Creating softly beautiful interiors with fabric is the one aspect that many design professionals enjoy the most. In fact, many enter the field because of an innate talent and passion for artistic textile combinations and creative design placement.
For many of these decorators, the rules of coordination are innate,
too. For others, guidelines for selecting and combining fabric textures,
colors and patterns are useful.
In most well-designed interiors, there is a recognizable theme to
the master plan that guides the selection of textiles. Thematic
design is a term that indicates a master plan according to a specific
look, mood, theme or period—either historic or contemporary.
The theme may be one of the following examples.
1. Accurate or adapted: Where an interior is an authentic or
adapted historic theme such as Neoclassic, the types of textiles
to be selected are pre-established, as indicated by the guiding
principles of the period style. However, experienced design professionals
sometimes opt for interesting and unusual fabrics to be used on
period furniture pieces to freshen or update the historic look.
2. Grouped or unified: A broader approach would be to use general
themes such as seen in the names given various periods: Oriental,
Renaissance, Formal Traditional, Medieval or Colonial, Country or
Provincial, Regional or Ethnic, or Modern.
3. Place specific: Themes focusing on a geographic place or
region associated with feelings or moods, which will influence the
mindset of the user. Examples include themes such as tropical island
or beach (natural, relaxing), mountain cabin or ski lodge (solid,
earthy), cosmopolitan or urban (sleek, sophisticated), contemporary
European (high style, unique).
4. Activity themes: These might include sports (active, stimulating),
recreational activities (idyllic, sturdy), high-tech (no-nonsense,
powerful), air flight (imaginative, soaring).
5. Stages of life: Some examples would include nursery (innocent,
pure), juvenile (lighthearted, whimsical), teen girl (fashion forward,
perky), adolescent to teen boy (action, techno), professional adult
(serious, discriminating), family (organized, interactive), retirement
6. Entertainment themes: These could include action movies
(dramatic, action-filled), romantic (ethereal, gentle), comedy or
animation (humorous, delightful).
When a theme is considered, each textile is evaluated according
to its textural and aesthetic compliance with the governing design
theme. If unity is sought, then the textiles should all be compatible
and contribute to a sense of oneness. However, for harmony to be
effective, the unity must be balanced with a variety in texture.
As a general rule, an interior should have several types of textiles,
but all working within a theme.
COLOR, PATTERN AND TEXTURE
The three aspects of textile coordination, which also encompasses
all interior materials and finishes, are color, pattern and texture.
• Color is the most emotionally charged element of design.
Color evokes psychological positive or negative occupant response.
A hue is the identifying name of a color. There are thousands of
hues used in textiles by the mixing of colors resulting in slight
variations. There also are thousands of off-whites and off-blacks,
true and tinted browns and grays, making the colors available in
textiles nearly limitless.
Textiles and surface colors that are blended and related rather
than precise matches will yield a more pleasing scheme or grouping
of colors. If effort is made to match the hues, disappointment is
nearly always the result, as blending is much more practical and
pleasing. The reason is that no two materials will match exactly,
even if the dyes are precisely the same, because textural variations
catch and reflect light in different ways creating a lighter or
darker, shinier or duller version of that hue.
General rules for color include the Law of Chromatic Distribution,
which states that the largest areas in an interior are filled with
the most neutralized colors of the scheme. The smaller the area,
the more intense the color proportionately becomes.
The Law of Value Distribution states that the lightest colors are
placed on the ceiling, medium values around and darker colors underfoot,
creating a sense of stability.
Color value means the lightness or darkness of a fabric. A clear,
clean lightened hue is a tint. A neutralized or dulled lighter value
is a pastel. A darker value obtained by adding black is a shade
and a deeper value obtained by neutralizing (adding the complementary
color or more than one darker value including black or brown to
create a dull or dirty shade) is called a tone. Any color that is
not pure, but contains another color in increments, has an undertone.
Colors can be categorized as warm colors (yellow, orange, red),
which are considered friendly, advancing and less formal, or cool
colors (green, blue, violet), which are more aloof, distant and
formal. An undertone can render a color more warm or more cool,
or it may prove to be a warm-undertoned cool color or a cool-undertoned
warm color. As a general rule, aesthetics will be enhanced if undertones
In coordinating textiles, it is best to lay the samples together
to carefully evaluate how the colors will affect one another. It
has been said there is no such thing as an ugly color, only colors
that are used in the wrong amounts, intensities or combinations.
Larger areas will demand more attention and seem darker, brighter
or bigger. It is best to try out a combination of textile samples
in the space where they will be installed together, including an
evaluation taken at different times of the day and under different
lighting conditions (daylight, incandescent and fluorescent light
both day and night). When a fabric appears to be of different hues
under different light, it is a phenomenon known as metamerism or
the metameric effect.
• Pattern or Motif is the application of a design into
or on the surface of a textile. The pattern or motif establishes
the theme, historic style, or overall mood or aesthetic of a fabric.
There is a tremendous psychological response to pattern; it is second
only to color. Pattern can evoke positive or negative responses.
Hence, in residential design the clients who most frequently occupy
the space should be given an opportunity to make guided selections
for their personal satisfaction. Rooms with fewer patterns may seem
larger but less interesting—pattern uses color and form to
give style and interest to an interior.
In nonresidential spaces, dramatic or well-defined patterns are
kept at a minimum in favor of less-defined or more universally appealing
patterns. Many patterns can be used together when they are non-assertive.
However, fabrics with definite patterns must be carefully coordinated.
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 colorway. There must
be a lead fabric and a support fabric, not two equally competing
fabrics used together. As a general rule, a room can often support
a large pattern (or a medium-sized pattern), a small pattern, a
tiny pattern (often as a geometric, a stripe, and possibly a plaid)
Although all rules can be broken by a decorator with skill and artistic
license 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. Patterns
should be thematic to achieve harmony, which can be lost if the
interior becomes visually busy or confusing.
• Texture works hand-in-hand with color and pattern.
Smooth, shiny or flat are considered sleek and sophisticated. Textures
that are rough, matte or inconsistent are less formal and perhaps
Fabric schemes can be based on textures rather than color and pattern—it
is a style trend that is gaining momentum. Also, the surprising
contrast of texture has been a hallmark of late post-modern design.
The contrast of a rough textile with one that is smooth often is
a delight to the eye, but must be accomplished with experience and
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. This also is where
more selections are offered to the customer with price and quality
as factors, but where appropriateness, beauty and significance are
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies &
Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.