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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 underwhel