard doors. Pillows look fabulous when they're three-quarters blue, one-quarter green.
When you find the fabrics you love, let them guide your scheme. Move cushions, throws and rugs from room to room to see what kind of color combinations you can come up with. The best motifs, believes Geddes-Brown, "are often discovered by accident."