Question: If the '70s was the decade of minimalism in interior design and the '80s the decade of decorating indulgence, how )) are the '90s shaping up?
Answer: In a word, eclectic.
Interior design in the '90s means more mix and less match.
"There's a trend away from ensembles and matched sets," says Bill McGee, an interior designer with Alexander Baer Associates in Baltimore. "Eclecticism is a popular aspect of all decorating -- architectural, fabrics, furnishings, floor coverings, the whole thing."
And without the built-in restrictions of a matched ensemble, designers can achieve an agelessness that otherwise isn't possible.
"The best jobs don't have a strict sense of period style that regiments itself," points out Suzanne Levin-Silverman, design associate with Louis Mazor Co. in Baltimore. "The best design schemes reflect the client and incorporate collections, as well as unusual combinations that you don't get tired of -- for example, a glass-top dining table with country French chairs and a crystal chandelier."
"Casual" is another word that describes decorating in the '90s. Just as it's OK to leave your tie at home or wear jeans to the office on Fridays, your living room needn't project the stiff formality of a department store window.
"People are more relaxed in their way of living and more flexible in blending different styles together -- they're less uptight," says Bryan Welborn, style manager for Ethan Allen, the Danbury, Conn.-based furniture manufacturer. "It's a look where people are comfortable in a tuxedo or sweats and jeans. Furniture has to accommodate that -- furniture you can pull your feet up into. That's how people live today."
While the underlying concept behind eclectic design sounds simple enough -- after all, "eclectic" means choosing from a wide range of styles -- successfully combining elements that don't match can be difficult.
"Eclectic is a very broad term," says Richard Taylor, a partner with Taylor/Siegmeister Associates in Mount Vernon. "And it can be as simple as mixing two different styles. The problem is making it work and not ending up with a hodgepodge."
According to Mr. McGee, "The most important concept to keep in mind in eclectic design is to only select classic examples from any era.
Trendiness won't work
"The pitfalls are things that are trendy or out of the mainstream. There's been a lot of bad design through the ages. After all, just because something is old doesn't mean it's good."
An example: "With furniture, try contrasting simple, clean-lined contemporary furnishings with an exuberantly carved piece," Mr. McGee suggests. "And by creating a clean, contemporary space, it's simple to bring in a classical element that gives a relaxed mix that's pleasant to live with."
To soften the look of a contemporary room, Mr. Taylor will add a Queen Anne wing chair. "Use pieces that complement each other," he says. "Victorian, for example, wouldn't work in that situation -- it's too cluttered and just doesn't jibe. It's an exaggeration of other styles."
As an example of differing styles that work together, Mr. Taylor offers the living room of his Mount Vernon town house, which contains two Louis XV-style Venetian chairs, a Jacobean gate-leg table, a Chippendale chest and corner chair, two George III corner tables and a lot of eclectic art, including a 19th-century Mucha poster, large woodcuts by Carol Summers and a Frankenthaler print.
"It's a room with a traditional flavor -- not a period room, but very comfortable," Mr. Taylor says. "But it all works together because each item complements the other. They don't compete, but blend because of their complementary colorings and textures."
Coordination is key
However, design elements must flow if a design scheme using different period elements is going to work. "Eclectic does not mean non-coordinated or using pieces that don't blend," Mr. Welborn emphasizes. "It means picking and choosing things from different styles, as well as colors that blend with each other. You need a sense of coordination."
One way to achieve that effect is with fabrics, Mr. Welborn adds. "For example, Jacquard patterns, which are elaborately woven fabrics used in upholstery, bed and wall coverings and window treatments, can be blended with 18th-century English wood furniture, light-finished furniture and Parsons tables."
Caveat: If design elements aren't coordinated, a decorator is flirting with disaster. "It can clash," warns Joyce Griffith, president of Papier Interiors and Design Group in Timonium. "You don't want a room to look like a hippie retreat or too trendy. Don't get too much stuff going on."
Yet a successful eclectic design also requires courage, she adds. "I once upholstered an old, tired Chippendale sofa in a very contemporary fabric. It gave the sofa new life."
Or try mixing the old and the new.