Graphically Speaking

Rugs, tables, sofas and lamps are the basic elements to any room. Arranging them takes coordination and a sense of light and space, but they are décor manufactured by someone else. Design is the part of a room that belies an expression of self. It’s the emotional statement the designer (you) makes. The latest trend—graphic design—is bold, inspired and the ultimate mark of distinction.

Room design usually lands somewhere within the traditional, transitional or modern styles. But this new décor niche is unearthing itself under the banner of modern design and it offers something unique. When graphic design is incorporated into a room, it looks fresh and artistic, celebrating the freedom of self-expression. Designers who like to coin names for design styles like classic contemporary, mid-century retro or old-world traditional might call this innovative approach hipster modern or artsy industrial.

Designers and homeowners alike can move beyond the confines of simply decorating a room and tap into the more inventive parts of the imagination. Instead of turning to mainstream, manufactured products, the graphic style embraces unexpected elements that are intentionally imperfect, where the direct human effort comes through on an emotional, rather than aesthetic, level. These original, often handmade details can be quirky or full of attitude, but are always suited to the individual.

There are infinite ways to infuse graphic elements that bring an edgy feeling and prompt a bracing reaction from your guests. The energy and potency of the written word makes an impactful statement when emblazoned across a wall, stair riser or kitchen backsplash.

This artful expressionism is most effective against a blank canvas. Keeping background surfaces and furnishings as stark as possible allows the statement to resound loudly. White walls work best, but using black, shades of gray and pure, primary colors can also provide the right complement. Try to achieve sharp contrasts with light and dark surfaces, avoiding mid-tone shades and colors, with the exception of gray, which can emulate concrete.

Artwork is another powerful way to say something graphically, whether immediate or contemplative. The sole purpose of some “decorative” paintings may be to add elemental blocks of color to a space. Another kind of painting might require some scrutiny to decipher. A three-dimensional collage that uses interesting combinations of crumpled-up scrap materials feels like repurposed objects, but adds a great deal of texture to a wall and history to a space.


It may seem impossible to work the graphic style into your current décor, but it’s actually intended to be effortless. It also juxtaposes beautifully with a crystal chandelier or white upholstered chairs. The key is understanding there are varying degrees and forms of self-expression that translate harmoniously.

Start with any room that is more casual than formal with regard to the furnishings and patterns. Consider a simple change in color scheme to set the stage for your statement. Bringing in additional accessories such as a modern area rug or collection of art glass vases will further the style. Items made from welded metal, including small tables, lighting fixtures and sculptures, forge a hand-constructed, artisanal feeling and add visual interest to a room with neutral, shiny finishes. Look for Giacometti-style sculpture and accent furniture on eBay, comb the salvage shops of New York City or actually seek out the work of a local artist at

Use utilitarian-style lighting that says, “We’re not fancy.” Fixtures made of steel or iron and clear glass with exposed wires and bulbs in asymmetrical designs are the current trend. Some of the most innovative lighting designers take great pains to create lighting that looks like what you’d encounter on a construction site, where wires and work lights dangle down haphazardly.

Once a suitable place is chosen to present a graphic element, the room becomes instantly more interesting, engaging and utterly yours. The key is having the confidence to stand behind the unexpected effects it will have on your guests.

Design Tips: Speak Graphic

We have Bunny.
Large, cutout newsprint letters in the form of decals have an effect similar to reading a ransom note.

Graffiti Bridge.
Urban-style words spray-painted on drywall feel like a foreign language.

Stream of Consciousness.
Simply taking a paintbrush to spontaneously slop down a thought and letting it drip is like the uninhibited brilliance of an impulsive child.

Open Late.
A custom-made neon sign that flashes a concise message also brings a seedy, late-night quality to a space.

caroline wilkes

Caroline Sophia Wilkes is an interior designer who also writes about design trends. From Manhattan to Montauk, this native Long Islander derives inspiration from the dynamic forms and energy of the city to the organic serenity of our land- and seascapes.