“They don’t make them like they used to” is a phrase that’s probably been uttered or thought by anyone who has ever toured new home construction.
Top-shelf materials, solid construction techniques and a history-soaked design character (seemingly impossible to re-create) have led to an ever-growing appreciation for our homes and buildings from the past. From late 19th-century farmhouses to Victorian painted ladies to midcentury modern masterpieces, many of us have faithfully resuscitated a dying diamond-in-the-rough and been justly rewarded with the opportunity to inhabit its next chapter.
Even those of us who choose newer homes often still want the architectural character of ones from another era. And for a while, it seemed natural to not only restore, revitalize or re-create the fireplace surrounds, molding and hardware but to also painstakingly seek out period-appropriate furnishings to complete the picture.
But is that really the best way to highlight all of a home’s special features? Many times, layering the same furniture design lines on top of the architectural ones obfuscates rather than showcases a special property. More results in far less — whereas employing the completely disparate can boost the appreciation factor.
As it turns out, opposites often beautifully complement rather than detract. Plus, those period-accurate pieces aren’t always terribly accommodating of our modern living habits or our bigger, modern frames.
Aesthetically, consider how enticing something shiny appears in a matte environment or how soulful a natural and unfinished element can look adjacent to a smooth, polished neighbor. In fact, inculcating contrasting furnishings into historical properties (or ones emulating historical ones) underscores the beauty of both.
And though designers have been employing this technique for some time, this trend of cohabitating opposites is just now catching fire with a wider public. Today’s homeowners have proven much less attached to the antiquated notion that everything must coordinate. Instead, they’re often embracing the idea that interior furnishings can (and maybe even should) directly contrast with a home’s style to maximize appreciation of both.
On a recent trip to Italy, I came upon the ideal embodiment of this trend of cohabitating opposites at the luxury resort Aman Venice. It is on the famed Grand Canal — inside the Palazzo Papadopoli, one of the city’s most notable residential treasures.
Built nearly 500 years ago, the palazzo is a masterpiece of Baroque-style architecture replete with frescoed plaster ceilings, intricately patterned terrazzo floors, and miles of hand-carved wood and marble detailing. It is a full-bloomed example of the ripe, romantic design that only comes to fruition in a city with waterways for streets.
But after decades of trading hands, it was inherited by its current owners in a rapidly deteriorating state. Restoring the Palazzo Papadopoli would necessitate a heroic effort and require unheard of resources. Without the right confluence of events, it would soon be lost to time. Fortunately, Aman Resorts recognized the palazzo’s potential, selecting it for its Venice outpost and affording it a meticulously led, top-to-bottom revival to its former glory.
Furnishing the palazzo without detracting from it would be the next challenge. Having recruited the finest artisans to faithfully restore every plaster crack and refinish every square inch of the original floors, it could be logical to then adorn the newly restored palace with appropriate Italian antiquities from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. But when the Aman Venice opened its doors in 2013, the intricately carved moldings and otherworldly frescos were instead sitting alongside sleek, 21st-century Italian furnishings and overscale, contemporary Murano vases.
The contrast was striking and the result refreshing. Adjacent to the clean, modern lines of the furniture and sparse use of accessories, the overflowing embellishments on every wall, ceiling and floor have the ultimate luxury: room to breathe.
Their masterful workmanship can be appreciated with a focus not possible in a room full of competitors. And with centuries of Italian heritage as its envelope, the minimalist, contemporary furnishings manage to convey a welcoming warmth and respectful restraint. It is the perfect partnership.
But even if you don’t have 19th-century frescoed ceilings, employing furnishings of an opposite style to your home can be a smart way to boost the visual appeal of both your architecture and your decor. Here are a few basic rules to help guide you.
Balance: Employing furnishings that are opposite in intricacy to your home’s lines can spotlight its architectural beauty. Profuse, intricate lines necessitate more visual attention. If your home is of an inherently busier style, choose cleaner-lined furnishings for at least 70 percent of your pieces to allow the details to be appreciated. The other 30 percent can have more visual interest if you like. For those in cleaner-lined homes, such as a midcentury or contemporary one, detailed furnishings can help give it an inviting warmth, but try to limit them to 30 percent or less of your overall selections to accommodate breathing room.
Restraint: Employ restraint by thoughtfully selecting fewer furniture and accessory pieces — but larger-scaled ones — which will allow your home’s character to take center stage. Start by creating a space plan to ensure that you’re focusing on items that ideally fit your room while underscoring that they’ll functionally support your household’s needs.
Color: The brighter and more saturated the colors of your furnishings, the less your home’s details will shine. If your goal is to showcase the architectural elements that make your home unique, stick to a largely neutral palette. Neutral colors work on every style of furniture and happily share visual space with other room elements.
Stalwart purists may never warm to the concept of opposite worlds cohabitating, but the rest of us seem to be increasingly open to mixing it up. Few of us, after all, want to live in a faithfully re-created homage to a period of history, no matter how magnificent your home may be.
Museums are great to visit, but there’s usually not a cozy spot to comfortably watch TV with your feet propped up. And anyone who has ever attempted to convincingly kick back on a turn-of-the-century sofa, labored to get a modern-day mattress to sit inside an antique bed frame or endured a long dinner perched on a delicate period chair knows that it can be unpleasant to live that way.
Embracing differences can be healthy in life — and a great way to make a beautiful, comfortable home as well.
Vern Yip is a TLC/HGTV interior designer and host and author of the book “Vern Yip’s Design Wise: Your Smart Guide to a Beautiful Home.” Originally from McLean, Va., Yip is based in Atlanta and New York. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (all @VernYipDesigns). He writes occasionally for The Washington Post.