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Layer upon Layer: Creating Depth with Pattern

If you’ve ever encountered a shallow, one-dimensional person — Paris Hilton immediately springs to mind, sorry girl— it’s likely you found him or her vacant and uninteresting. The same goes for interiors: a lack of layers can lead to an impersonal, bland space.  

While mixing colors and textures is often second nature to design enthusiasts, adding layers of pattern can be a bit more complex.  After years of hits and misses in my own home, I just recently got the pattern-mixing thing down.  For anyone baffled by how to pull this off, here’s my attempt to explain it in a recreateable way — hoping my attempt to teach you all the pattern mixing ropes ends up on my list of hits, not misses.

Source: style-files.com via Stephanie on Pinterest

While layering patterns works with wall, floors, upholstery, ceilings, window coverings, table settings and accessories, it’s best to take baby steps when first trying it out.  Why not start with pillows and work you way up.  It’s a way to get comfortable with layering before spending the big bucks on larger investment pieces.

1. Edit your colors.  Layering patterns involves four key elements: color, scale, shape and texture. First up: COLOR.  Lay all your possible choices out on the floor if you have physical samples or create a virtual collection of fabrics online.   If certain culprits appear is if they just don’t play well with others, remove them from the mix right away.  

Here’s an example of a great color edit.  Notice how each of the four fabrics sports different shades of a common color, blue?  This is what you ultimately want; the varying intensities lead to an evolved, effortless look.  Something else that’s happening here is a great mix of shapes going in different directions.

2. Add contrast. Once you have your main color selection down, add a bit of contrast.  Pull a pleasing complimentary shade from a rug or your french blue scrolled wedding china displayed in the side board.  In this case, a blue pinstripe is the perfect pairing to the red for a nautical look.

Source: via Stephanie on Pinterest

3. Vary the scale. While color and shape are easier to get a grasp on, scale is a bit more complicated. There are three different sizes of scale: small, medium and large. When mixing prints, try not to choose more than one of the same scale size; multiple patterns of the same scale often result in a one-way-ticket to Cluttersville…well, unless you’re a total master like Betsy Burnham or Sarah Richardson, that is. The five fabrics in this photo all fall under the small-scale category. Notice how your eye can’t really decide which one to look at? My point exactly.


4. Every rule has its exception: medium-size patterns.  You can sometimes mix more than one fabric from the medium-scale category if one of them acts as a solid and sports a shape that is more about texture than a true contrasting pattern. In this case, the gray upholstery fabric with the braided shape works well with both higher contrast ikat chevron pillows and the stark graphic curtains.  Caution: approach this technique after practicing on smaller scale projects and proceed with care.


5. Limit yourself to one large-scale fabric design. And then there’s large scale patterns. Close up, many large-scale patterns don’t appear to fight; however, step back about six to eight feet (the distance at which you survey a couch, for example) and you’ll notice that each is battling to take center stage. This impossibly potent purple palette…excuse me Miss Wearstler…fights for attention in way that only the fearless dare attempt.  It’s best to strictly stick with the “only one fabric from each scale category” when it comes to large-scale prints, unless you want one large print to look like it is eating the other…like a Tyrannosaurus Rex snacking on a Triceratops.

6. The perfect mix. Here we’ve got a small-scale pattern sporting a red and white swiss dot, a medium-scale red, pink and contrasting orange varied geometric stripe and a large-scale botanical pattern. The trio is also different directionally; the geometric runs vertically, the botanical acts as a collage and the swiss dot runs horizontally. Now, before you spend thousands on that fancy patterned rug and super special wallpaper, whaddya say you start with throw pillows, huh? Trust me, I may or may not have had experience doing it the other way around and am still kicking myself.

Betsy Burnham  living room

living room design by los angeles interior designer betsy burnham

Here’s a space by the master of pattern mixing and layers, Betsy Burnham. Notice how all three sizes of scale are present on the day bed ensemble.  Below, Sarah Richardson leverages a more constrained grayscale palette, but it emphasizes the power of layers in creating texture and depth in a room.  

Now, go out and arm yourselves with these easy reference rules on layering pattern and conquer the print pursuit!