How to design a modern living room

Story highlights

Filling a room with a complete furniture set is dated and not advised by expert designers

Choose furniture and decor that is the same style of design, like traditional, modern or Asian

Your room needs three colors: two main colors for walls and upholstery, and one accent

The elements of your room should tell a visual story: Choose them wisely

Real Simple  — 

Putting together a beautiful space is less mysterious than it seems. Once you know the tricks decorators depend on, the fairy dust follows. Here are the layman-level strategies you need to achieve pro-level success.

Commit to a style
Take a look at the elegant room by designer Barbara Barry (featured in the book Barbara Barry: Around Beauty; Rizzoli, 2012) in the gallery above. See the traditional curves, tailored upholstery, muted color scheme, and symmetrical arrangement? Just about every choice in the room is classic.

Committing to a single style—whether it’s the one you see here or something completely different—guarantees a cohesive space. It also makes decorating easier by narrowing the range of options. This doesn’t mean you should buy a living room in a box. You don’t want things to appear pre-made and impersonal (more on that later).

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    Think about creating style unity among your “big five:” sofa, window treatments, rug, side chairs, and coffee table. Then you can veer a bit from your aesthetic with things like art and decorative objects.

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    Before you buy anything, scan your home for items you may already have that fit the look you’re going for.

    Stick to a strict palette
    Nothing makes a room feel more pulled-together than color.

    One way to streamline a palette is to think in threes—two main colors, plus an accent color that either keeps the peace or adds vibrancy. In the room by designer Ellen Hamilton, pictured in the gallery above, the major players are peacock blue and coral—two rich jewel tones—and the accent color is cream.

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    Paint is the foundation for any palette, but just as significant are upholstery, rugs, decorative accessories, and sometimes woodwork. (To make a strong color statement, even flowers and books should abide by the palette parameters.)

    If you’re looking for inspiration, copy your colors from a large piece in the room, like a rug or a painting. Or take a trio from the matrix in the gallery above. It works vertically or horizontally to offer six different whole-room combinations. Within each trio, any two can be the main colors, with the third as an accent.

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    Create visual flow
    Thoughtful placement of the elements in a room can establish an overall feeling of wonderfulness, as in the space by designer Betsy Brown, in the gallery above. You want to encourage the eye to hit only the sweet spots and gloss over anything underwhelming. Here are the essential ingredients.

    • The inviter is what draws you in to a room. Here, it’s a dramatic cowhide rug. But it could also be a lively fabric framing the windows or a sculptural coffee table.

    • The cozifier begs you to stay. Think of a lush cashmere throw or a snuggly chair. In this room, the long green bolster on the sofa does the trick.

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    • The eye-lifters create height and a frame for everything else. See the three-headed black floor lamp and the étagère.

    • The wow object is the loudest or shiniest piece in the room. It deserves prime real estate: Imagine a big painting above a sofa or a sparkly mirror (see right) over a fireplace.

    • The weird thing is what stops the eye and prompts people to ask, “What the heck is that?” or “Where on earth did you find that thing?” Think sculpture or decorative objects. Invest in one large piece that looks like you got it from somewhere far, far away (time or place), and set it near your big-screen TV (a great distraction). Or choose smaller pieces and strategically place them throughout the room so that the eye moves from artifact to artifact. This is also known as the cool factor, exemplified here by the giant wooden ball in the foreground, the yellow objet on the side table, and the blue bust behind the sofa.

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    • The personalizers are significant items from real life, such as family photos, books you’ve actually read, and sentimental objects. Group them off to the side (here, on the étagère).

    • The natural element adds life, texture, and, in some cases, color to a space. Choose flowers or a plant that reflects the style of your room. If you have a feminine, sophisticated space, try peonies in a low vase. In this minimalist, organic-inspired room, a tall, transparent vessel with austere branches ups the earthy feel.

    • The finishers fill in the blanks: a basket of magazines, a stack of books, a tray on the coffee table. And the ultimate finishers are those signs that life is being lived in a room. Your shoes and your glasses, wherever you left them. Your morning mug of coffee. Because what really makes a room complete is, of course, the people who fill it.

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