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When mixing elements, find a focal piece


Now that we no longer automatically look for the matching three-piece suite, the task of furnishing a bedroom or living room affords plenty of opportunity for creative expression. At the same time, it doesn't make things easy.

A number of questions have to be considered. For example: What will work with what I've already got? Which new pieces go together? And why can't I find the right coffee table to go with my wonderful sofa?

So while we have come to believe that matching is a big bore, we've also learned that mixing can be a big headache.

How can the job be made less perplexing? My advice is to choose a focal piece first and then build the room around it.

In many cases, it's not hard to figure out what type of piece will make the best focal point. The bed, particularly its headboard, is the natural centerpiece in a bedroom. A coffee table often plays the same role in a living room. Even knowing that, however, the challenge of finding the perfect eye-catcher can be a formidable task.

One thing to keep in mind as the search unfolds is that the styling of an important piece of furniture can stand on its own. It does need to have some relationship with the rest of the room, of course, but the linkage need not be obvious. Focal points of this sort might fall into the category of fantasy furniture.

For example, headboards painted in faux patterns or elaborately carved in, say, a floral motif can work well in rooms with simpler finishes or even with contemporary furnishings. Similarly, an antique four-poster bed won't appear out of place in a modern room as long as the setting clearly revolves around the bed.

The same is true in the living room. Don't rule out a certain style of coffee table solely because it's not consistent with the seating pieces. Remember, the low and large coffee table that we find so useful for pulling together a seating group was never a part of period interiors. It's thus impossible to find one that is historically compatible with a traditionally furnished room. Again, that doesn't mean you should settle on a different candidate as the living room's focal point.

A glass- or marble-topped table with a steel or brass base will fill the role in almost any setting -- provided that it is relatively light in scale and proportional to the main seating unit. When placed on a decorative rug, a table of this type will add sparkle to a conservatively furnished room and emerge as the uncontested focal point.

But what if you don't have a wonderful rug? And how about the room with a plain and pale wall-to-wall carpet that may require a much bigger table in order to create a comfortable conversation grouping?

Wood is the answer. But don't assume that only that old standby -- the mahogany butler's table -- will do the job. The photo shows a quite different possibility.

This reproduction 17th-century table from Baker Furniture Co. features a combination of Dutch and William and Mary design elements. With its intricate marquetry top and turned legs, this kind of overscaled piece was very much in vogue throughout the 1600s. Today, it would make a fabulous coffee table in a traditionally designed room.

And who would reject such a piece on the grounds that its styling and textures aren't exactly like those of the other furnishings in the same room?

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