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Hollie Bowden’s tips for mixing interiors styles — without veering into jumble sale anarchy

Take inspiration from collectors’ houses, like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge)
Take inspiration from collectors’ houses, like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge)

An accumulation of furniture that spans styles and eras might sound fairly aspirational, but it’s also a fact of life. Most of us have squabbled over double-ups with a new partner, bought a ‘temporary’ sofa that’s still hanging around or inherited something we’d likely find hideous if it weren’t for its sentimental value.

Sometimes, as an interior designer, I get to put schemes together from scratch — but more often than not, there’s a dodgy old dresser or tired armchair that must be designed around. Here are my tips for mixing pieces and patterns with confidence.

Look at the big picture

Moving in with a partner or pal? Consider your collection as a whole. It’s tempting to make your case for pieces one by one, like you’re picking a team in PE, but it won’t do the final result any favours. Try to find a common thread in what you’ve accrued and be ruthless.

Balance high and low detail

It’s not just colour and pattern that can overwhelm. A Fabio Lenci chair, for example, with its cylindrical rolls and glass panels, would go well with a pared-back linen sofa. Something with fussier legs, such as a George Smith, wouldn’t be speaking the same language.

Buy a third piece to act as a bridge

If two non-negotiable items are proving tricky, buy a third that speaks to some aspect of both of them. Got an old armchair and a modernist sofa? The coffee table could be a crucial link.

Hollie’s old kitchen featured mix-and-match chairs (Helenio Barbetta)
Hollie’s old kitchen featured mix-and-match chairs (Helenio Barbetta)

Change the floor, not the furniture

Everything goes with old wooden floorboards, but if you haven’t been blessed in that regard I’d choose something intentionally off-piste, such as a bright rubber or terrazzo. A laminate that doesn’t quite work with your wood furniture is usually the worst choice.

Problem patterns? Re-upholster

Interior designers rarely buy off the peg. It can be pricey to do up a sofa, but it’s still cheaper than buying another one. On a budget? Throw a blanket over it.

Let furniture dealers guide you

Most dealers buy to their own impeccable taste, so they’ve probably also got a sofa or table that will work with that chair you love. Almost all are on Instagram, so save images for inspiration.

Don’t rely on white walls

People seem to think they can get away with anything if they start with a blank box, but getting the right shade is so tricky. Painted doors, skirting boards and trims are a great way to create a sense of continuity between each room. I’ve gone for yellow in my own house.

Don’t try to recreate a room

A client swapped a Victorian townhouse for a Fifties build with pink fireplaces, and the rooms didn’t follow the same rhythm. In the end we sanded back all of the orangey joinery to a lighter wood to help integrate the period furniture.

Think like a collector

I love Kettle’s Yard and Charleston for eclectic inspiration. In some ways they’re polar opposites, but both have evolved organically over time. Embrace the car boot sale and don’t be afraid of the odd bit of Ikea. If it works, it works.

Accept that there are no hard and fast rules

One friend has introduced a Seventies hexagonal glass table to her farmhouse kitchen. Would some people hate it? Probably. But she loves it, so who cares?