Interior Design for Split-Level Homes

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Step One: Consider Your Style

Imagine if you pulled up to a dude ranch for a weekend of horseback riding, canoeing and hiking. The ranch has a rustic wood exterior, like something from a John Wayne epic. When you walk in, however, you find the decor and furnishings identical to a trendy Malibu beach house.

It might jar your senses, it would probably turn you off, and at the very least it would seem blaringly out of place.

It sounds absurd, but the point is that many of us decorate our interiors in a style that clashes completely with our home, our surroundings, our lifestyles, even ourselves. Consider the home at left, a bi-level with a “contemporary” exterior. Many people wouldn’t hesitate to decorate the interior of this house in an ornate Italian style, or perhaps cluttered with antiques and Victorian decor. Fact is this house begs for clean lines and contemporary furnishings. Rustic or country would also work, but not as well. Likewise, you’d have a difficult time putting contemporary furnishings in a traditional split with a Dutch colonial roof line.

Determine Whether Your Style Works…

Define your exterior. Is it colonial styled? Tudor? a Bavarian mountain style? Whatever it is, write it down on one side of a sheet of paper. Then jot down a few things underneath it that define the style. If you can’t clearly describe things, use adjectives. Next, write down your interior style on the other half of the sheet. Underneath it, write down a few elements in your home that determine the style. Again, if you aren’t sure what to call things, use adjectives.

The two halves of the sheet should be very similar, but they probably aren’t. This could indicate that something about your home doesn’t jive. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but for those of us who aren’t expert designers, the exterior should jive with the interior. It’s very difficult to put chrome and glass urban decor in a farmhouse and manage to make it work. It can be done, but it requires the skill of an experienced interior designer and very deep pockets.

Another good exercise for defining your style is to first define your lifestyle. Take another sheet of paper, jot down all the things that are important to you that you do in your home, and prioritize them. It may be entertaining, cooking, and watching TV. Or it may be reading, listening to your stereo, and maintaining a couple of aquariums. Whatever it is, write the list down. On the other half of the paper, list your rooms according to size and purpose…and most importantly, write down what the room is actually used for. If the most important thing in your life is spending time with your family — and the largest room happens to be a stuffy, formal living room suitable only for funerals and baptism parties — you need to re-think your approach to interior design.

If yours is a formal lifestyle with elegant parties, the formal living room is appropriate. If you’re a casual person who prefers warm conversation, a stiff living room is a complete waste of space, and it’s a safe bet that your guests avoid it. (Your personal style also plays into your personal color palette, which will be addressed below.)

The Trap of Eclecticism

Ask people what “style” they have decorated their homes with, and most will shrug their shoulders, or offer up a vague description: “Well, it’s sort of a mission/modern with a Tuscan look, and Victorian-style draperies.” In a word, “eclectic.” Ask them if it is eclectic, and they’ll flatly deny it.

eclectic adjective choosing what appears to be the best from diverse sources, systems, or styles. Consisting of components from a wide variety of different sources.

The sad truth is, an overwhelming majority of split level homes are decorated in an eclectic style. Again, if you are an accomplished designer with deep pockets, you can make it work. For the rest of us, however, “eclectic” simply results in a directionless hodge-podge. Even experienced, award-winning professionals have difficulty creating any kind of harmony and balance in a split based on eclecticism. (If you happen to own a 4,000 square foot contemporary monster, go for it: You have enough room to make anything work.)

Unfortunately many of us purchase our furnishings and appointments in a manner that dictates eclecticism. A table from this manufacturer, a chair on sale here or there, and don’t forget a couple of hideous his’n’hers recliners. We think nothing of matching a 21st century sectional sofa with a 19th century table. The TV cabinet is mission style, and in the adjoining dining room, (remember, this is a split) we plop down a Williamsburg-inspired dining room set. This, folks, is eclecticism at its worst.

Rather than run away screaming, Americans have embraced this design horror. They begin with the main types of interior style, which are Formal, Contemporary, Traditional, and Casual. But instead of selecting a sub-style or at least remaining within one of the headings, too many of us pick and choose across categories. Furniture stores display groupings of furnishings in simulated rooms of too-perfect exhibits. Consumers jump at these package deals, only to find that once they are displayed in their own homes — different walls, different coloring, different atmosphere — the furniture looks, well, different. And the neighbors two houses down own the same set…where it looks just fine.

To make matters worse, many of the furniture designs lumped into these styles are passing fads. Even within the “traditional style,” major furniture manufacturers employ new or updated designs that are doomed to look hopelessly out of style in ten or fifteen years. And they feed it to us with a spoon.

Two Hard Lessons

The first lesson is: There is no substitute for a harmonious home with harmonious style. It’s even better if it’s a true style; better still if it’s a style that complements your exterior, your environment, and your lifestyle. Whether it’s Prairie School, post-modern, Shaker, Tuscan, Jacobean, or whatever, a legitimate, proven style is far easier to work with than a hodge-podge. The reason established styles become established styles is because they work. Just as your ear rejects a song played off-key, your eye rejects a style that lacks harmony. Gravitate toward established, proven styles — be they old or new — and you will find decorating to be much simpler. Books have been written about virtually every established style, photos have been taken. As you study whatever style it is you select, things will make sense, ideas will fall into place. You won’t jump at some piece of furniture just because it looks good in the store, and you won’t grab some fantastic window treatment just because it looks dreamy in a particular display.

The second lesson: There is no substitute for quality. As you study a specific style, and see the furniture design and home decor items appropriate to that style, you will find that a quality benchmark exists for it. Ask anyone decorating their home in an Arts and Crafts style, and they will tell you that there is virtually no substitute for a Stickley, be it an original or a reproduction crafted in the same manner. The chain stores all sell “mission” or “arts and crafts” furniture (although they don’t understand the connection, nor the differences) but the quality isn’t even close. Shop for a Chippendale chair, and see how much better the reproduction with the Williamsburg brand really is. Spend enough time looking at a legitimate, top quality examples of any given style and you will lose your appetite for the mass-market stuff. Differences in fabrics, finishes, veneers, assembly or joinery become clear to you. Quality costs; sometimes it’s three or four times as much as the mass-production versions. But the good stuff marks the difference between outstanding and average, and the good stuff lasts a lifetime.

Recap of Step One: Define your home, define your lifestyle, define your design style.

Step Two: Consider Your Color

Determining the proper color palette for a home is as easy as determining whose house it is, and what colors suit him or her best.

Too often, couples try to “compromise” on color, or select favorites, or try to match an interior in a magazine. But none of these will work if the color clashes with the individual’s “natural” palette.

One school of thought — that has been hotly disputed through the years — is that all people have a natural color palette that is loosely tied to a “seasonal” color family. Most interior designers have moved beyond this type of thinking, believing it too simplistic. Although it may indeed be an oversimplification of harmonious color design, the fact is that it works. Not only does it work, it is also a relatively fool-proof way for the average non-designer to develop a working color scheme for his or her home.

First things first: The color selected should be whatever suits the lady of the household. While the husband is the head of the household, the home is a woman’s domain. Besides, a thoughtful husband will put his wife first, and seek to build her up in any way possible. This may not fit modern society’s view of a household, but with a 50% divorce rate and a birth rate to unmarried mothers at 33%, we don’t think modern society is doing a very good job. We’ll opt for traditional — the home should complement the lady of the household.

The concept goes that a woman’s natural coloring fits one of the four seasons, and that the colors of her home should follow suit.

Winter describes women with porcelain skin tones who tend to have hair coloring that is very dark or very light; certain redheads fit this as well. Well-known “winters” might include Annette Funicello, Shania Twain, Elizabeth Taylor, Courteney Cox. Winter coloring wears clothing emphasizing black, white, silver, grey, and bright colors very well. Reds, blues…rich, deep colors.

Spring coloring is the “All-American Girl,” honey blondes, dirty blondes, most brunettes, average skin tones. Here’s Hillary Clinton, Marilyn Monroe, Lisa Kudrow, Goldie Hawn. Clothing in rich pastels work very well, along with medium yellows, reds, violets.

Summer coloring fits many brunettes, darker skin tones, perhaps a Mediterranean look. Sophia Loren, Nancy Reagan, Jennifer Lopez, Laura Bush…but also some blondes depending on skin tones; Hillary Duff is arguably a summer, Meryl Streep much more so. She gravitates toward clothing in bright colors: cool green, cornflower blue, bright pink, rose, turquoise…bright is the word…but they should be colors with the brightness of summer, bleached or light pastels are best.

The Autumn palette is home for redheads — also auburn, strawberry-blonde, etc. — and skin tones of a freckled or peach complexion. This is Marilu Henner, Jennifer Aniston. Autumn looks fabulous in earth tones, cream colors, tan, greens, rust, yellow-gold, copper…just think of the season.

It is likely that you (or your wife) naturally gravitate toward certain colors for your wardrobe. Perhaps a beautician or cosmetic counter specialist has mentioned that you are a “spring” or “autumn” or whatever. If you think about it, you probably have a very clear idea which palette you should be using.

If it is still unclear, use the color table below to “test” your natural palette. This is done using internet HTML standard colors, so don’t worry about variation in your monitor. First, look at four different reds, one from each seasonal palette. Imagine there were four blouses hanging in your closet…which one would look best on you?

color “A” color “B”
color “C” color “D”

Now look at four different yellows. Again, which would look best on you — not which one you likethe best — but which one works best with your coloring. This is the toughest one for spring and autumn to pick out; she looks great in all four, while winter probably avoids all four of these whenever possible…

color “A” color “B”
color “C” color “D”

Let’s look at greens…

color “A” color “B”
color “C” color “D”

And finally, shades of blue. This is a tough one for winter, summer and even spring because so many look great. (Autumn should know immediately since only one of these will even come close) Be honest now, which color makes you (or your spouse) downright stunning?

color “A” color “B”
color “C” color “D”

Choices done? If you didn’t pick all four letters the same — and don’t feel bad if you didn’t — take another look. See if you can get at least three of the same letter. If you need help, take a look at your wardrobe, see which ones are “old favorites you can’t bear to part with,” and that will probably give you some ideas.

Here’s some tie breakers: If all of the reds above work well for you, add a point for “A”. If none of the reds really work, add a point for “D”. If all of the yellows work for you, give a point to “C” and “D”. If none of the yellows work for you, add a point for letter “A”.”. If all of the blues work for you, add a point for letter “A”. If most of the blues work, add a point for “B” and “C”. If none of the blues really work for you, add a point for “D”.

In any case, here are the answers: All of the letter “A” colors represent winter. All of the “Bs” represent summer. The “C” colors are all spring, and the “D” colors are autumn. If you selected the same letter twice, and the letter to the left or right the other times, you probably have a good sense of your colors. If you selected from both the top and bottom, you might need to do some more research. If you picked the same letter four straight times, it’s a safe bet that you know your color palette.

Be aware that some cosmetics reps, interior designers, and others involved in color will try to “fine tune” your color palette. “Because some of the summer colors will work for you, you’re really an early autumn.” — Nonsense. Don’t split hairs…just find the right palette and go for it.

Most women — most people in fact — fit the winter category.

Applying the color palette

This is not to suggest that you should rush out immediately to buy paint in one of these colors. Quite the contrary. It is merely a starting point for your overall approach to interior design. For just as we suggest that your exterior and your environment should influence your interior, so too does your natural palette.

The color palette even affects woodwork. Winter virtually demands painted trim, while spring feels right with natural wood tones. Summer’s woodwork is quite versatile, fitting almost everything from paint to pickling. Autumn prefers rich wood stains; Colonial maple fits her best.

As far as paint, furnishings and wallcoverings are concerned, it is best to work within the palette. And know what to avoid as well: Winter does not fare well with orange, golden browns, camel, off-white, and virtually all yellow based colors. Spring should avoid black, white and cool colors with a blue undertone. Summer should shy away from black, stark white, orange and most yellow-based colors. Autumns should avoid black, white, grays and pinks as well as most cool or blue-based colors.

If you have defined your color, the paint chips you pick up at the paint counter will start to make more sense. At the top of the paint chip are “tints,” and at the bottom are “shades” of the same color. Tints have white added; shades have black added. Summers should gravitate to the top of the paint chip; autumns gravitate toward the bottom. Winter is in the middle tones; spring tends to be in the middle as well, but slightly lighter than winter.

If you’re somewhat confused, don’t feel bad. Nobody becomes a color expert overnight; you have to do your homework before you purchase paint and furnishings. One of the best guidebooks for creating a dramatic, harmonious color scheme is Color Harmony for Interior Design: A Guidebook for Creating Great Color Combinations for Your Home by Martha Gill. Prior to purchasing this book, I purchased eight (you read correctly) different quarts of test colors before determining the best color for my living room. Another very informative volume is Color In Your Home by Tessa Evelegh. Both authors have their devotees; I happen to like both volumes. These links, by the way, go to — so you can return a book with no questions asked if you don’t agree. Also, little known tidbit here, you can order used books through Amazon at a deeply discounted price. They’re sold by individuals, but the transaction is also fully guaranteed by Amazon. I’ve found numerous book bargains this way.

Step Three: Find Your Style

Now you’ve thought a little about your exterior, your environment, your personal uses for your home, and your color palette. The next step is to define your own sense of style. Will it fit nicely into a particular category, or will it encompass a few related sub-types? Whatever it is, your goal should be to have your particular style throughout your home.

If, while reading the section on color, it occurred to you that certain styles work better for certain seasonal colorings, there’s good reason for it. Within each seasonal coloring are decorating styles that work seamlessly with that palette.

  • Winter: Formal Styles such as Victorian, Oriental, Formal Contemporary, French Empire, Formal Tuscan, Queen Anne, New England
  • Spring: Contemporary Styles such as Tropical, Scandinavian, Swedish, Bauhaus, contemporary Santa Fe, Modern, Palm Beach, Prairie
  • Summer: Traditional Styles such as Spanish, Paris Apartment, Queen Anne, Antique, Informal Mediterranean, English Cottage, Southwest, Less formal New England Colonial
  • Autumn: Casual Styles including Rustic, Lodge, Arts & Crafts, Mission, Shaker, American Country, French Country, American Bungalow

This is certainly not a complete listing, just a sampling to provide a general guide. Finding your style is not an easy process, and it requires time to educate yourself and do it right. If you think you have a sense of your style, and immediately rush out and purchase an item, chances are you’ll find that those first few pieces don’t really fit by the time you’re finished. (The beauty of a split is that you can always stick those questionable pieces downstairs in the family room). Visit your library. Use online resources. Tour historic homes. Study architecture and design. Only by educating yourself can you discover the difference between design excellence and eclectic mishmash. Avoid style-du-jour nonsense such as the ghastly “shabby chic” trend; stick to proven winners.

Color and design cohesiveness, properly employed, will result in a home interior that rivals the finest anywhere for quality and good taste. And when you finally do arrive at the right style for you, your home will simply feel better…you’ll be just as happy to stay at home and read, when you would previously jump at the chance to go out somewhere. Your friends and neighbors will comment on how much they like it. And the reason? Because unlike


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