Generally, there are three types of patterns. The first is called regulated. Any pattern that repeats on a regular basis -- either horizontally or vertically -- and has a design consisting of stripes, plaids or geometric shapes such as diamonds, squares or circles is considered to be a regulated pattern.
These patterns tend to add structure and formality to a room. Because the pattern and its repeat is easily recognized, it tends to be a more conservative choice than the other two options. However, there are regulated patterns that are designed to go with every style of room. Contemporary colors can look lovely in a stripe, plaid or geometric pattern. But almost any traditional room can be enhanced by the addition of a regulated pattern.
The next option is a random pattern. In this case the motif that makes up the design is so large it frequently is difficult to discern the vertical repeat. Although 12- or 18-inch repeats are typical, it is not uncommon to find repeats of 27, 36, 48, or even 54 inches. I once used a fabric for a wall hanging that had a 72-inch repeat.
Often a random pattern is done in a floral motif. Depending on the rendering of the design, it may be very traditional with flowers that look as if they came right from the garden, or very contemporary with flowers that are more abstract consisting only of splashes of color. Of course, with today's contemporary rooms, some random patterns are made up totally of swishes or squiggles of color that generate a lot of visual energy and excitement.
Finally, there are mini-print patterns. These are composed of small flowers or splashes of color on a solid background. From a distance they may look like a regulated pattern because their motifs will be spaced evenly. However, as you approach the fabric or wallpaper you definitely will see flowers or abstract shapes instead of the geometrics of a regulated pattern. The size of the pattern repeat for mini-prints is usually small, typically two to six inches.
It is possible to combine one of each of these patterns successfully in a room, or even multiples of one type, by simply following a few basic principles.
To start off, pick one pattern to be dominant in the design plan. Often, this is the random pattern because you must see a lot of it to perceive any impact from the size of the print. A random pattern can be very effective when used as the wallpaper. All the walls can be covered, or you can choose to soften its strong impact by papering only above a chair rail or within the confines of trim molding to create a panel effect.
Fabric with a random pattern can be used effectively on draperies or large upholstery pieces if random patterned wallpaper is a little too overwhelming for the client.
If the client finds random patterns a bit too intimidating, a regulated or mini-print can be just as successful as the dominant pattern, and they should be placed on the same surfaces: walls, draperies or large upholstered pieces.
Next, pick a secondary pattern. There is never as much of the secondary pattern as there is of the dominant pattern. If your dominant pattern was random, your secondary pattern will be either a regulated or a mini-print. If your dominant pattern was a regulated, a mini-print or possibly a regulated pattern of a smaller scale could work. Conversely, a mini-print as a dominant pattern might have a regulated or a mini-print as its secondary pattern. The important thing in selecting the secondary pattern is that it be of a different scale than the dominant pattern. If the pattern choices are all the same size, they will fight for attention and create a volatile mood in the room.
A third pattern might be selected as an accent and would be whatever pattern type has not yet been chosen. Don't feel obligated to do a third pattern, for many clients it can be just too busy.
When selecting your patterns keep the following rules in mind:
The background colors should be the same. For example, the background of your random print may be white. This color would work fine, but then you would not want to select a secondary stripe pattern with an off-white background. The stripe, too, would need to have a white background.
Make sure your secondary pattern has all of the colors, or at least a majority of the colors, of the dominant pattern. If there are only one or two common colors in the two fabrics, it will be hard for the eye to discern the similarity and for your client to feel as if the patterns belong together.
Make sure the colors that are shared between patterns really are the same. If they are slightly off from each other they will clash and be very annoying in the room.
When adding a third pattern use these same rules to ensure success.
Once the patterns are chosen, placing them within the design plan is the next hurdle. Just as when you are distributing color, patterns also must flow around the entire space.
Imagine a line drawn through the length of the room at the midpoint and a second line drawn through its width also at the midpoint. These lines will create four equal quadrants in the space. The dominant pattern should be used in each of the four quadrants. The secondary and accent patterns should be placed in at least three of the four quadrants. There should be one quadrant with a dominant and secondary pattern, and a second quadrant with a dominant and accent pattern. The third and fourth quadrants will have all three patterns contained within.
While distributing the patterns make sure to use them at varying levels in the space as well. If your random pattern is in the wallpaper running from floor to ceiling, the secondary pattern (either a regulated or mini-print) might be on the valances, a chair and some floor pillows.
By changing the levels at which you place the patterns as well as putting them in appropriate quadrants, the eye will flow through the room and see the patterns working and mingling together. When this is not done, the space usually looks lopsided, visually heavier on one side than the other. With a little bit of planning and foresight any room with multiple patterns can be attractive and successful.
Susan Dudics-Dean is owner of Celestial Designs and an interior designer who has worked in the San Francisco Bay area of California for more than 11 years. She also is a newspaper columnist and seminar speaker.