How to develop an ‘eye’ for interior design

rosanna bossomFollow these seven steps to interior design mastery…

Some people seem to have a natural talent for interior design: an uncanny ability to put bits and pieces together just so and create a gorgeous space. But is a knack for interiors simply something you’re born with, or can you teach yourself its secrets?

Well, the good news is that if you can appreciate a beautiful room – even if you’re not sure exactly why it’s beautiful – then you’re already halfway there. Interior design is a curious mix of art and science, and with a little practice and understanding of the basic principles, you can develop your ‘eye’ and gain even more enjoyment from looking at, and living in, lovely spaces. Here are seven expert tips…


1. Become an interiors magpie

Instagram, magazines, Pooky’s interiors blog… it’s never been easier to feast your eyes on an infinite array of sensational rooms. And then there’s the real world: cafes, hotels, shops, art galleries – you can get your inspiration anywhere. So start collecting! Take photos of spaces, quirky bits of furniture, tiled floors, colour and pattern combinations… anything that catches your eye.

Pinterest is such a perfect platform for interior design magpies, enabling you to save pictures to create virtual moodboard in different categories, such as room type, colour theme or design style (modernist, retro, Art Deco, maximalist, minimalist and so on). The more you look, sift and collect, the more you’ll learn about what you love and inspires you.

naked kitchensLine, space and form: a beautifully balanced kitchen by Naked Kitchens, featuring Pooky's Equilibrium pair pendant set. Image: Naked Kitchens

2. Learn to ‘read’ a room

Well designed rooms are usually pleasing to the eye because they have a kind of balance and harmony. But what actually gives a space these things? Here’s where the scientific side of interior design can help, because a grasp of the fundamental elements of interior design aesthetics can deepen your understanding of why some rooms look better than others, and why simple changes in arrangement and composition can make a big difference.

According to theorists in these matters, there are seven ‘elements’ of interior design: space, form, line, colour, pattern, texture, and light. We’ll come on to the last four in a minute, but the most abstract and tricky concepts are the first three.

In interior design terms, ‘space’ refers to the overall size and shape of a room or area, and within this three-dimensional space there is ‘positive’ space (the areas which are filled by furniture and other items) and ‘negative’ space (the gaps between things). The best designs strike a balance between the two to create a sense of flow and avoid making things feel too overcrowded and confusing to the eye, or conversely too sparse and cold. (Read more about space in interior design here.)

‘Form’ refers to the shape of an object in the room (anything from furniture to artworks to plants), and it can be split into two broad categories: geometric forms, which are generally straight, with clear, defined edges and provide a structured feel; and natural forms, which include irregular, curved or abstract shapes and create a more organic, relaxed feel. Good rooms tend to achieve a balance, including natural forms like plants or curved seating to help to soften the effect of any stronger geometric shapes (bookcases, tables etc).

The horizontal lines of the shelves and vertical lines of the curtains emphasise the space in this sitting room by Clare Weeks of MY-STUDIO (@mystudiolondon)

Meanwhile, ‘line’ refers to the outline or perimeter of a form or shape, and it can apply to the structure of the space itself, such as the strong vertical lines of a window or doorway, as well as the objects within it, like the horizontal lines of a table or bed. 

Line plays a key role in the way a space looks and feels, and it can be used to visually extend a space or create a focal point. Vertical lines (provided by things like tall furniture, floor lamps, full-length curtains, or wallpaper with vertical stripes) will draw the eye upwards and increase the sense of height in a room, while the horizontal lines of things like shelving and low-level furniture will help to emphasise the room’s width. Finally, there are dynamic lines, including bold diagonals and zig zags, which are great for creating a sense of energy and movement. (Read more about line in interior design here.)

When you next look at a stunning interior, think about its use of space, form and line – chances are, you’ll be able to identify a balance in each of these areas, with harmonies and contrasts that all add up to an aesthetically-pleasing whole. Read the room!

 sean symingtonA happy riot of colours in this room by Sean Symington, both constrasting and complementing, warm and cool. Image: Sean Symington.

3. 'Feel' colours like emotions

‘What’s your favourite colour?’ is a question of urgent importance for little children, though not one we tend to worry too much about as grown-ups. But your choice of colour in a room is actually very revealing about what effect you want to achieve, because colours are closely associated with different moods.

Generally speaking, light and neutral tones will create a calming atmosphere, and can make a room feel light, bright and airy, while darker colours can make a room feel warm and cosy or add a strong dramatic element. Colours that are close to the blue end of the spectrum, including blues, greens and purples have cooler, soothing properties, while those sitting towards the red end of the spectrum, including reds, oranges and yellows, are known to be warmer and more stimulating.

Once you start thinking about colour in those terms – almost as emotions – you can see a room in a whole new light.


4. Get to grips with visual texture

In interior design terms, ‘texture’ involves both sight as well as touch: it’s about how an object ‘feels to the eye’. Smooth materials such as silk or cotton can create a cool, streamlined feel, while more tactile fabrics, such as raffia or jute, will bring a natural warmth and comfort.

A rustic woven rug against a smooth wooden floor, a fluffy cushion on a leather sofa, a fabric wall hanging on an exposed brick wall… Making use of texture means you can have interesting contrast and depth in a room even in a monochrome or neutral colour scheme.

Find out more about introducing texture into your interiors here.

av homeIn an understated or muted colour scheme, combining different textures and fabrics can create visual interest, as in this beautifully calm room by Arthty Ragupathy Image: @av.home


5. Use pattern with a purpose

Good ways of introducing pattern into a room include wallpaper, curtains, rugs, cushions and lampshades – and pattern is fabulous for adding visual depth and drama. But whether it's animal print, geometric forms or florals, the important thing to remember is that it’s quite hard not to make a statement when you bring in a pattern.

Pattern nearly always catches the eye and says something about you… It can easily overpower a space so it pays to know exactly why you’re using it and having a clear purpose. But if you love pattern, embrace it!

man with a hammer bathroomPattern with a purpose: in this bathroom by Greg Penn, the wallpaper plus Pooky's double chukka wall light and red shades introduce pattern to stunning, contrasting effect. Photo: @manwithahammer


6. Think in layers

Professional interior designers often talk about ‘layering’, and it’s a great way to think about the process of creating a beautiful room, building up layers of colours, patterns and textures to create a harmonious, visually interesting scene.

When you think in layers you can understand why mood boards are so useful. By collecting a scrapbook of material samples, colour swatches and magazine clippings, you can experiment with mixing and matching them in miniature and get a feel for how a room’s visual layers will work, before you start actually buying stuff.

7. Layer light for mood

Finally, we’ve left the most important bit for last (yes we’re biased but still…). Lighting is of course a brilliant, affordable way to get colour, pattern and texture into a room via shades and bases… but uniquely, light determines the mood and atmosphere of a space.

And this is where layering comes in, because it applies just as much to light as to colour and pattern. The trick is to always have a range of different light sources. The three main types of light are ambient lighting (the overall light in a room); task lighting (for doing particular things like reading or cooking) and accent lighting (for highlighting particular features or areas).

The best lighting schemes combine all three to give you multiple options for different moods or times of day. This is known as ‘layering’ your light and you can read all about it here. Most interior design photoshoots are lit as if it's the middle of the day – but as an interior designer, you need to think about evenings and nights: where are the light sources, and how will they work with each other to create different moods?

sycamorePooky's Sycamore chandelier and wall light in bronze, styled by Ali Attenborough. Photo: Max Attenborough

So there you are - seven steps for developing your interior design eye… Now get out there and and start looking!

Discover more interior design ideas and inspiration on our blog. Pooky make beautiful lights for beautiful rooms - browse our enormous range of lights, shades and more here.

See also:

Interior design for small homes: 7 expert tips
Giving a new build home some character with interior design – 8 practical ideas 
The five key questions to ask when lighting a room
How to light an open plan space - 5 top lighting tips

Image top: a stunning sitting room by Rosanna BossomImage: Rosanna Bossom Ltd