Designer 101: How to Choose an Area Rug

Design expert Kenneth Wingard explains the do’s and don'ts for choosing an area rug.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

Area rugs are an important element in any room and one that always causes a few questions and a little concern. They add an incredible amount of warmth, color and definition to a room.

However, being the foundation for all of the other furniture, area rugs can also take what would otherwise be a lovely room and throw it into visual disarray. How do you choose the right rug for your room? Here are a few key guidelines to help you through the selection process:

Choosing a Shape
In almost all instances, the shape of the rug should reflect the shape of the room. A rectangular room should have a rectangular rug. A square room should have a square rug. Round rugs aren’t limited to round rooms, but they should be limited to rooms with round furniture arrangements (perhaps a dining room with a circular table) or a pronounced round fixture (a foyer with a chandelier).

Tip: Not only should the shape match, but the orientation should match as well. So the long sides of your rectangular rug should run the same direction as the longer walls of the room.

Bigger is Better
It is possible to have a rug that’s too big for a room, but I rarely see it. Usually what I run into is postage stamp-sized rugs in airplane hanger-sized rooms.

You want the rug to be able to define and frame the space. I always advise to buy the largest size rug that fits your budget. In an ideal situation, the rug is large enough so that all of the furniture can sit completely on it. However, in this case, you do end up spending a lot of money on a rug that’s partially hidden.

Shape: What’s the alternative? How small can you go? If it’s a living room it shouldn’t be more than 6 inches narrower than the sofa and wide enough to come within 6 inches of the legs of all of your other seating.

: You want to avoid creating what I call the “coffee table magic carpet ride”! If it’s a dining room, it should be able to fit the table and the chairs. The perfect bedroom rug fits all the way under the bed and has enough rug room on all sides to comfort your feet when you hop out. If you can’t do that, then go for a narrow rug on each side that is the same length of the bed.

Tip: If you’re coming from the other side of this issue and have a rug that may be too big for a room, just make sure that you leave at least 3 inches of breathing room between the rug and the wall on all four sides.

How to Deal with Furniture Legs
This is the perpetual question when it comes to rugs and furniture. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule.

  • In the living room: I place the rug so it fits under the front legs of my chairs and sofas by a few inches.
  • In the bedroom: it’s a different story. If you’re placing a rug on each side of the bed, do not run it under the legs of the bed at all, but rather have it placed a few inches away from the bed.
  • In the dining room: and as I mentioned earlier, the chairs should fit on the rug so the chairs can be pulled in and out without catching on the edge of the rug.

Color and Pattern
Rugs are an amazing way to bring vibrancy to a room. However, unless you are a master of mixing pattern and color, it’s always safe to use the rule of opposites.

  • Place patterned furniture on solid rugs and place solid furniture on patterned rugs.
  • If that’s a little too safe for you and you want to mix patterns, organic patterns (like florals) pair well with geometric patterns (like stripes) so a sofa that’s covered in floral throw pillows could sit nicely on a lattice rug.

Tip: Remember that highly patterned rugs hide dirt and stains — so if you’re looking for a rug for a man cave, keep that in mind.

If you’re lucky enough to be starting from scratch in a room, the rug is a great place to find color inspiration. Start by finding a rug you love that fits the room perfectly and then use the colors in the rug to find your wall and furniture colors.

Laying a smaller rug on top of a larger rug is a great option for bringing some life to a room without breaking the bank. To make this work, the base rug needs to be on the larger side, so you don’t start seeing too many edges, and needs to be in a neutral tone and a low nap (the actual thickness of the rug).

A great option is a natural fiber rug like coir or sisal. Then for your specific seating area use a smaller rug that brings in a pop of color or pattern. Because you are layering, you can go smaller than you would if it were the only rug in the room.

So if your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase the rug you love in the 10 foot-by 20-foot size that will fill the room, get a less expensive neutral rug in that size and lay a 5-foot-by 7-foot version of the rug you love in front of the sofa. This is also a wonderful option if you have wall-to-wall carpeting.

Pile It On
Pile — roughly equating to rug thickness — is one of the other big considerations in a room. A flat or no-pile carpet would be something like a Persian carpet. On the other end of the spectrum, a high pile carpet would be a shag rug.

Stylistically, you can use any variations of pile in any room. I have a cream shag rug in my living room and patterned shag in my TV room (yes, I like to lay on the floor a lot), but a low pile rug would have been equally as appropriate in the rooms. If you’re looking at solid color rugs, a longer pile creates more shadow, making it a bit more forgiving with stains.

So, choose your rug with both your fashion and practical hats on and if you use these guidelines you should be able to find something that will make both hats happy!

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 think about how 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. Get to know Kenneth here.


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