This advice is for the decorating challenged. If you are a good decorator, you probably won’t need guidelines for how to decorate around a dark neutral sofa. Chances are you already do these things instinctively. But if you are not in love with your space and you’re not sure why, or you need to furnish your living room and don’t know where to start, read on for the surest strategy for creating a pretty living room.
Recently, I arrived at a design consultation where my client had mid-tone taupe carpeting, a dark taupe sofa and curtains that matched.
It was a sea of taupe that she had tried to brighten up with a small turquoise area rug and a few cushions.
Since I see this every day, I thought I’d ask the obvious question:
“Why did you buy matching curtains?”
She replied, “Well before this I had a burgundy sofa with burgundy drapes, so I just did the same thing.”
When someone is unsure which colour to choose, it seems easiest to just keep choosing the same colour.
I think this happens over and over for a few reasons:
- “Matching” is the most basic decorating principle. We all get it. Does it match?
- If you got your sofa recently in the trendy neutral of the moment, chances are, at the same big box stores there are ample “matching” rugs and curtains. You simply buy curtains in the same grey and check them off your list. It doesn’t take a lot of planning or thought. It’s convenient. It’s safe. It’s done.
- Getting everything in the same “safe” and “versatile” neutral seems prudent. Especially if you have no decorating plan.
- Dark neutrals are “practical.” They don’t show dirt (the worst reason in my opinion to live every day in a drab room).
Do you see any of your reasons here?
And this, my friends, is how depressingly drab rooms are constantly being born.
Why your sofa looks different than it did in the showroom
If you’ve ever ordered a sofa off the showroom floor, had it delivered to your home, only to discover it looks completely different in YOUR lighting, that’s because you didn’t have a plan.
And, common advice will be to always take a sample home to see what it looks like in your living room, but if you don’t have a plan to begin with, this advice won’t make any sense. If you have nothing in your living room, waving around a 9’x 9′ sample will not help you, unless you are matching it to an existing rug (for example) and if that’s the case then you should definitely bring a sample home.
But if your living room is empty, you’re almost safer to buy a ‘colour’ off the showroom floor than a neutral since, as you know from reading this blog, a sofa that looks ‘neutral’ in the showroom, based on their light and based on the items they chose to showcase it will not look ‘neutral’ anymore in your home.
For example, if you buy a ‘linen’ sofa in a showroom with a dark colour on the wall behind it, it will seem ‘neutral’ there, but when you bring that sofa home and place it against a white wall for example, that’s where it might look pink beige or green beige or whatever undertone it happens to be.
How to Decorate Around a Dark Sofa
So do not assume you need to be wealthy and hire a decorator to achieve a better look.
If you stick to some very SIMPLE rules, it’s not as hard as you may think to create a fresh and pretty room.
The first key principle is you need to create is CONTRAST
Remember this the next time you need to choose a colour:
“Would buying this (rug, curtain, sofa, ottoman, chair) in the same matching neutral be a missed opportunity for creating contrast?”
The answer is almost definitely yes.
Because even if you aren’t comfortable with adding colour to your room, contrast between light and dark elements is necessary to make any room come to life.
And if you’re starting with a practical dark neutral sofa, this means your area rug and drapes will likely need to be LIGHT.
Safe decorating is riskier than playful decorating
While it’s wise to be conservative and choose very simple tile and flooring, in other words, hard finishes that require major work and expense to replace–upholstery, area rugs, drapery and textiles will need to be recovered or replaced at least every decade or so. Textiles are where you can add contrast, trendy pattern or colour and make things interesting!
Not all of us are comfortable with a playful approach to decorating. That’s why I’m suggesting these easy guidelines to keep you from the pitfalls of overly safe decorating which will only leave you underwhelmed or worse.
Let’s look at this successfully pretty room with the dark neutral sofa again.
In the image above, the curtains and rug do match the sofa, but notice they the curtains are not directly BEHIND the sofa. Also the room is expertly styled, layered with pretty colours and interesting objects, and includes a great piece of art that pulls in colour.
This is NOT the look most of us will achieve with a matching sofa, drapes and area rug. Far from it.
Let’s picture this room without the art and colourful styling shall we?
It would start to look something like this:
Without a professional designer involved, it will be hard to achieve the expertly styled room anytime soon. And it will be easier if you follow my guidelines for adding contrast, so you don’t end up with the drab look in the image above.
First, let me just assure you:
Pretty does not cost more than ugly. However, ugly is always on sale.
While most homeowners can wrap their heads around a decent quality sofa, they tend to balk at spending on drapes or area rugs (or lamps). This is where they will just get what’s easily available and inexpensive. Sorta like picking up the placeholder area rug along with groceries at Costco.
This is how most people end up with the too-small cheap and boring charcoal or taupe area rug and the skimpy grey drapes. Now that, in my mind, is a waste of money.
Decorating requires some strategy, but it’s not chess.
I believe you don’t have to strain your bank account to make prettier choices. What you DO need to do is a bit of planning in advance.
You need to plan ahead for pretty.
But it can be quite simple. Basically, you need to strategically add in CONTRAST and COLOUR.
Off-the-shelf curtains from IKEA, Pottery Barn, or any big box store come in range of colours and are relatively inexpensive. And if you need to go with a less expensive area rug, there are many many options that will provide some contrast and pattern at affordable price points.
And don’t choose a rug that is too small, it should be at least 8 by 10 or 9 by 12. Go with a less expensive rug in the largest size you can afford.
For example, a simple natural fibre jute rug, like this very inexpensive one from Ikea, will give you a much fresher look with a dark grey, taupe or brown sofa than a matching dark shag rug will – just like in this nicely layered room below.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes this room with the standard charcoal sofa work. Warm natural wood tones, cognac or camel and lots of off white or cream will instantly wake up a room with a dark neutral sofa even if you don’t want to venture into colour.
Lots of shops on Etsy even provide curated pillow combinations (like this one) with good contrasting neutral colour and pattern combinations to create a similar look – just in case you feel a bit throw pillow challenged.
And while a light cream area rug might not be your idea of practicality, trust me on this. The potentially shorter but much more beautiful life of an inexpensive light coloured area rug will give you so much more joy for your buck than a dark and drab one.
If you’re really worried about a light rug, look for one with a subtle pattern in it where the balance of colour is still light like this one.
Essentially, you can think of the sofa, area rug and drapes as sort of the foundational triad of your room. Along with accent chairs, they are the largest elements in your room besides the floor and walls. This means they are the elements where you need to add colour and contrast. In AT LEAST one of the three.
When choosing a sofa and area rug combo, keep the rule of alternating contrast in your mind. If your sofa is dark, it needs to be balanced with contrasting light rug. You just can’t buy both in the colour of wet mud and call it a day.
Also remember that dark drapes can be very heavy looking. Always consider whether they could instead match the white pillows or coffee table that you might be adding to the room or the lighter wall colour instead of the dark sofa.
And don’t forget about pattern in your drapes or rug, that’s always a great way to add interest.
Ready to take it to the next level? Add COLOUR and CONTRAST!
Here’s how to add both colour and contrast:
- Find a pattern in a pillow or area rug that repeats the taupe, grey, brown or black of your sofa, along with some cream or white and the accent colour you want to incorporate in your room. Take your time, this can be a tricky treasure to find. Etsy is a good source for patterned pillows. And pretty area rugs are increasingly available at really accessible price points. Wayfair is a good source.
- Repeat the accent colour from this pattern in larger, more solid pieces like drapes, pillows, an area rug, artwork or even the accent chairs or ottoman. Or paint the colour on your walls.
- Repeat all three colours – the neutral colour of the sofa, the white or cream and the accent colour – in lamps, art and accessories.
Imagine this room above with a solid taupe brown rug and taupe drapes to match the sofa. Sad right? See what they did here with the patterned light area rug that picks up the taupe brown and introduces blue and cream? And then they repeated the colours in the accent chairs, pillows and lamps.
It really is that simple. As long as you keep two principles in mind:
Does my room have contrast?
Do I have a textile pattern that repeats my sofa colour and pulls in both colour and contrast?
If the answer is yes, then put those same colours on repeat in your room.
More inspiration for dark sofas
Here’s another example for inspiration. The area rug is a bit small, but it is so pretty and does just what it needs to do, it has a pattern that repeats the neutral taupe sofa and pulls in a new pretty accent colour and some white, which are then repeated to pull the room together.
Even if you removed the pretty styling, the sofa rug and pillows are still way ahead of the look we would have with everything matching the sofa.
Bottom line, before you go shopping, make sure you create a plan. This way, it’ll be way easier to stick to your convictions before you buy anything!
If you’d like your living room to fill you with joy when you walk in the room, see my Get Me Started package here. And, if you are still agonizing over the right paint colour, try one of these eDesign packages.