Many readers ask me what distinguishes settings that are just well-furnished from those that are truly exceptional, like the models featured in interior design magazines.
In many cases, the difference can be attributed to a professional designer's knowledge -- although the size of a client's budget may also have an important effect on the outcome of a project.
Then, too, magazines are far more likely to give space to a flashy and trendy style than to a traditional design, even when it's executed with impeccable taste.
I'd say that it's the element of surprise, more than anything else, which makes for a really special interior. And to produce the unexpected, it's usually necessary to break, or at least to bend, some accepted rules of interior design.
Sometimes it's color that's used in an unorthodox way. A scheme involving pink and yellow, for example, might well attract attention. Adding purple to a traditional combination of rust, green and gold could also cause some heads to turn.
Furniture selection offers another way of introducing surprise to a room. Placing a Chinese lacquered trunk in front of a Barcelona chair is one unusual but successful strategy that I recently encountered. Similarly, an embroidered Chinese shawl used in a place of a quilted, fitted bedspread could greatly enliven a bedroom motif. The possibilities in this regard are unlimited.
The importance of adding surprise is perhaps most evident in the English decorative. This is a style that evolved in the homes of families who traveled extensively or who lived in far-off colonies, collecting exotic furnishings and accessories in the process.
The English have been assembling eclectic interiors for centuries. The element of surprise is actually integral to their sense of design.
But for the American novice, this is a trick that's not easily mastered. Before attempting to duplicate what comes naturally to the English home outfitter, it's wise to become well-acquainted with the field of decorative furnishings.
In rummaging through my own photo files for an appropriate illustration, I came across this melange of decorative items. It's a sampler that was sent to me by an antique house in 1983.
What's striking here is the combination of the outlandish and some very fine traditional pieces. While the heavily embellished curios still would not be found in the average American home, items of this sort are now much sought after by professional designers catering to clients of sophisticated taste.
Dramatic decorative statements have long been made by ignoring the notion that consistency is required in putting together a room. Even so, I'm not sure how easy it would be to assimilate one of my favorite pieces in the photo: the Adams-style gilt mirror with neoclassical urn motifs. I
am confident, however, that this oval mirror surrounded by foliage swags and a pair of candelabras will certainly be an eye-catcher in an otherwise ordinary library or dining room.
The moral here, I suppose, is that surprise cannot be achieved without a willingness to take risks. So when you come across a mother-of-pearl-encrusted cabaret table, don't hesitate to take it home. Put it beside an 18th century reproduction wing chair and I guarantee that you'll feel like a world traveler who has just returned from a particularly interesting journey.