Designer Tips

How to Avoid Going Overboard With Cliché Themes When Designing a Room

AD PRO Directory designers share 14 tips for incorporating inspiration without getting too literal
This interior designed by AD Pro Directory member Lauren Piscione of LP Creative has a mix of elements spanning...
This interior designed by AD Pro Directory member Lauren Piscione of LP Creative has a mix of elements spanning different design eras, styles and origins to create a balanced, dynamic yet not overly-designed look. They all have a fairly neutral foundation and contain vintage pieces to maintain a timeless look that feels collected and layered.Photo: Seth Caplan

Whether you’re getting design advice from a professional in person or on social media or TV, chances are you’re familiar with the recommendation to make your space an extension of your personal style. Though a helpful starting point, that guideline leaves a lot of room for interpretation, especially when it comes to decorating with a theme that nods to your interests. For instance, you may love the beach and gravitate towards a nautical look, but that doesn’t mean your dining room needs to look like a Long John Silver’s. Though it can be a tightrope walk, it is possible to pay tribute to a favorite vacation spot, hobby, or era in a way that’s timeless, not tacky. Here, six AD PRO Directory members share strategies for designing a theme-driven room without veering into the dangerous territory of cliché themes.

1. Think in the Abstract

The first rule of decorating with a theme is to avoid anything that’s too on the nose. “While they can be a good source of inspiration for a space, it’s important not to implement them into a space too literally, or they will start to feel cheesy or dated very quickly,” says Devon Wegman of Devon Grace Interiors. Instead, the AD PRO Directory designer recommends taking a more abstract approach. Say, for instance, you want to design an outer-space-themed room: You don’t need stars on the ceiling and models of planets in order to get the idea. Instead, think more conceptually. “Try painting the room a deep navy blue, installing a multi-light hanging chandelier, and some three-dimensional art with a crater-like texture [that you can] highlight with a picture light,” suggests Sherica Maynard of Interior Design by S&S. “Now, you’re getting a moody version of outer space rather than a literal interpretation.”

2. Choose the Right Room

Keep in mind that some spaces can handle bolder designs than others. “Rooms like kids’ bedrooms, home theaters, man caves, and basements are a few spaces that can push the boundary,” Maynard says. Children’s bedrooms and playrooms benefit from imaginative design, she notes, and you can get away with more in home theaters, man caves, and basements because they “aren’t spaces that you typically engage with daily.”

Meanwhile, Wegman notes that the living room, dining room, and powder room “are great opportunities to turn up the drama.” Residential, commercial, and product designer and AD PRO Directory listee Ghislaine Viñas also sees the potential for bold moves in half baths. “I love taking design risks in powder rooms,” she says. “These little jewel-like spaces can really surprise and delight. They’re small enough to change if one gets tired [of the design], and it’s a great room to go all out.

Devon Wegman of Devon Grace Interiors drew inspiration from Parisian architecture for this kitchen in a townhome in Chicago’s South Loop, referencing the city in the delicate moulding details and chevron pattern on the floor. The hanging light fixtures echo the globe-shaped lamps positioned at Parisian metro station entrances.

Photo: Dustin Halleck

3. Communicate With Color

Select a color palette for a room that subtly suggests aspects of your theme. For example, if you’re going for a Paris-inspired space, Wegman suggests skipping the more obvious references—like the colors of the French flag—and instead focusing on the city’s everyday tones and textures. “Paris has beautiful colors throughout the city in the architecture, like limestone façades and slate mansard roofs, [and] a palette of warm grays [with] charcoal accents,” she says.

Short on design inspiration? Consider a monochromatic room, where most—but not all—of the room’s elements fall within the same chromatic family. “The key is to really saturate the room [with] a variety of [shades of] the same color—so that it’s clearly a pink room or a blue room, but you don’t feel overwhelmed,” says Kelly Finley of Joy Street Design. In a “blue” room, for instance, you might have a cerulean throw blanket and pillows and a navy ceiling and trim, but opt for gray pattern wallpaper. “Even though all the elements of the room aren’t blue, you still walk in and feel that this is a blue room,” Finley says.

4. Zoom In

If you have a particular pattern in mind but are concerned about it coming across as too literal, Maynard has a suggestion: Zoom in. Let’s say you’ve decided on a dining room with a tropical look—that doesn’t mean you need palm-leaf-patterned wallpaper. “Go with an oversized, zoomed-in palm-leaf-like shadow on the wall that’s so close-up, it looks like abstract lines,” she says. “As you stand back, you can see that it’s a palm leaf.” Instead of covering the dining chairs in a fabric with the same motif, “use an elegant dining chair that has a cool cane detail.”

As Sherica Maynard of Interior Design by S&S demonstrates, entryways shouldn’t be a design afterthought. While the utilitarian features you’d expect to find—like storage, seating, and a mirror—are all present, the space doubles as “the prelude to the home” and an introduction to her client’s style.

Photo: Scott Johnson

5. Play With Shapes and Surfaces

In order to create a space that quietly hints at a theme instead of screaming it, Wegman stresses the importance of “referring back to the inspiration with every design decision that needs to be made.” Let’s return to the example of a Paris-inspired room. “There are beautiful curved details throughout the city in the architecture, the metro entrances, and the café tables on every corner,” Wegman says. “You can reflect this theme in your room by focusing on a curved language.” She also suggests incorporating the city’s “herringbone floors and delicate architectural details” via accent patterns on furniture or decor.

You can also use the materials featured in a space to refer back to your inspiration. If, for instance, you’re creating a room inspired by vintage cars, Wegman stresses that “hard surfaces should reflect the materials you would see in those cars—[like] polished chrome [and] high-gloss lacquer—and the soft materials should [reference] the interior of the car: perhaps an aged cognac leather.”

6. Don’t Buy Everything at Once

When you have an idea for a room, you probably want to bring your vision to life as soon as possible, but Viñas cautions against it. “When designing your apartment or home, it’s going to feel much more eclectic and organic and less theme-y if you have collected furniture over time,” rather than buying sets, she explains. “You don’t always have this luxury, but it’s great to keep in mind.”

“I noticed that I had a lot of green art, and I had a big studio wall, so instead of finding large pieces of art, I created a gallery wall of art with the theme being a color,” AD PRO Directory member Ghislaine Viñas says.

Photo: Jason Varney

7. Select Timeless Investment Pieces

When purchasing larger, more expensive furnishings—like dining tables, sofas, beds, dressers, and area rugs—opt for pieces that will work with multiple design styles. “You can layer smaller, less expensive pieces on top of these, and completely change the look of the space over time if you want, but only if the core foundation pieces are versatile and classic,” Wegman says.

Don’t assume that a room with timeless furniture will be boring, according to Viñas. “It’s easy to switch out pillows and accessories to align with your tastes or trends as they develop,” she further explains. “Art can give a room soul, and the theme of the art can also align with your interests and passions.” Viñas also recommends adding “thematic touches in unexpected places,” like the interior of a cabinet.

8. Incorporate Collected Objects

Forget outdated rules suggesting that a room’s decor and furnishings should match. “I like to design spaces that feel collected and layered, with pieces that each tell a unique story,” says Lauren Piscione of LP Creative. “This approach is essential because it ensures that a home reflects its inhabitants and isn’t just a showroom for trends. I choose each piece for its individual charm.” Along those same lines, if you’re a collector by nature, you may have already accumulated a variety of items that together tell a story.

According to Viñas, cleverly displayed collections and “objects that hint at your interests and inspirations” can be a way to nod to a theme without getting carried away. “If you have a seashell collection that you can’t live without, put the shells into interesting jars, and then add vintage seashells made from different materials, [like] brass or ceramic,” she adds. “Have some fun and think outside of the box.”


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9. Design Around a Focal Point

When a visually striking piece of furniture or art serves not only as the inspiration for a room’s decor, but also as its main character, everything else should play a supporting role. That’s why, when David Scott of David Scott Interiors made Jean-Marie Fiori’s roaring-tiger-shaped bronze chimney the focal point of the parlor of the 2023 Kips Bay Decorator Show House, he ensured the rest of the room didn’t swerve into safari or jungle territory. “In order to not be thematic, I didn’t reference any other animals,” the AD PRO Directory member explains. “I always use a careful restraint in selecting to never appear literal.” Maynard agrees with this approach, advising us to “pick one area where you may want to be specific to the theme, then go subtle in the other areas.”

To pull it off, Scott introduced warm colors and organic shapes and materials like a vintage wool-and-linen kilim composition rug, stonelike ceramic coffee tables, and a vintage bamboo-and-brass Gabriella Crespi lampshade. Similarly, the delicate, large-scale leaf structure of the plum pine tree next to the fireplace had “a very natural and outdoor feeling,” he notes. The curtains made out of Pierre Frey’s Tonga Santal fabric were among Scott’s first selections for the parlor. “The abstracted embroidery design on the neutral ivory silk immediately gave me the feeling of restrained elegant exoticism that I was aiming for,” he adds.

10. Capture a Feeling

If you’re drawing inspiration from a particular destination, you can avoid making your space look like an airport gift shop by focusing on an aspect of its character instead. For instance, if Finley had a client who wanted a Mardi Gras–themed room, she says she’d steer them away from a palette of purples, greens, and golds, and instead bring in “the feeling of Mardi Gras opulence” with brass fixtures. “The hardware for the curtains can be really thick brass, the chandelier can be brass, and then you bring in those other colors subtly in different places,” she explains. That way, you can walk into the room and understand the feeling of lavishness without it hitting you over the head.

You can also design a room around how you’d like to feel when you’re in it. “Concentrate on the colors and vibe of the room,” Viñas says. “Ask yourself if you want a restful or activated space. Restful rooms make use of softer and monochromatic colors, while activated spaces use various colors, textures, and patterns.”

Rather than introducing the colors of the French flag into this Paris-inspired kitchen, Wegman kept the look modern and clean with a black-and-white palette. White quartz countertops were selected for their durability but have subtle veining similar to the classic elegant marble found both indoors and outdoors throughout the city.

Photo: Dustin Halleck

11. Don’t Follow Trends Blindly

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if you actually like a certain style, or if it’s simply top of mind from your social media algorithm. This is especially the case if you’ve been actively searching for design ideas. “While trends can be a source of inspiration, focus on what genuinely resonates with you,” Piscione says.

In the same vein, it’s never a good idea to make a design decision solely because everyone else is doing it, Wegman notes. “Not only will your home then not be a personal reflection of you, but it will feel tired very quickly,” she explains. But if something truly speaks to you and happens to be popular at the moment, that shouldn’t make it off-limits, as Maynard points out. “When it comes to trends, we suggest selecting timeless pieces, but at the end of the day, we tell our clients to select what they love—whether trendy or traditional,” she says. “If you love it today, you will love it for many years to come.”

12. Opt for Vintage Furniture

For some people, the most appealing part of decorating with a theme is creating a one-of-a-kind space in their home. If you find yourself in this category, Piscione suggests sourcing vintage decor. “It allows you to incorporate a variety of designs from different eras and styles, ensuring that your space feels both eclectic and timeless,” she explains. “By choosing vintage items, you’re celebrating the individuality of each piece and making your home feel genuinely collected and personal.” Maynard recommends selecting furnishings and accessories from various time periods, even if you have a particular era in mind. “If you want a Mad Men–themed family room, a couple of elements can be midcentury-modern, but consider mixing in some other current contemporary timeless pieces as well,” she advises. Doing so will add longevity to the design.

Although Maynard’s client was initially apprehensive about the wallpaper in the entryway of her Atlanta home, the Interior Design by S&S team convinced her that she could handle this striking design. Drawing inspiration from the actual client, rather than a specific theme, Maynard incorporated contrasting bold orange accents into the predominantly black-and-white space, as well as pops of vibrant art, and attention-grabbing geometric shapes in the hanging light fixture, and the arches on the ends of the bench.

Photo: Scott Johnson

13. Consider the Context

As you’re making decisions about a room’s decor, think beyond the walls and consider how it will fit into your space as a whole. “It’s important for a home to feel cohesive, and for the design language to carry into all the spaces, so it feels unified and intentional,” Wegman says. But that doesn’t mean that every room needs to look exactly the same. “There should still be variation in the design, but the core elements should maintain consistency, such as the wood tones, the hardware or cabinet profiles, and the architectural detailing,” she adds.

14. Be Your Own Source of Design Inspiration

Don’t select a theme for a room because you can’t think of anything else. Instead, use this as an opportunity to figure out your personal style. To help her clients with that process, Maynard asks them to pull some of their favorite pieces in their closet, including clothing, shoes, bags, and accessories. “This alone gives us a starting point for colors, fabrics, and textiles that they like, the metals that they prefer, [and] if they like bold elements or more subtle [ones],” she explains.
Similarly, Wegman recommends paging through magazines and tearing out any images that speak to you. “It doesn’t have to be interior design,” she says. “It can be fashion inspiration, makeup, travel, nature, cars—anything that resonates with you. If you don’t want to look through magazines, start taking pictures throughout your day of things you see that make you happy.”

Once you’ve collected the images, look at them as a group, finding commonalities, and the elements that tie everything together. Determine whether there’s a prominent color palette, and any recurring accents or metals. “Use this as your mood board and reference it as you make design decisions and start pulling selections together for your home,” Wegman says. “I like to remind clients that, as soon as someone walks into your home, they should know exactly whose home it is because it’s a continuation of their style and how they present themselves to the world.”