When it comes to styling your home, knowing where to begin can be the hardest part. That's why we brought in Hilary Walker, our Creative Director of Photography, Staging and Styling, to walk us through the five fundamentals she uses when designing and styling a room. Hilary also teaches these fundamentals in her workshops so that you can apply these ideas to your own space.
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Scale refers to the size of an object and how it compares to other objects in a room or to the room itself. Playing with scale can help create visual impact and interest whether you’re using same-size objects or juxtaposing sizes. An oversize arrangement of branches, for example, will complement a large headboard while offsetting a small work of art. Scale also comes into play with rugs. A rug that's aptly scaled to a room should fill the majority of the floor, accommodating most of the room's furniture on top, but with enough “breathing room” around the perimeter to keep it from hugging the wall. Finding the right scale often takes literal trial and error, but the room will feel at ease when you get there.
TRY IT: Choose a room with one large element but nothing else that echoes its size. Bring in something large, even if it’s temporary, and see what happens.
Balance happens when there’s an even distribution of objects or colors across a space. When things are off balance, one side feels “heavy” or more crowded than the other—like furniture that’s weighing down half the room while the other half is sparse. Equalizing color distribution is another balancing tool. For instance, if you have black near the floor, pull that color higher with a black-framed mirror, dark photo mat, or a deep-tone branch. This creates a pleasing visual balance with minimal effort.
TRY IT: Take something out of a room to create better balance whether it’s a color that’s throwing things off or an overstuffed chair that's crowding a corner.
While balance is spreading things equally across a space, contrast is creating an intentional juxtaposition: using dark to offset light, polished to contrast weathered, linear to counter a room filled with curves. Contrast creates dimension and disrupts that matchy-matchy effect. It could look like a collection of light ceramics inside a dark bookshelf, ivory bedding with bright bohemian pillows, or a light blue floor under olive green chairs. Contrasts create mood, depth, and visual delight.
TRY IT: Rearrange objects in your room solely to create contrast. Let the room sit for a few days as you adjust to the change, and see if you end up loving it.
Flow refers to how elements in a room—or in a certain vignette you’re creating—connect to each other across a space. Good flow happens when a material, finish, or color (even if it’s a different shade) repeats itself within the same scene. This repetition could look like a plant on a shelf that ties to another plant in the same space—creating a connection between organic elements. With good flow, instead of a seemingly random effect, the room or vignette feels held together.
TRY IT: Sit in the middle of your room and do a quick assessment. An unexpected element here or there can add great visual interest—but it’s helpful to keep an eye on how things connect to ensure a good flow.
Focus is where the eye lands—the first spot in a room that claims your visual attention. It could be a light fixture that stands out from everything around it because of its size and color. It could look like a gallery wall of art and photographs, spanning floor to ceiling, that grabs the eye as soon as you walk into that space. Too many focal points mean there are actually none; one or two will anchor the room and create clarity.
TRY IT: Try naming the focal point in your room, then ask someone else to do the same. If you’re all over the map, eliminate or add until you make the focus clear.
Pieces of this story have been adapted for digital from the fall issue of Magnolia Journal.
Ready to take on a space of your own?
Hilary offers three Magnolia Workshops where she applies these five fundamentals to the living room, dining room, and bedroom. You’ll learn how to gather design inspiration, make a floor plan, and ultimately bring your space to life through a step-by-step transformation of rooms within Hilary’s own home.
* all Magnolia workshops are available with your discovery+ subscription