How to Mix Patterns in a Room - dummies

By Katharine Kaye McMillan, Patricia Hart McMillan

You can use a traditional design strategy and combine a plain background on the walls and floor with patterned furniture. Then spread coordinating patterns around the room on the draperies, decorative pillows, Oriental lamps, or an area rug. This technique commonly combines several patterns in one room, which usually calls for clever mixing and matching of fabrics so that they relate (for unity) and contrast (for interest).

After you get the hang of it, mixing patterns is fun. The following are some general guidelines that remove some of the guesswork from successfully mixing patterns. Use this list as a jumping-off point, and experiment fearlessly.

Some of the classic fabric mixes, like the French use of big cotton checks on the backsides of solid velvet-covered chairs, probably happened because the upholsterer ran out of velvet or the client was too stingy to put velvet on the back.

Consider these tips when mixing patterns:

  • Create magic with a simple color scheme: White plus a color is easy: Cobalt blue and white, rose pink and white, or apple green and white. Or go for real drama choose black and white! With your one-color scheme, you can either stick to one scale or vary scales of motifs.

  • Limit the number of patterns in a room if you’re a novice: Curb the number of patterns in a given room to three until you’re more familiar with using and mixing patterns. (Here are examples of a three-pattern scheme and a five-pattern scheme.)


  • Play the trim game: Gain additional unity by using the same trim for your pattern mix. For example, if you’re making toss pillows in four different patterns, use the same moss fringe on each.

    Or for both variety and unity, make your own welting (a covered cord trim) for pillows or upholstery by covering a rope-like cord (available in fabric and upholstery shops) in one fabric and using it as trim for the companion fabric, and vice versa.

  • Practice your scales: Whether you’re using three or five patterns, choose one large dominant pattern for the largest area. Accompany the dominant pattern with medium- and small-scale secondary patterns.

  • Think positively or negatively: A positive printed fabric places dark motifs (such as flowers or geometrics) on a white or light background. A negative printed fabric (like a film negative) places light floral or geometric motifs on a dark background. Using the positive and negative prints in the same or adjoining rooms is a quick and easy way to decorate.

  • Up the ante: If you’re using five patterns, start with a large-scale dominant pattern, perhaps a big floral bouquet. Choose two medium-scale patterns (one floral, one geometric) in the same colors as the dominant fabric. Finally, choose two small-scale accent patterns (each in a different pattern or accent color).