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3 Top Interior Designers Share the Rules They Always Break

By:Hadley Keller - June 3, 2019

 
Readers of House Beautiful expecting strict guidelines on decorating may be surprised to learn that most designers do not, in fact, advocate following any one strict set of design rules. After all, the best creative endeavors usually come from breaking rules, rather than adhering to them. This was the subject of a conversation earlier this month in Los Angeles, where House Beautiful editorial director Jo Saltz sat down with design legends Suzanne Kasler, Thomas O'Brien, and Mary McDonald for a talk tellingly titled "Rules are Meant to be Broken." Don't believe us? Don't just take our word for it; read on to hear these three designers talk about the rules the love to break—and how to do a little successful rule-breaking of your own.

The Old Rule: Stick to One Style.

While it's easy to look back on design movements in history and categorize them by style (midcentury modern, Victorian, Arts & Crafts), increased access both to inspiration and resources means today's interiors tend to eschew any one vibe in favor of a more eclectic mix. That means your style can all the more easily be whatever you make it, not what the calendar indicates. Take it from Kasler (designer of the jaw-dropping vanity space above), who says, "what’s happening right now in design is you can kind of be anything you want to be." Plus, she points out, "with the sharing culture, you can always find a place for it."

The Rulebreaker's Amendment: Go Wild with Accessories.

If you're hesitant about breaking too many rules in the structural or larger elements of your home, start small: "I start with the more traditional plan, or the envelope, but then I bring things in that bring the different-ness," Kasler says. "Once you have that foundation, you’re more free to experiment." A few unexpected accessories can make a big difference.

The Old Rule: Avoid Anything Too "Wonky."
 
McDonald names a bright orange room featured on a 2005 House Beautiful cover as her most rule-breaking—and proof that weirdness can be good. "It was this wonky room and such a strange color and then it went on the cover," she recalls. Proof that wonkiness is never a reason to forgo a design decision.

The Rulebreaker's Amendment: Wonky Works When You Rely on Quality.

O'Brien has a good way to bring in weirdness in a good way: rely on quality. "I can appreciate wildness, but craft is so important," he says. If your odd-looking footstool or wildly-colored pillow is handcrafted, it boasts a story (and a quality) that balances its bizarreness. The end result is cool, not campy.

The Old Rule: Stick to a Foolproof Paint Combo.

Kasler points out that just because something is common doesn't mean it's the way it has to be. Take, for example, the practice of painting walls and leaving ceilings white. In one of her favorite projects, Kasler did the opposite. "I did white walls and color on the ceiling, and I loved the way it looked," she says.

The Rulebreaker's Amendment: Don't Judge a Color too Quickly.
 
Thomas O'Brien definitely has a favorite color. The designer has waxed poetic numerous times about Tissue Pink, the Benjamin Moore hue he uses in nearly every project. To him, it's perfect proof that you should look beyond a color's reputation. "Pink can be masculine, different," he says of the color. And its use in everything from bedrooms to furniture showrooms is case in point.

The Old Rule: Proper Scale Is the Key to Great Design.
 
One of McDonald's most famous rooms proves that scale is all relative. "I super scaled this floor so that it's really big, and it was very frightening for the client," McDonald recalls of one project with an oversized, black-and-white patterned floor that stretched from an entryway all the way to the back of a house.

The Rulebreaker's Amendment: Think Big—and Face Your Fears.

"Everyone was terrified, and it ended up being something that a lot of people copied," laughs the designer. The entryway made a statement—and delivered a sweeping payoff.

The Old Rule: Strive for Symmetry.

Symmetry, any designer will tell you, is overrated. Instead, go for balance. "When it feels balanced, it's not necessarily, you know, rule No. 6 or whatever, but it feels right."

The Rulebreaker's Amendement: If it feels right, it is right.

Which brings us to our final point. Design legend Dorothy Draper once famously said, "if it looks right, it is right." Take that one step further, these designers urge: If something feels right to you, no matter its adherence to any set of rules, it's right for you. Design, after all, should be personal.