Patterned Curtains, Round 2: A Lesson in Focal Points

So, in my previous post on Mixing Patterns I gave a warning about patterned window treatments, and I wanted to circle back and talk about this further. Now I wasn’t saying it as a rule, but more as a caution. The thing is, bright, patterned curtains can draw your eye up and away from the room, and so if you’re using them, you want to make sure that’s the intended effect.

Now here we come to a conclusion that, while supersimple, took me until the end of my degree to realize: a room can only have one focal point. You could think of a focal point as an area in the room that is the first place your eye goes. In your typical 4-sided room, many people will just pick one wall, usually because it has an architectural detail, a fireplace, a large work of art or furniture (a bed), or (hey, we’re Americans here), a TV. This is the derivation of the (oft-misused) accent wall. Let’s see some examples…

fireplace-focal-point-living-roomFireplace as focal point. The circular sculpture is almost like a target that says, “BAM. LOOK HERE.” (Note the neutral curtains in the background.) Via thelennoxx.

artwork-focal-point-diningA wall of art as focal point. For me, the yellow leaves at the right lead you around a harmonious circle.

bookcase-focal-pointJust try to get your eyes off that enormous bookshelf. From Domino.

geometry-focal-pointArchitectural detail as focal point: geometry, geometry, geometry. 4 wood beams lead us to 4 squares of color with a minimalist fireplace. Brilliant. From Peggyandfritz.

TV-focal-pointHere, they’ve almost created a fireplace surround for their TV with an accent wall and contrasting trim, and even the large-scale artwork to the left can’t compete. (Some designers are elitist towards TVs, but I say, if what you’re going to do in a room 90% of the time is watch TV, embrace it.)

So we can see that focal points are achieved by:
1) either bright colors or use of contrast
2) by being at eye level, and/or
3) via circular or linear geometry.

Now, the next question is, can a window be a focal point? Of course it can. Check these out:

red-curtain-focal-pointThis is like a gradual seeping of color, from the colorless ghost chairs up to the rust colored curtains. Yes, I’m along for the ride. From Elle Decor.

contrast-curtain-focal-point-living-room These light gray curtains pop out against the red background, and the curlicues at the top serve to further focus your attention. From Elle Decor.

window-treatment-focal-point-dining Window treatments are often given center stage in more traditional looks. The Richard Keith Langham dining room from the 2010 Hamptons Show House.

Now, the question you have to ask yourself when considering your window treatments is, do you want your window to be the focal point of your room? If the answer is yes, go ahead and throw up some bright, fun colors. If the answer is no, then your window treatments are not a main player, they’re a supporting role. The natural syllogism is that in that case, the curtains ought to be less bright or busy than the focal point. You can definitely use colors or patterns in this case, but they should be secondary, so that you don’t suffer from competing focal points, like these:

Notice that in both of the above, the curtains are the brightest thing in the room, but they feel awkward because they’re competing against a natural focus point (the bed and the TV). This is why I focus on curtains as a particular danger: because they’re naturally going to be high on the wall, so they pose a big threat to the harmony of the room. The moral of the story: one focal point = harmony and relaxation. Multiple focus points can create visual confusion and overwhelm the viewer.

Here’s some good examples of bright or patterned window treatments in a supporting role:

patterned-curtain-living-room Love these fun patterned curtains, which don’t detract from the bright sofa cushions and Moroccan poufs. Designed by one of my favorites, Mona Berman, and featured in House Beautiful.

patterned-curtain-living-room Purple, flowered curtains take a back seat to a bright sofa and artwork. From Elle Decor.

patterned-curtain-living-room Subtle patterned curtains work where darker, higher contrast artwork is the focal point. House Beautiful.

patterned-curtain-living-room A patterned curtain is upstaged by a brighter, smaller pattern on the seating and pillows. From Domino.

So there you have it. Multiple years’ design education summed up in one blog post. What do you think? Please comment. And if you’re considering new window treatments, please email us your questions (and attach photos)! We love reader questions and learn a ton from them. In fact, answers to reader questions have been some of our most-read posts. So fire away! 🙂


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