In my practice as a color and design consultant, I am often asked how to go about selecting the right finishing touches for a space—items like rugs, window treatments and decorative accessories such as pillows. It seems that pillows, in particular, can be overwhelming for many to shop for, simply because there are so many different sizes, materials, colors and patterns to choose from. So here are some tips to make the selection a little easier.
This is good advice no matter what project you are tackling: One of your first considerations should be your budget. Decorative pillows run the gamut in cost, from a few dollars per pillow at a big-box store to a few hundred dollars for a custom pillow in a luxe fabric. Think about how many pillows you will need and what you are comfortable spending before heading to the home decor store. Aim for one or two pillows per chair and three to five per sofa, depending on the size of the furniture and how pillowed up you’d like it to look.
If you have young children or pets, you might want to avoid pillows made from harder-to-clean materials like silk and velvet. While not as luxurious in looks or feel, outdoor-grade fabrics are more durable and easier to clean. Check the label on your pillows to see if they are machine washable or are dry-clean only. Even if a pillow is machine washable, you may want to spot clean it by hand to avoid the fading and wear and tear that frequent machine washing can cause.
Common decorative pillow sizes range from 14 to 20 inches square and from 12 by 16 inches to 16 by 26 inches rectangular. Think about whether you prefer a mix of sizes and shapes, as in the previous example, or one size and shape, as shown on the sofa here. If you desire a clean and modern look, stick to throw pillows that are uniform in size, shape and color. For those who favor a more traditional or eclectic vibe, go for an assortment of pillows in a mix of shapes, sizes and colors.
Color and Pattern
Speaking of color, let’s now focus on the fun part: selecting pillow colors and patterns. My strategy for assisting clients who are agonizing over colors of anything from walls to pillows is to help them home in on a color direction. I break the options down into five approaches: cool palette, warm palette, neutral palette, neutral with a kick and mixed/colorful.
But before I explain these color approaches, let me first tackle the struggle many have with pulling together finish materials, furniture and furnishings in a room. When starting with a blank slate, I focus on the bigger-ticket items and items that come in limited styles and colors first. For example, in a living room, select the floor’s finish material first, large pieces of furniture and artwork second, rugs and window treatments next, and pillows and other small decorative accents last.
Obviously the exception to this is if you have existing materials or furnishings that you must incorporate. Those items would then become your launching point. Or if you come across a pillow or another decorative item with a color or pattern that you absolutely love and it becomes the inspiration piece for the entire room. Once you have something to start with, you can think about how you want to use color and pattern to enhance the space.
Cool palette. A common piece of advice for determining your favorite colors is to check your closet contents. If the majority of your favorite articles of clothing are in shades of green, blue, purple or gray, you are likely a fan of cool hues.
Similarly, if your flooring, wall colors and large pieces of furniture veer toward the cooler side of the color wheel, you can’t go wrong selecting decorative pillows that are also in cool hues. By limiting yourself to cool colors, you will instantly narrow your search for the right pillows, making it less overwhelming.
Another advantage to narrowing the colors down to these analogous hues is that it’s an easy way to create a colorful yet harmonious space. The colors are similar, so they play together well.
Warm palette. Not sure if you should go for a cool or warm palette? Look to your weather for help. Those who live in hotter climates may want to create a cool and soothing interior with a cool color palette. Those residing in cold climates can warm their homes up visually with a palette that incorporates warm hues—reds, oranges, yellows and browns.
Again, tightening your color palette in this way will help you narrow down your search for pillows. Don’t be afraid to mix and match colors, textures and patterns within the confines of your chosen palette. Because you are sticking to a limited color palette, it will work as a whole.
Neutral palette. Some like it hot, but many of you prefer it neutral. If your go-to colors are shades of white, gray or brown, think about using pattern and texture to add richness to your living room. Because you don’t have bold-colored pillows clamoring for attention, you have the opportunity to play up the nuances of the various materials in the room. These all-neutral spaces tend to feel calm and soothing. You can add more drama by working in varying dark and light shades of your chosen neutrals.
Neutral with a twist. Take your neutral base and add some zing with bold-hued pillows. The palette seen here features a mix of warm and cool colors, but because the bold colors are limited to two (orange and green) and used in small doses via the pillows, it doesn’t overwhelm the room.
You can really have fun with your pillows when your furniture is neutral. Two or three standout colors and a mix of patterns can add just the right visual punch. I’m always advising homeowners to use bold color for items that are easy and relatively affordable to change out should they grow tired of the color and want to go in a different color direction. Bold-hued and patterned decorative pillows definitely fit this bill.
Mixed/colorful. If sticking to a warm, cool or neutral palette doesn’t excite you, go for a colorful mix. But use some care when selecting the pillows, since you can all too easily create a visually uncomfortable space.
The photo shown here is a terrific example of adding colorful pillows to a colorful room in a way that is pleasing. Orange and blue are complementary colors—opposite each other on the color wheel—so they offer the most contrast when used together.
For this reason it’s good to allow one to be bold (the orange sofa here) and let the other go softer (the light blue wall color). The pillows support the color palette with a mix of hot and cool hues. The patterns are different, but the colors match the intensity of the orange sofa, so they are a good fit, and because only three fairly small pillows are used, it doesn’t look overdone. I find this space edited well. It’s super bold and colorful, but tastefully done.