Theme decorating

A common musical style is known as “theme and variation,” in which a theme is established and then re-created with variations in rhythm, style and color. Each variation is a different “take” on the same theme.

Home decoration can be approached in much the same way.

pexels-dagmara-dombrovska-6738800 Nautical Theme decorating
Stock Photo by Dagmara Dombrovska via Pexels

For instance, the “nautical” theme is very popular. Each person who creates it has a different viewpoint and each result varies in style and color. For some, the term nautical conjures visions of sailboats and lighthouses, while others envision sandy beaches and seashells. Each of these variations is acceptable — “correct,” if you will — and can be a great way to express one’s interests or hobbies, or create the feeling of a treasured vacation spot. Establishing a theme is a handy way to start the decorating process as well. Especially popular in kids’ rooms, themes can work throughout one’s home.

However, the principles of good interior design cannot be ignored. When the obvious is overdone in design as in music, it’s no longer theme and variation. It’s a riff.

Noah's arc theme decorating
Pehr Noah’s Ark Nursery Collection at Bed, Bath & Beyond

This can easily happen in decorating children’s rooms. “Noah’s Arc” is a very common theme for babies’ rooms. Stores that carry baby’s bedding provide multitudes of items related to this theme. As a result, many rooms become overfilled with the same images of the animals and the arc, over and over — from the border and wallpaper, to bedding, quilts, baby bags, curtains and wall hangings. While this isn’t wrong, it’s all theme and no variation. I prefer a more subtle approach. Instead of covering the entire space with the same images, why not limit it to one or two elements? Use it in the bedding, then go for coordinating colors elsewhere. A few pairs of animals on a shelf would help illustrate the theme, as would an ocean mural on the walls. Perhaps the crib could become the arc with a sail canopy, a blue/green rug for the ocean and blue sky on the ceiling. There are so many options available that put the theme-and-theme-alone style to shame.

paris-sign-2801 theme decorating
Paris sign at Chairish (Affiliate Link)

France — While we may have some notable political differences, many Americans, myself among them, are enamored with all things French — from the bistros in Paris to the lavender fields of Provence. Eiffel tower lamps, black-and-white photographs of rainy Paris streets or artwork with purple lavender fields stretching as far as the eye can see are prominent examples in this decorating style. Stores are filled with ceramics and porcelain pieces stamped with French hotel and restaurant names; we can purchase French milled soaps in Marshalls; and we drink Champagne from elegant stemware.

I speak of theme decorating from firsthand knowledge of how easily a theme can be overdone to the point that it becomes a caricature of itself. I wish I could own a pied-a-terre in Paris, so instead, I started purchasing items with the words “Paris” and “France” on them, thinking it would transport me. Rather than feeling transported, I only ended up supporting the companies that make such “objets d’art.” I had to look deeper into what I love about France. For me, it’s the elegant architecture and the old world charm mixed with the contemporary flair. It’s streetlights and cobblestones, lingering over coffee at a sidewalk café, a walk in a park. It’s glamour and grit – the old with the new. It’s not labored or overly defined, it’s just a feeling and style that has developed over centuries. It’s definitely not little signs that say Paris.

Linda Merrill hand made pink and black French pillow theme decorating
Linda Merrill handmade

Of course, I still have my little Paris clichés, but generally I’ve worked to create a look that feels like it’s developed over time. It includes a mix of antiques and modern pieces, some quintessentially French toiles, wrought-iron lighting, accents that remind me of streetlights, a black and white tiled floor and a fleur-de-lis thrown in for good measure. My living room is evolving over time, which is just how I imagine Paris style to have evolved.

disney-princess-castles-comforter-shams-o theme decorating
Disney Princess Comforter at PB Kids (Affiliate Link)

Princess style — Many little girls, and their mothers and grandmothers, love the princess style. It evokes dreams of knights in shining armor, fairyland castles (OK, here we are in France again!) and beautiful dresses. It seems as if Disney has cornered the market on the fairy princess style with merchandise for Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Snow White and Cinderella. It’s easy and accessible — and ceaselessly marketed to the under-five-year-old set. Much like the Noah’s Arc theme, we end up with sheets, blankets, posters and wallpaper borders with the same cartoon characters all over them. This may be good for Disney, but it’s bad for personal originality.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings Princess bedroom design

If we think about what we find so beautiful about this style — beautiful dresses, castles in far away lands, the crown — we should be able to create a beautiful girl’s bedroom that would both serve her inner princess (and, to be honest about it, their mothers as well) and “grow” with her as she leaves the princess stage. Think beautiful pink walls with window treatments made from tulle, a coronet-style canopy over the crib, a castle border or mural on the wall. The Disney princess dolls or figurines fit well in this space, and they can be retired to storage easily when the time comes. By then, rest of the space might need just a little updating, with the pink walls now the basis for a mod pink and purple polka-dot theme for the older girl.

However you create your theme decorating experience, keep these tips in mind:

· Decide how the theme you want “speaks” to you. After all, it will be a reflection of your personality.
· Select the right color palette to set the mood.
· Don’t overdo the accessories. Remember, creativity comes in the variations.
©2005 Linda Merrill, updated in 2022

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