The clean-lined, subdued-color aesthetic of minimalism has dominated the design scene in recent years, and although that contemporary look is still widely popular, maximalism — its rebellious, loud counterpart — is stealing some of the limelight.
The look, which mixes color, pattern, texture, cultures, shapes and eras, lacks a rigid definition, but you’ll know it when you see it. The aesthetic can be rooted in 1980s excess, or traditional, classic styles, or even evoke a bohemian vibe.
“Maximalism is about surrounding yourself with the things that you love,” Smith said. “It can be art, decor, furniture, anything at all, but it all boils down to layering those things beautifully together in a strategic way. For me, the goal is to always create a ‘wow’ factor.”
Smith has brought the design concept to life in her Irvington, N.J., home by incorporating bold colors, strong shapes, geometric patterns, African decorative pieces and art of Black people by Black artists. She is also turning old family photos into art as a nod to her Grenada heritage.
New Orleans-based interior designer Melissa Rufty is known for adding a Southern flair to maximalism. She reimagines period pieces, from 18th-century Italian and French antiques to Art Deco items, by pairing them with chintz, chinoiserie, contemporary art and animal prints. She also embraces unexpected color combinations, mixes patterns and isn’t afraid of lacquer, giving her spaces a fresh and modern feel.
“It’s more of an attitude than it is an approach,” Rufty said. “And the reason people struggle with it is you have to check your intimidation at the door. You have to be brave and confident and know that, in this attitude, there is no self-expression that is wrong.”
The past and the present
Although maximalism doesn’t have a birth story per se, you can see it at certain points in history. For instance, Rufty said old-school designers such as Mario Buatta (the “Prince of Chintz”) were overt and generous with traditional elements including chintz, decorative trim such as braiding and tassels, and velvets.
Smith references the Victorian era as an earlier time when maximalism had a moment in the spotlight. Intricate furnishings, decorative objects, wallpaper, complex shapes and pattern-mixing brought the ornate look of the period to life.
Today, maximalism is defined by personal indulgence in various forms. For instance, designer Kelly Wearstler embraces sculptural furniture with surreal silhouettes while Patrick Mele fearlessly blends past with present.
As we find ourselves stuck at home because of coronavirus pandemic, maximalism is piquing people’s interest; they want to surround themselves with the items they love in a space that feels good and is highly personalized.
“Before the pandemic, you could be minimal at home, because you had the opportunity to go and do what you want,” Smith said. “All those things you searched for outside through travel and day-to-day life, you aren’t getting right now, and people are looking for that at home.”
For instance, you can use art and other decorative items to evoke the vacation you’ve been wanting to take. That could mean incorporating items such as a Turkish Oushak rug, a Danish teak record cabinet or an ornate antique European armoire.
Know when to stop
Don’t be fooled by the name. You can go overboard with maximalism. Bad minimalism reads sterile and austere, but bad maximalism feels chaotic and overwhelming.
“There’s a fine line between hoarding and curating,” Rufty said. No one wants a space that feels cluttered; aim to fill it perfectly — to the max.
To create a good-looking maximal space, you need to be an expert at layering. You also need to know how to use color and what plays nicely together. And you need to know when to stop.
“It’s very much about strategy and execution,” Smith said.
First, do some planning. Measure to make sure the proportions of the rug and furnishings work together. Then move on to window treatments. Find the right art. Then layer in accessories.
Maximalism allows you to really lay it on thick, but editing is key; it’s the most important aspect of making the style work. Smith puts everything she wants to include in the space and then starts cutting.
Rufty said striking the perfect balance in a maximal space is about adding furnishings, accessories and art as you build a layered, sophisticated look.
“It’s like cooking. Sometimes you need a little more salt or pepper,” Rufty said. “In the end, it’s rich in flavor and just sort of happens.”
Tension is key in striking the right chord. Mix and mingle items that might seem unexpected and opposing. Balance modern with traditional. Juxtapose a bright, acidic hue with a deep, rich color. Cover a traditional wingback chair in a lively pattern.
“Like my mom used to say: ‘You don’t want everything to look like it arrived on the same day,’ ” Rufty said.
How to get the look at home
Smith and Rufty shared their advice on how to build your own maximalist look. Here are their suggestions.
Own your style. “Are you modern or traditional?” Smith said. “Is there a certain vibe you want to embrace? Is there a specific era that speaks to you? Do you love African art or chinoiserie?”
Draw inspiration from what you love. “Is it that emerald green lamp you have been eyeballing or that trip to Ghana where you came back with all those great textiles?” Smith said. “Those things become your focal point.”
Start small. If you’re not ready to go fully maximal, experiment in a nook or powder room. “If you mess up, you just shut the door,” Rufty said.
Cover surfaces. “Graphic wallpapers and bold tiles are a great way to instantly get a maximal look,” Smith said.
Refresh ancestral pieces. Cover your grandmother’s chair in vintage textiles or frame an old watercolor in an antique frame. “It’s about the things that make you feel connected,” Rufty said.
Embrace the gallery wall. “I love mixing high and low for gallery walls, which means I’m mixing original pieces with prints and wall decor,” Smith said. “It gives a curated look, which is key.” Smith blends affordable pieces from big-box stores such as HomeGoods with more sentimental pieces.
Don’t forget the fifth wall. The ceiling is an often-overlooked surface. Rufty recommends highlighting it with a patterned or textured wallpaper.
Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, fix it or change it. “How things are put together is really important,” Smith said.
Keep it rooted in the classics. “You can go trendy really fast, but if you keep answering back to that antique rug or tempering it with an old portrait, it’s going to feel more deliberate and more timeless,” Rufty said.
Ask for help. Consider hiring an interior designer to assist with the editing process or finishing touches.
Go all out with patterns. “Think the more, the merrier,” Rufty said. “I try to keep some color continuity when I mix patterns,” she added. Think stripes, florals and geometrics pulled together by one hue. “I also like to use various textures like velvets, chintz and silk, much like mixing color and pattern.” Rufty said to be mindful of scale and let only one or two patterns play “the lead.”
Create vignettes. By making small scenes or areas within a room, you’re designing another experience and are maximizing every square inch. Rufty recommends attempting a vignette or “a small chapter in a bigger story” in neglected areas, such as under the stairs or in the foyer.
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