Designer 101: How to Define Your Decorating Style

Designer 101: How to Define Your Decorating Style

Expert designer Kenneth Wingard explains how to define your own decorating style.


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By: Kenneth Wingard

Not knowing your personal style is the single largest mistake when it comes to decorating. There is so much in the market today and so many ways to style a room that you can easily get lost and end up with “a whole lot of nothing” as my mother says.

So, before we embark on the do’s and don’ts of decorating, let’s start with the basics.

What is your style?

In our parents’ day, there were really only a few choice: Were you Traditional? Colonial? Asian? Modern? Country? And that was really about it. Today’s decorating allows more individuality when it comes to style, which makes it both easier and harder to define.

Today you can be “Farmhouse Modern” or “French Country Pop” — or how about “Industrial Chateaux”? Defining your style isn’t about finding a category into which your style fits, but about defining your personal look regardless of your budget.

So as you shop, paint, collect and DIY your rooms into existence, you have a clear vision of what your final goal is, and you will have a personal sounding board for decision making: “Is this orange ceramic chicken French Country Pop? I think it is. Do I have a place for it? Yes, I do. I’ll get it.”

So, how do we go about defining our décor style? Easy. In four quick steps.

1. How Do I Live?
Take a few moments to think about you, your family and your life. A decorating style should really be an extension of your personal style. Your personal style should be coming from a very honest place — that’s the only way that it will truly work.

What’s your fashion style? Are you casual, trendy, retro? How do you live — casually with family and friends gathering in the kitchen and family room? More formal with seated dinner parties? What do you wear? Floral summer dresses? All black? Athletic wear?

Really think about the kind of life you lead and how your style needs to work with that. If you find that you lead a causal lifestyle where you enjoy barbecues and neighborhood potlucks, a formal style filled with candelabras and figurines (as much as you might like them) may not work for you.

Your decorating style needs to be more than just a photo in a magazine — it needs to be the dynamic style in which you live your everyday life.

2. What Do I Like?
Spend at least a month looking at design magazines, blogs, design websites and collecting images of everything that you react positively to. Don’t limit yourself here: If you live in a suburban house, feel free to pull photos of city apartments. If you are really looking at redecorating your living room, it’s OK to pull photos of bedrooms to which you react. Remember, you’re defining your overall style.

Once you’ve defined this, it can then be applied to whatever room you’re working on. This is the time to be open-minded. If you have always considered yourself traditional but keep gazing at photos of warehouse lofts, that’s OK.

Maybe you’re somewhere in between. If you’re old school, start a file or bulletin board and collect these images. If you’re more high tech, bookmark them or start a collection online. Really look at the images and analyze them — why do you like this room? Do you like the actual room, or is it the use of color that you like? Are you attracted to the furniture or the use of accessories?

Once you’ve done this, really look at the common threads. Look for big-picture things as well as accents: A lot of the rooms you like might be neutral with pops of color or feature antiques — but only when they’re in modern spaces.

3. Filter It
Now go back to everything you’ve pulled, pinned and bookmarked and filter out those things that don’t belong.

It’s important to realize that not every look you’re attracted to is appropriate for your current living situation. I, for instance, have countless photos of farmhouses with wrap-around porches that I’m keeping in a file for a country dream house. I’ve always loved sleek modern minimalist design but realize that my love of comfy sofas, having three young kids and my penchant for casual family-style entertaining just doesn’t work with that.

This is when you need to be ruthless and really distill what you like down to a few key characteristics. Also, don’t forget to include your other half in this process — after all, they are going to live there too.

4. Define It
Now you’ve got to define your style. Giving your decorating style a two- or three-word name helps you really encapsulate what it is.

I find that a good trick is to start with the type of place where your style would be found in its purist state: farmhouse, factory, loft, lodge, etc. Now add an adjective that speaks to the details that make your farmhouse different than most farmhouses. Perhaps these are the details that you found you liked when looking though images: antiqued, Victorian, sleek, industrial, rustic. Now add to that how it makes you feel: sophisticated, cozy, daring, avant-garde, chic, romantic, and then combine them. Now you have “Chic Scandinavian Farmhouse” or “Romantic Writers Loft” or “Cozy Victorian Lodge.”

Now that you’ve defined it, you’ve got to be consistent about using it. I’m the first one to admit how hard it is to see an item that you truly appreciate the design of — and it’s something that you actually need — and it’s on sale for half price — but it doesn’t fit within your style.

With your new style definition in hand, you should be able to walk right past it with confidence. Remember, be true to yourself and your style, and you’ll create a home that is beautiful and truly yours.



Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tune in Saturdays at 9/8ct on OWN to see his projects come to life and get to know Kenneth here.

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