Many years ago as I began my active interior design work, I had an opportunity to serve as an interior designer/decorator for a national department store chain with a specialty in window treatments. This company offered customers three levels of products, which they labeled “good, better and best” qualities. This philosophy helped form an image in the customers’ minds that they could always upgrade from “good” to “better” or to “best” in any merchandise offered. This is an idea that has tremendous selling power in the custom interior design marketplace.
MEDIOCRE AND POOR DESIGN
Before we begin an investigation of these three levels of design or decorating,
an explanation is in order. There exists in the field of interior design and
decorating much that is substandard. In fact, there is a plethora of mediocre
design and entirely too much poor design in real life and in the pages of shelter
and decorating magazines.
Mediocre design, although it does meet some basic needs, does not inspire, does
not contribute to the interior design theme or scheme and does not make a fashion
statement. It usually brings about no reaction, as it is neutral and evokes no
emotion either bad or good. Mediocre design is mass-produced and available ready-made
in standard sizes, which may or may not fit all circumstances, even with standard-sized
Mediocre design usually is cost efficient, which may well be the driving factor
in its purchase. Mediocre products rarely if ever include the services of a professional
and are often installed or purchased for places where the occupant does not intend
to stay for a long period of time (temporary housing or brief office occupation)
or where the budget will not allow for any upgraded merchandise. As such, mediocre
or mass-produced products are needed and are a justified—and even an important—part
of any free-enterprise system. In other words, mediocre is not what we want to
use as any kind of a custom interior design or decorating standard. We recognize
that it exists, but it is simply not our competition.
Poor design is a much more complex anomaly or abnormality. At first glance, we
might think of poor design in terms of cheap merchandise. And, partially, that
is a justifiable viewpoint. Poor design, in general, does not function in a supportive
or practical way. It may be an item that breaks with minimal use or in a short
period of time. Any item that does not serve its intended use for a reasonable
length of time was poorly engineered, poorly manufactured using substandard materials,
parts and craftsmanship.
Nearly everyone knows the frustration of having something with a small but critical
plastic part break so that the entire item becomes nonfunctional. That’s
poor design. Poor design is also confusing or hard to use. It is not user friendly.
Poor design may also be a bad decorating choice in terms of color, form, pattern,
shape, texture and, most of all, application. This means that when the finished
product is viewed, there is a tendency to shutter with repulsion. Ironically,
over-the-top decorating—simply too much of something—falls into this
If the eye is given no choice but to look at something because of its obviousness,
its color or pattern intensity, that’s poor design. If the eye jumps from
item to item and, as a result, emotions often make us feel slightly suffocated
or rebellious, that’s poor design. If there is a sudden urge to turn and
leave the room or to start throwing things out, that’s poor design. If
we feel frustrated or even a little ill while looking at something, that’s
poor design. Fads and arbitrary silliness is poor design, things that don’t
work visually, that should have been better thought out, sketched and colored
or simply had some common sense applied before the money was spent is also poor
Poor design, anywhere in life, does not elevate; it is distressing or degrading.
Poor design is obvious in graphic art or visual images that are not uplifting
and inevitably cause mental addiction as they form destructive cycles that harm
families and careers. Poor design is unhealthy from a visual and emotional point
Another kind of poor design is described in a German word, kitsch, meaning silly,
incidental or arbitrary design. Much of our cartoon-like designed characters
or products falls into this category and, ironically, it may become endearing,
such as the clip-art smilie faces occasionally sent with an e-mail or the ever-loved
Mickey Mouse ears—both really very silly and certainly not good design,
but somewhat beloved in our over-stressed, I-forgot-how-to-smile culture. There
is a place for kitsch because some of it has no quality of manufacturing, just
click on the smilie face. And a bit of good, clean fun cannot be criticized.
The good decorating level is found in structural and practical interior furnishing
products sensibly put together into a serviceable whole. Windows are covered
with quality, fully functional, perfectly fitting and well-installed alternative
products: blinds, shades, shutters or with draperies or other soft treatments
that meet the basic and important needs.
These requirements include nighttime and daytime privacy, light and glare control
and aesthetic balance—blending in with the overall theme of the room. The
look is pragmatic and functional. Upkeep is minimal, colors are typically neutral.
The decorating scheme could change with little concern for the window treatments.
There is staying power or the endurance of time with good decorating.
Better decorating is where some consideration is given to the lifestyle preferences
of the client. Better decorating is the beginning of true custom interior design.
Thought is placed on the goals of the interior, who will live or work there and
how furnishings should function to support the activities that will take place
There also is a plan in place for completing a fully executed design theme, even
if it is accomplished in increments. Carefully coordinated colors, patterns and
textures work together to create a harmonious whole, where all elements are interdependent
for an effectively furnished and complete look.
Better design is also where more selections are offered to the customer with
price and quality as factors, but where appropriateness, beauty and significance
are the key deciding factors—what is really the right look, the right fabric,
the right style.
BEST DECORATING, ALL THE TRIMMINGS.
Better interior design is well above average and only one step remains to make
an interior as good as it gets: the best design possible. The best interior design
assumes that the room has already accomplished all that is possible to achieve
good and better design.
In interior design nomenclature, we often speak of the best design as being fine
design, meaning the pinnacle of good taste. How does an interior reach this level?
It begins by making sure the steps of good and better design are fulfilled:
1. The materials and furnishings are practical, useful and of good quality.
2. The interior is carefully planned to meet the needs and desires of those who
live there. It is nicely coordinated using long-lived color, pattern, and texture.
3. There is the ability to focus on the details.
Listing all the ways that a space can be a wonderful area means that attention
to each detail is a procedure that is given careful attention. This is, of course,
where creativity is put into action. This is where the fun begins.
In custom window treatments and in decorative accessories this means add-ons,
which make an ordinary interior into a very special space that is unique and
tailored to meet the desires or even justifiable whims of the client. What sort
of details makes a room the very best it can be? They will be things that go
far beyond the basics. They will be the icing on the cake, so to speak. This
means trimmings, banding and pillows with details such as buttons or welting,
fringe or appliqué. It means coordinating two or more fabrics in ways
that interconnects them in delightful ways that result in a visual treat—subtle
and charming. Be careful here, there is a fine line between great fabric use
and tacky fabric use.
The best decorating is never trite or obvious or boring or tedious. No trimming
or banding or contrast should jump out and grab the eye’s attention. That
is poor taste. Rather, the eye must do a bit of searching. Subtlety is a critical
element in excellent design. This is especially true in fabric. For example,
if a fabric has three or more colors, do not pick out the smallest quantity color
for the accent color. Rather, choose the color that is most clearly the key player
in the fabric. This will assure that the scheme will appear cohesive and harmonized.
Another factor is to vary the scale or size of the pattern in coordinated applications.
If a major fabric has a large scale, then the contrasting trimming should be
small scale. Don’t put two similarly scaled fabrics together unless they
are coordinates and planned to be used as companions. Note that this is not necessarily
the case just because a fabric book offers a grouping of patterns in the same
colorways. There must be a lead fabric and a support fabric, not two equally
competing fabrics used together. As a general rule, a room often can support
a large pattern (or a medium-sized pattern), a small pattern and a tiny pattern,
often as a geometric, a stripe and possibly a plaid, plus textures.
Although all rules can be broken with skill and artistic license belonging to
one who has achieved good taste and judgment through a careful study of design,
this rule is a safe and consistent one that will help to assure proper use of
coordinated fabric patterns.
Good judgment is also required for the sophisticated and appropriate use of passementerie:
fringe, cording, tassels and other trimmings yardage. Very elegant passementerie
should be used in formal, traditional rooms; and the heavier the scale or the
larger the room and the more historic, period or exquisite the furnishings, the
greater the use of trimmings.
Similar to the rule above about contrasting colors, the best-designed interiors
use trimmings in an understated contrast, not harsh or high contrast, but soft
and subtle. This rule assures that the eye will not be offended or tire of the
use of the passementerie. The result will be details that will stand the test
of time, that will be beautiful for years after it was new.
GOOD, BETTER OR BEST: HOW TO CHOOSE?
Not every customer will need the best decorating or interior design the professional
is able to offer. In every client situation, the Five Ws apply: Who, What, When,
Where and Why.
There are times when the answers will dictate that simplicity and structurally
unadorned design is the best direction while at other times, many trimmings will
be appropriate. That is part of the enormous responsibility of the interior design
professional, to gather together the facts that yield the best decisions.
Good design, better design and the best design all have one thing in common:
the right choices have been made, and the result is perfect for the client’s
taste, budget and the function of the interior.
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and
has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding
Fabrics. Nielson is a regular
correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion,
education and merchandising.art finish and superior dovetail panel construction.