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How to Play with Contrast in Your Interiors

The secret to spectacular spaces

July 1, 2021

What separates the stunning interior from the humdrum and dreary? What gives a room flare and atmosphere, a spark of energy? What distinguishes the bland from the brilliant?

If you’ve ever walked into a room that awed, inspired, shocked, it’s a mesmerizing experience. Your eye marvels at how beautifully everything works; yet often you cannot pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the space striking.

Other spaces just don’t seem to have it. They lack appeal and seem to fall flat.

Those memorable interiors are usually carefully curated. Their furniture positioned meticulously; ornaments chosen methodically; materials tickling the senses. Like a painting, every item is a brushstroke in the room’s canvas.

For great artists - Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse - and great interiors alike, there is a secret ingredient to this curation. An ingredient that breathes life into the dull and boring; a timeless design principle that ties everything together and makes that impact – Contrast.

So… What is Contrast?

Well, contrast is the close arrangement of opposing elements. It may be light or dark, rough or smooth, large or small. It can be a symphony of texture or an explosion of color. It is a visual treat that catches the eye; a focal dimension that stops anything from blurring into everything.

A high contrast interior space using a complementary color scheme with blue and orange.
DESIGN: Benjamin Johnston Design   📸: Julie Soefer

Think of Van Gogh’s famous yellow sunflowers - resplendent like the sun against a background of blue. Or a Picasso with its defining black lines which give character to color. Even Coco Chanel’s elegant black and white suits.

But contrast is more than simple dichotomies - black vs white, or curves vs edges. It is also not a meeting of equals. To achieve the necessary tension between opposites, one element has more visibility than the opposing element, even if both are essential. Through unequal visual weights, you create visual hierarchies, which should then be distributed throughout a room in a balanced and impactful way.

If done right, your space will have depth, feel harmonious and make an immediate impression on its occupants. The key is to know how and where to use contrast correctly without making a visual mess.

But don’t worry, contrast isn’t reserved for the masters. By playing around with the basic design elements of shape, color and texture you can produce interesting juxtapositions for your space. And any room, big or small, can benefit.

So let’s dive in.

1.  Shape and Form

Lines, edges, surfaces, curves, angles, man-made, irregular - all words associated with shape and form, be it in the classroom or in the world of design. But knowing how to incorporate them into your interior means knowing exactly what shape and form are.

A chic interior of a dining area using contrasting geometric and natural forms.
DESIGN: Michael K. Chen Architecture

Shapes are flat enclosed areas which can be geometric - precise lines, angles, smooth arcs; or natural - organic lines and irregular curves. Form relates to the physical shape of anything that is three dimensional, and again can be geometric or natural.

When you think about how sharp angles appear different to rounded edges, it’s easy to see how simply contrast can be achieved through shape and form. Gentle curves and rounded elements can bring a balanced softness to the strength of geometric patterns and straight architectural details.

This type of contrast can be introduced through the room itself, along with furniture, décor, light-fittings and artwork. Herringbone or chevron floors give you rectangles; staircases can create cylindrical or cuboid stairwells; wallpaper can bring in strong patterns; rooms can have domes and arches; smaller delicate furniture and accents can contrast larger sturdier pieces. Even the perception of weight adds to visual contrast.

The options are endless. Just think of the following opposing poles:

  • Natural vs. Geometric
  • Small vs. Big
  • Delicate vs. Sturdy
  • Light vs. Heavy

2.  Color

If you are looking for an unforgettable interior, forget faded and matchy-matchy color schemes. High contrast spaces depend heavily on the use of color. It’s the first form of contrast that usually comes to mind.

A colorful interior using contrasting greens, pinks and patterns.
DESIGN: Dazey Den Design

But to start, a little Color Theory 101:

  • Primary colors - blue, red, yellow - are colors that can’t be created by other colors.
  • Secondary colors - purple, orange, green - are created by mixing primary colors.
  • Tertiary colors are shades and hues created by mixing primary and secondary colors.
  • Complementary colors are two colors that are on opposite sides of the wheel.
  • Colors are also classified as warm or cool.
  • Colors change tone by adding grey; just as they are lightened by adding white (tint) or darkened by adding black (shade).
A color wheel showing primary, secondary, tertiary, warm and cool colors.
A color wheel showing primary, secondary, tertiary, warm and cool colors

It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Think of the following when approaching your contrasting color scheme:

  • B&W, Monochromatic, Complimentary or Triadic
  • Light vs. Dark
  • Cool vs. Warm
  • Bright vs. Dull
  • Opaque vs. Transparent

For a strong and dynamic impact, a complementary color scheme - two colors on opposite sides of the color spectrum - does the job. Classic color combinations include blues with oranges, reds with greens, and purples with yellows. And if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you may consider exploring a triadic palette by using 3 colors, even though those are harder to pull off.

But a play with color contrast doesn’t necessarily mean overbearing multi-colored rooms. Timeless black and white always works. As do monochromatic schemes that play with a lighter tint, a darker shade, or a tone of the same color. Black or white can also serve as the contrasting feature for another color - although, for the most vivid effect, pair darker shades with white and lighter ones with black.

Then there is the contrasting of cool and warm colors. Warm oranges, reds and yellows make large rooms cozier; cool blues, greens and purples have a calming and soothing effect and make small rooms feel larger. Decide on what you want to achieve in your room and let one group rule, then add a few elements from the opposing group to balance things out.

No matter which route you choose, remember to let one color dominate, and use the others for accents - a blue statement wall with orange contrasts in furniture, textiles, artwork and accessories. And if you’re not looking for such a color splash, injecting neutrals can tone things down and create a calm backdrop for your colorful accents to pop.

3.  Texture and Pattern

A stumbling block for many aspiring interior designers or passionate homeowners is a neglect of texture and pattern. Too often are spaces clinically smooth, devoid of textural diversity - like a space station in the latest Star Trek film.

Interior design of an impressive living area using principles of contrast in form, shape, color and texture.
DESIGN: Nina Magon Studio   📸: Julie Soefer

So how do we add textural diversity? By mixing, matching and layering a variety of materials that feel distinct from each other. Texture is not only how an element feels when we touch it; it also the way we perceive that element feels by its visual appearance. Consider opposites such as:

  • Plain vs Ornate
  • Rough vs. Smooth
  • Shiny vs. Matte
  • Soft vs. Hard
  • Warm vs. Cold
  • Old vs. New

Textiles are an obvious way to mix in patterns and dimension. Weaving in a set of thick, chunky curtains can add solidity and grounding to a light, airy room. Juxtaposing marble with an animal skin rug or soft fluffy cushions can shake up a space. Natural materials such as stone or wood can humanize a surrounding of metal and acrylic.

Finally, embrace texture in the furniture itself; instead of choosing the now-classic smooth chest of drawers, look for something antique, engraved, carved, sculpted. And don’t forget about your walls; think about plaster and paint finishes, wood paneling, moldings, mirrors or tiles; and of course, wallpaper which has unlimited options - metallic, patterned, woven, 3D.

The Lesson

A living room interior using contrasts in color, form and texture to add depth and impact.
DESIGN: Benjamin Johnston Design   📸: Julie Soefer

Contrast is the single greatest tool in a designer’s arsenal. But it should also be used sparingly. Throwing everything into a room eliminates contrasts, as the objects, patterns, and colors clash without meaning. Instead, contrast is the art of stripping back: selecting a dominant theme and then going against the grain in the accents and flourishes.

Remember, contrast is about adding depth, removing that flat feeling. It is about creating distinct factors which will catch your eyes attention and make you analyze the surroundings. But it’s also about balance and impact: yin-and-yang.

If in doubt, stick to the basics: light and dark, big and small, rough and smooth.

July 1, 2021