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8 Decorating Rules to Try -- and 8 to Trash

Who says you need to play by the rules when it comes to decorating? After all, it's your home, isn't it?

First of all, there really aren't any rules! That is, the decorating police will not arrest you for making a mistake in your decor. The neighbors might talk if you painted the whole house orange, and the authorities might object to a fire hazard. But most of us aren't in danger of these extremes. What we want are a few basic guidelines for tasteful and inexpensive decorating. Here are a few we think are helpful, plus a few common assumptions we'd like to challenge.

The Rules
Rule #1: Always think hospitable, comfortable, cozy and practical
After that can come fashionable, sleek, dramatic or whatever pleases you. But always keep in mind that a beautifully decorated home still has to function as a home! A home is to be lived in and not just looked at. Make sure your home says, "Welcome."

Rule #2: Decorate for your family first
Strive for a home that is truly welcoming to the people who live there. Your husband should not have to perch in chairs that feel too small. Your children should not have to avoid certain rooms. Consider every family member's comfort and taste when making decorating decisions. And don't fool yourself about how your family lives! If your husband watches TV a lot, don't hide the set under a side table. Remember, other people live in your home too. It's not just Mom's place.

Rule #3: Buy what you love - but avoid paying retail!
The fact is that you don't have to spend a lot to get a rich, fabulous look. Before you pay retail for anything, try garage sales, flea markets, discount stores, sales and your grandmother's attic. Full price should be your last resort. Remember, a dollar saved is two dollars earned.

Rule #4: You don't always have to love what you buy if it works to enhance what you love
This is an important corollary to Rule #3. If a certain side table fills a decorating need (fits that empty corner, makes an interesting statement, adds interest to your wall arrangement), if it's affordable and if you don't hate it, go ahead and snap it up. You can always replace it when you find something you like better. Time has a way to make you fall in love with those things you don't initially like.

Rule #5: Work to create a pleasing ambiance
Your overall decorating goals should include creating an ambience that pleases all the senses.

A home is a place where we know we are protected and loved. It is a "trauma center" where hurt people can get well. It is a place where freedom rings. The occupants don't have to be shaped with the same cookie cutter. Each person is encouraged to grow in his or her own direction for life. In this place called home, we can cry when we are sad and laugh with shouts of joy when we have victories.

Soothing sounds, intoxicating aromas, sumptuous textures - all these add immeasurably to the overall sense of a beautifully decorated home. A comfortable home wants a person to say, "I'm so glad to be home. This is where I can relax, recreate and recharge my battery for tomorrow."

Rule #6: Put something alive in every room
This is one of the best ways to enhance your home's ambience - real flowers, green plants, funky-looking cacti or a spaniel curled up on the rug. Try the sound of running water. The trickle sound of water is so relaxing. Even a goldfish in a bowl livens up a room. (However, don't forget to feed it!)

Rule #7: Try to stage a surprise
An element of the unexpected will do wonders for your decor - an oversized picture, a shelf hung lower than usual, a red pillow in a green room, a teacup turned on its side, a wall of family portraits. The backyard and patio areas are great places for surprises. Don't be afraid to do the unusual.

Rule #8: Don't put out everything you own
If one lovely pitcher is good, 20 aren't necessarily better. In other words, there's a fine line between cozy and cluttered. Even if you love that rich Victorian look with knickknacks everywhere, try to avoid the trap of too much of everything. You can always store away your extra treasures or rotate them seasonally. Remember, too much of anything that is the same causes it all to "get lost." Break it up with contrast.

Myth #2: It all has to match
In fact, a mix of styles, colors and periods can be visually exciting. Just try to have a common element, such as a color or design motif, to tie them all together. Notice in the latest decorating books that more and more mismatches are shown.

Myth #3: You need a round cloth for a round table
Too much "matchy" can be boring. Draped beautifully, or even tied up at the corners, a square or rectangular cloth will do just fine on any table.

Myth #4: You need a sofa, a chair and a coffee table
Try to get rid of your preconceived notions about what you "ought" to have in a room and think instead of what you need to happen in that room. You don't necessarily need a coffee table; you need something to unify the seating arrangement and to hold magazines and refreshments. Think how the room is to be used. Remember, function is your main consideration.

Myth #5: When in doubt, use beige; it goes with everything
The grain of truth in this common assumption is that neutral colors can be very relaxing and usually blend easily with other colors. But beige is far from the only neutral! Any "earth color" - white, black, gray, brown, terra-cotta and especially green and blue - can serve the same purpose and be far more interesting. Today our paint stores can custom blend any paint color you desire. There are so many options available. Computer technology will even let you visually see what your finished product will look like.

Myth #6: The sofa goes up against the wall
Not always! Instead of lining up the furniture square against the wall, try setting some pieces at an angle or creating several small conversational groups away from the walls. You may end up making better, more interesting use of the space. Break away from the expected. If you have a fireplace, a sofa facing the fire and close to the warmth and comfort of the fireplace draws in your family and friends to a cozy and welcoming conversation area.

Myth #7: Paint small rooms pale colors to make them look bigger
It's not necessarily bad to paint your tiny study red or brown or dark green. Dark paint in a small room can emphasize its cozy character and make it more interesting and a surprise. Conversely, painting a large room a pale neutral can emphasize its airiness. Think of the statement you want to make, not what rules you've read.

Myth #8: Anything goes
While encouraging you to break free from decorating "ought to's" and the demands of others, we do want to remind you that certain classical principles still prevail - principles of balance, harmony and comfort. Experiment boldly. Break the rules. But at the same time ask yourself: Is this balanced? Will we be able to live with this? Do these things go together? Does this really work?

If the answer is yes, the result will be a truly beautiful home. Remember, your home is designed for you and your family and not for guests' reactions. You are the ones who live in the comforts of your home.

One More Rule
Rule #9: Don't always follow the rules! Rules are just guidelines
They don't live in your home. You can say it's okay to be the exception. Besides, that's how new trends begin. At one time shabby chic was the exception to the norm. (Who would have ever painted over beautiful oak furniture with white paint and then sanded the edges so the piece would look old?)

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