July 24, 2024


How to mix and match bedroom furniture

Among the trends that the design world is all too happy to declare dead, the matching bedroom set, or suite as it’s sometimes called, is right up there with flush-mount “boob” lights and popcorn ceilings. “Conceptually, it’s very dated,” San-Francisco-based interior designer Marea Clark says. “When every piece of furniture looks exactly the same, it feels a little lazy and makes for a boring environment.”

Many companies still make these matchy-matchy sets, but they are unlikely to grace the pages of today’s shelter magazines or designers’ social media feeds. Instead, designers favor mixing an array of furniture finishes and styles for a more eclectic, collected look.

It hasn’t always been that way: America’s taste for the bedroom suite soured only recently. According to Alexis Barr, a design history instructor at the New York School of Interior Design, the idea of having matching bedroom furniture took off during the industrial revolution of the mid-1800s and remained popular through the 20th century, thanks to a mix of savvy advertising, expanded credit lines and a rising middle class.

“There was an attitude that if you’ve made it and you have your life in order, you can afford to buy things that go together,” says James Farmer, an interior designer in Perry, Ga. “Now we think differently about these things.”

But achieving the artfully mismatched look requires balancing furnishings in varying styles and materials. Pick too many motley pieces and your boudoir might have the aesthetic appeal of a roadside junk shop. So how do you master the mix? Here are the guidelines designers swear by.

Whether you’ve just inherited a bedroom set or you bought one 20 years ago and aren’t ready to replace it, you can work with what you have to achieve a look with more personality. “If you already own a matching set, changing one significant thing can make a difference,” Farmer says. “It’s like buying a suit off the rack and adding a funky tie. That tweak is what makes it your own.”

The easiest and least expensive items to swap out from a traditional suite are the nightstands. Adding a pair of bedside tables in a different finish or style can energize even the fustiest outdated set. And if there’s a matching headboard, changing it to an upholstered one helps because it’s one fewer wood piece in the room. “An upholstered headboard is a great opportunity to bring in some color or pattern through the fabric,” Clark says. “Plus, they’re comfortable; it’s nice to have something soft to lean against in bed.”

When shopping for dressers, chests and nightstands, designers recommend mixing natural wood-tone finishes, which could include rattan and cane, with painted and metal ones to avoid the dreaded sea of all brown furniture. “If you have five different kinds of stained wood coexisting in your room, it can feel like a thrift store exploded,” designer Shannon Claire Smith of D.C.-based Shannon Claire Interiors says.

For instance, Smith advises against buying nightstands in a light wood finish and a dresser in a similar but different tone because it might look like you tried to coordinate them and fell short of the mark. “Instead, I would combine the light wood nightstands with a black painted dresser, or do a burl wood dresser with lacquer-painted nightstands in a color,” she says. “The possibilities are endless, just so long as the finishes are different enough to look like you did it on purpose.”

That’s not to say that you can’t have two different wood tones happening in the same space. When Charlotte-based designer Charlotte Lucas works with more than one wood finish, she too aims for contrast. “It’s easier to mix a darker wood tone, such as ebony, with a lighter burl wood piece because there’s enough variation for them to complement each other,” she says.

Consider scale and proportions

Smith says one of the trickiest proportions to get right is how the bed relates to the nightstands and vice versa. “Beds these days are awfully low profile and they don’t have box springs like they used to,” she says. “Platform beds can be a great look, but if you don’t pay attention to that scale, it can feel very low slung, making the other furniture in the room feel off.”

Ideally, you’ll want no more than two to four inches between the top of the mattress and the top of the nightstand.

“You don’t want to feel like you’re reaching up really high or down low to set something on the nightstand next to you,” Clark says.

The proportions get even more complicated when you have non-matching pieces on each side of the bed. Say you found the perfect antique desk and you’d like to use it as a bedside table. In that case, you should look for a nightstand, table or chest with a similar proportion and finish for the other side of the bed to unify the pieces. “The other rule of thumb is to make sure they are both the same height within an inch or two,” Lucas says. “If you have two radically different heights with identical lamps, it’s going to look really off-balance.”

If one bedside table is more than a couple of inches taller than the other, you can still make it work by choosing different lamps that hit at the same height. What’s on both sides of the bed should carry a similar visual weight and have the same overall height.

Even the most eclectic interiors need balance and harmony. Bringing in too many stylistically unrelated pieces of bedroom furniture can produce a disjointed and chaotic result — the opposite of restful. “Your room might start feeling kooky if every piece is in a different style from a different period,” Clark says. “Balance older, vintage or antique finds with newer pieces so it doesn’t feel like a flea-market hodgepodge.”

Designers agree the key is to pick one dominant style to anchor the room, then pepper that with a few contrasting pieces in other styles. For instance, in a room of mostly modern furniture, one or two over-the-top French or antique pieces can break up the monotony. “Similarly, if you have all traditional furniture with classic lines, throwing in one sculptural, mid-century item is a great way to make the room feel instantly cool,” Smith says. “Drawing that juxtaposition is key to making the space unique.”

Farmer adds: “There’s a gift that you’re giving yourself when you appoint your bedroom. It’s your space, so be unapologetic about expressing your style.”

Michelle Brunner is a writer in D.C. who covers interior design and culture.

Interior design: How to mix antiques into your home

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There are lots of reasons why even young people are buying old stuff. It’s environmentally and budget friendly and in an era of mass production, it allows you to add something unique to your home. 

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“What’s novelty for young people is a trip down memory lane for others,” says Allister McCrae, owner of Orono Antique Market, a multi-vendor market that offers antique furniture, Victorian and art glass, china, mid-century art, collectibles and more. 

Antique shoppers appreciate pieces that are made well, like a solid mahogany dresser that’s priced at a fraction of the cost of new. Many are looking for accent pieces. “There’s a story with most of the items here and we like to pass those stories along,” McCrae says. 

Incorporating some vintage pieces into modern interiors tends to result in a “more curated, thoughtful approach to design,” assures Bren Petrunick, creative founder of Simply White Interiors, a design firm based in Niagara on the Lake. 

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Older pieces balance the linear, minimalistic elements of modern design.
Older pieces balance the linear, minimalistic elements of modern design. Photo by Simply White Interiors photograph


“Whether they’ve been handed down, discovered at yard sales or collected during travels, antiques tell stories that become woven into the fabric of a home. Older items add subtle layers of texture, warmth and character into contemporary spaces that help balance the linear, minimalistic elements of modern design.”  

Keep a list of the pieces you’re looking for as well as dimensions of the area in which you’d like to place them, so you don’t needlessly buy something you don’t need. Don’t be deterred by dingy upholstery or minor scratches and blemishes. “It’s the bones of a piece that really determine its quality and fit for your space. Refurbishing and reupholstery work will only add value to the furniture.” 

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Petrunick is always on the lookout for high quality occasional tables and chairs because they have the most flexibility both in function and placement. “After being reupholstered in fresh fabric, a well-proportioned occasional chair will be the envy of any living room, but it can also steal the show in an office, nursey, bathroom or foyer,” she says.

Side tables are another favourite, but the designer admits a “show-stopping” buffet or hutch is the ultimate find. “Not only do these pieces offer additional storage and display space, but they also add character and charm to any room, and they can be painted, stained or simply given a good cleaning to complement the existing décor.” 

High-quality occasional tables and chairs offer flexibility in function and placement.
High-quality occasional tables and chairs offer flexibility in function and placement. Photo by Simply White Interiors photograph


Displaying collections is an artform. Several knickknacks scattered around a room or throughout a home can feel cluttered and overdone, but a carefully curated and displayed collection can provide a focal point and generates conversation, Petrunick advises. 

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Gallery walls are an impactful way to highlight a collection. “Displaying a grouping of vintage china, clocks, cutting boards, hats or hardware on a wall offers big visual impact. You can also use shelving, hutches and sideboards as another area to group and showcase your treasures.”  

If you want to refurbish an antique, hardware, finish and fabric are the first and most obvious places to focus your attention. “Sometimes, simply using a piece of furniture in a non-traditional way can bring the item back to life,” she says. 

“Dressers can be repurposed into vanities for an eye-catching update to a powder room or ensuite. Antique dry sinks make great bars and change tables, while hutches and china cabinets can be transformed into multiuse pieces such as a mail drop combined with a home office or study area.” 

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Orono Antique Market owner Allister McCrae.
Orono Antique Market owner Allister McCrae. Photo by Supplied


Pay attention to balance. “An overabundance of antiques can feel heavy, whereas just one or two pieces looks forced. I caution people against incorporating too many antiques that are simply for show and lacking in purpose or function in a room, as this can lead to an overwhelming, cluttered living space that doesn’t inspire rest and rejuvenation,” Petrunick says. 

Avoid tipping the design scale toward too much of a good thing. “Layering is the key to any space, and mixing old and new elements requires careful consideration so the end result is balanced.”

Because antiques are often made from wood, wicker, iron and leather, Patrunick recommends incorporating simpler, softer and lighter elements to offset their heaviness. “When a space is cluttered with colour and texture, nothing captures your attention and there is nowhere for the eye to rest. Ensure that for every element of focus, equal attention is paid to areas of visual white space or pause.”  

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Still, remember the first rule of design: there are no rules. “An over-designed space with a perfectly coordinated palette of colour is not for everyone,” says Petrunick. “So yes, you can mix wood grains, metals and finishes of all types to create a unique aesthetic that reflects the personality and style of the people who inhabit the space.”  

What to look for

Know what to look for when determining an antique’s condition and value. “A maker’s mark, which is a stamp, tag or label often found on the back of furniture or the bottom of drawers, will offer clues to the history and quality of the piece,” says Bren Petrunick of Simply White Interiors. “You can also look for details in the craftsmanship that signal a piece has been well made, such as dovetail drawers or spun legs.”

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