Inspiration or Imitation?

By Lesley Myrick

How to conquer the design comparison trap.

Back when I was first getting into interior design, looking for inspiration meant rifling through dozens of magazines, snapping pics of inspiring spaces (that’s if I remembered to bring a disposable camera with me) and watching all the episode of “Trading Spaces” I possibly could. It was a ton of fun, but boy, could it be time-consuming.

Things have gotten a lot more convenient over the last two decades. Not only is everything searchable, but the sheer amount of content available often means that you’re likely to find an image (or 10) of a room that appeals completely to your sense of aesthetic. Well, there you have it — a blueprint for your new living room right at your fingertips. If you already love it, why mess with a good thing, right?

For those looking to update their home but unsure where to start, social media can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ve basically got an infinite supply of inspiration. On the other, these polished, picture-perfect feeds can lead you down a slippery slope of comparison and imitation. When all you are seeing are the photos that everyone is choosing to share (aka the styles that are trending at the moment) and it all looks the same, it can be overwhelming and oh, so easy to think that yours should look the same way.

And it is true that when you’re learning, copying is actually one of the best ways to develop your creative muscles as you learn to mimic the flow, styles and colors of the looks that inspire you. But that shouldn’t be the end result to strive for, even for beginners.

It’s your home, after all. And as much as you like the way a picture looks, if you are copying someone else, you’re not being true — or fair — to yourself. Instead, your goal should be to seek inspiration, not duplication.

But that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Trying to define that line between inspiration and imitation. I think Finnish designer Emma Oivio put it perfectly when she said, “Inspiration becomes copying when you find yourself constantly going back to the original to see if yours looks the same. If you can just leave it and go away and do your thing, it is inspiration.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that you are only allowed a quick peek at your favorite image and then have to do your best to reconstruct it from memory. The exact opposite, in fact. Take some time to inspect your inspiration look’s design details. Figure out why it works as a whole, and try to break down its “design formula.” Do most of the images you love feature white walls? Wood floors? Colorful velvet sofas? Pay attention to the common threads between your most-loved inspiration images. Once you pinpoint your favorite features, use those as the core of your design rather than replicating down to the detail.

Stuck in an imitation rut? Pull yourself out by asking yourself why you are tempted to copy. Is it trendy? Are you trying to get a certain response? Is it affordable? Is it easy? Do you like the colors?

When you understand your motives, it’s easy to see how your justifications can translate to more unique takes. Trends come and go — but figure out the style of the look that you’re loving and you will be able to build a timeless room of your own. Go ahead and get that same sofa — in a different color that works with your existing walls. Or, take that jewel-tone color palette from that bohemian look and give it a midcentury modern update. Contrasting materials can add some serious depth to your room, and luckily there are a zillion different types of materials that you can mix and match together. The key is to figure out the recurring elements in your preferences.

Another way to make an inspiring look your own is by drawing from other sources of inspiration to create an eclectic look that’s unique to you. Wouldn’t that modern kitchen look even better with those brass pendant lights from that other kitchen and the runner that was in that one Airbnb you stayed in last summer on vacation?

If all this sounds like too much work, you have my permission to take it slow. Interior design should be more than just “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” (I never thought I would use an Ariana Grande reference, but here we are.)

Your focus should be on the act of creation rather than the result. Instead of just gushing over the way that somebody else put their room together, celebrate your own wins and cool finds, even if those finds were found in a photo on Instagram. As long as you’re discovering ways to take a source of inspiration and improve on it in a way that appeals even more to you, you’re doing it right.

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