TIE GROUPINGS TOGETHER WITH A CONSISTENT ELEMENT.
A group of photos look like they go together if they're all in the same kind of frame, or they're all black and white, or they're all pictures of churches. The same applies to groups of pottery or other collected items -- a common style or color or shape can tie them together. And it's generally best to put them all in the same place, rather than scatter them about the room; the goal is to make the group look intentional rather than haphazard.
SHOW YOUR PERSONALITY, BUT DON'T GET TOO PERSONAL.
"People put too many family pictures all over the place," Nicole Thuftedal said, recalling a living room and dining room in which she counted 47 wedding pictures. A shelf or wall covered with family snapshots or graduation pictures tends to look like clutter, and people rarely spend time looking at them them. She recommends confining family photos to less "public rooms," such as the bedroom or office.
That doesn't mean stripping public spaces of anything that reflects your experiences. Consider displaying old photos of ancestors, or photos from your travels. Your home, Christine Frisk said, "should tell a little bit of your story: where you've been, what you like, what your joy-button is."
MIX PIECES FROM DIFFERENT ERAS, REGIONS, LEVELS OF FORMALITY.
Don't be "slavish to a time period," Jen Ziemer said. A room in which every single item is mid-century modern, for example, winds up looking like a "Mad Men" set. Combining different styles produces a more interesting look. The key, Ziemer said, is balance. For example, pair an old photo with a contemporary frame, or vice versa.
Again, show that the choices were intentional. "Set up rules and strategically break at least one," Thuftedal suggested. "Maybe your upholstery is more traditional, but your hardgoods are more contemporary. Or you have the crazy Victorian sideboard with curly things and ball-and-stick, and clear modern glassware on the crazy sideboard."
MAKE SOME SURPRISING CHOICES.
"Add a pop of something crazy just to throw you off or add whimsy," Ziemer advised. "That's what people hire us to do," Dixon added. "To push them out of their comfort zone." Put a rough basket in an otherwise sleek room, a large round mirror over a small table. "It's fun to do something unexpected, such as a large wall with tiny piece of art -- it makes it feel more precious," Dixon said. "We'll even do the opposite; a small section of wall with a huge piece of art."
GET AN OUTSIDE OPINION.
Even designers ask each other for opinions on big decisions, Frisk said. Hire a designer for a consultation or ask a friend to be brutally honest. "I don't think you can be as direct and intentional in our own houses. We don't always see ourselves clearly," she said.
Even taking a photo of an interior space (and blowing it up on your computer screen) can give you a sense of remove that helps you evaluate more objectively, Bischoff said. "In the room, you're vested in it, you're a part of it."
GIVE THE EYES A BREAK NOW AND THEN.
"People sometimes over-accessorize," Frisk said. "Your eye needs some space where there's not tchotchkes. If all else fails, just put one thing out. The entire coffee table does not need to be full." Negative space has "energy," Andrea Dixon and Ziemer said. And Buschoff agreed that less is more: "I'd rather see some blank walls than have too many filled walls." (Besides, it's nice to leave some extra room in case you find something new that you love.)
• Don't forget to accessorize the kitchen and bathroom, Dixon and Ziemer said. Nice accessories are one reason those rooms look good in magazines.
• Frisk likes "functional accessories: the vase you put on the table, the bowl you serve your salad in, the trivet from Italy that actually holds a pot once in a while."
• Avoid buying furniture in sets, Ziemer urged. "They're too matchy-matchy. No personality, no contrast."
• Search student art fairs at local colleges for inexpensive artwork. Even children's art or enlarged family photos, nicely framed, can look great on walls.
• Fewer, bigger pieces have more impact. "People go too small too often," Thuftedal said. "I would much rather see someone commit to larger and more expensive vase than have lots of sort of mid-sized things."