Playing with Pattern

By Lesley Myrick

How to layer patterns for a personalized look

‘ve been obsessed with patterns for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I thought polka dots were the bee’s knees. I crimped my hair, wore pastel polka-dot T-shirts with striped pastel leggings and felt like an ’80s rock star.

As a teen, zebra print was my jam. I had lime green bedroom walls with a zebra-print bedspread, zebra area rug and zebra accent pillows. (Clearly, when I love something, I go all in.) I had a friend in college who drove a vintage purple Volkswagen Beetle with zebra upholstery, and I almost died of jealousy.

As an adult, I still adore zebra print, but my love for pattern has expanded into other organic-inspired designs like leopard, ikat and batik. These busy patterns are not as intimidating as you might think. As Jenna Lyons, former president and creative director of J. Crew, famously quipped, “As far as I’m concerned, leopard is a neutral.”

In interior design, patterns get a bad rap as being hard to work with and overwhelming. While it’s true that it’s easier to mix and match solid colors, it’s a total snooze to live a life without pattern. And once you know the basics, it’s really not that hard to decorate with a mix of patterns.

Here’s one essential principle to get you started: patterns really fall into only two categories, geometric and organic. That’s it! Geometric patterns are clean, precise and orderly; think of classic stripes, dots and plaids. Organic patterns feel looser and more random, like shapes you’d see in nature: animal prints, botanicals and florals. There are, of course, some patterns that straddle the line, but most prints and patterns fall into one of these two categories.

So how do you go about mixing patterns when there are a zillion design choices to navigate? Geometric or organic? Small or large scale? Color or neutral prints? To start, “Generally speaking, you always want a mix of small-, medium- and large-scale patterns. This helps move your eye around the room,” said Rebecca Atwood, author of “Living With Pattern.”

Atwood suggests choosing a “hero” pattern, one print that will be the main focus in the room. From there, you can select additional prints that coordinate with your hero to support it and round out the design. Typically the hero pattern is the largest-scale, boldest and most attention-getting. It’s the lead singer of the group; everything else is a backup dancer.

When you’ve found your awesome hero pattern, play around with other fabrics or wallpapers you’re drawn to. If you’re unsure if they work well together, begin to look for connections between the patterns. Do they share a similar color palette? Are they all clean and sophisticated? Are they all African-inspired? Do they share a playful retro vibe?

I’d love to say there’s an ideal number of patterns to include in a space or a strict formula to follow, but it’s really all about preference. Those who lean toward more streamlined tastes will likely be happiest with just two or three patterns in a room balanced with plenty of plains. Those who enjoy a more dynamic home will likely want to push the boundaries of pattern a little further.

Even though I loved my teenage bedroom, I don’t think using the same pattern on the rug, bedspread and pillows is the best look anymore. (And let’s be real, it never was.) Thankfully I’ve learned a lot about design since I was 16. Now I love to layer a variety of patterns on window treatments, accent seating, pillows and area rugs. I love to see a crisp geometric pattern on draperies since they have natural flow and movement. A free-flowing organic pattern can look great on a tailored Roman shade. Playing with contrast is part of the magic of working with pattern.

If you’re still not feeling confident in your pattern-mixing prowess, try experimenting with textured fabrics like tweed or matelassé, which look like small-scale prints. These kinds of textures are not as visually busy as full-blown patterns, but they’re still far more dynamic than flat, solid fabrics. I’ll take textured boucle upholstery over boring, basic microfiber any day. Bonus: A textured fabric is going to be more forgiving when it comes to showing dirt, minor stains and general wear and tear.

Where don’t I typically put a pattern? There’s really nowhere I wouldn’t, but I tend to stay away from patterned fabrics on a sofa, simply for longevity’s sake. A pattern dates the piece much quicker than a solid fabric does. Stick with a textured solid fabric or leather upholstery, and introduce pattern through accent pillows. There are exceptions, of course, like the custom black-and-white lip-print sectional I’m currently designing for a rock ‘n’ roll loving client. Sometimes a hip patterned sectional is exactly what a room needs to totally rock. To each his own.

And that’s what I love about designing with patterns — it really is an opportunity to create a look that’s all your own. Find your awesome hero pattern, seek out its supporting prints and remember — leopard is a neutral.