Contemporary design tips from a pro

New contemporary design incorporates elements from outdoors including warm wood, natural stone and neutral colors

Special to The TribuneJanuary 30, 2013 


    PARE IT DOWN Avoid clusters, collections or collages in contemporary design. In general, you should have no more than three pieces in one composition. When arranging wall art, one substantial piece per wall, with plenty of empty wall space, is just fine.

    TIPS FOR TRIM Elaborate moldings make a space more traditional. If you’re going contemporary, consider painting trim a crisp white. Cherry moldings or wood with a natural finish are usually OK.

    KEEP IT LOCAL Organic accents are more meaningful when they reflect your own environment. If you live near the beach, display a lovely piece of driftwood or shells. If you live near the mountains, place some white birch branches in a tall, contemporary urn.

This monthly feature focuses on local interior designers and their ideas for choosing color schemes, furniture, art and an overall design style or scheme. Today we focus on San Luis Obispo Karen Hutchinson who owns a full-service design firm, Hutchinson Design. Her website is , and her email address is .

Contemporary design may have a reputation for being a bit cold and unfriendly. But that was before the new contemporary arrived on the scene.

“Bringing things from the outdoors is the new contemporary of the 21st century,” said designer Karen Hutchinson. “It just took hold several years ago and has really stuck.”

Natural elements introduce plenty of warmth. But keeping a natureinspired space from morphing into an eclectic or even eccentric look takes some restraint — and some rules. Hutchinson walks us through the basics of new contemporary design.

Warm up with wood

Abundant wood is top on her list — but not just any wood. Whether it’s a piece of furniture, a fireplace mantel or a picture frame, it should have little ornamentation and simple straight or curved lines. Save distressed finishes, dark stains and detail for a traditional or Old World style space.

The new interpretation of contemporary wood furniture lacks stylized design or ornamentation, keeping the focus on the natural warmth of the wood. Many pieces are made out of red oak with a natural finish or a gray wash.

Free-form, natural furniture is also part of the new contemporary style. This could be an accent table base built from driftwood, a dining table top made from a cross-section of a tree, or an end table that resembles a tree stump. Although not exactly “simple” in design, these very organic components are strikingly sculptural and make a strong statement when used in a space that is otherwise spare and streamlined.

Stone done right

Stone may be cold to the touch, but it adds ample warmth. Just steer clear of white stone, which can seem cold and severe. In a contemporary setting, Hutchinson prefers neutral stone in a polished finish without a lot of color variation or texture. Straight lines are a must. For floors, she likes limestone or traver- tine set with tight joints. For a smaller investment, consider adding stone to a fireplace or backsplash.

There is just one instance where Hutchinson endorses a more roughhewn look. Ledgestone has a rough cut, but is small and straight-lined.

“Some textures are okay if they have verticality or horizontal lines to them,” she noted.

Add color carefully

New, warmer contemporary homes begin with an overall neutral color palette on walls and large pieces of furniture. Cream to taupe is a safe bet. But gray is the new hot neutral and can range from cool to warm in tone.

Hutchinson then layers in punches of bright, warm hues like orange.

“It is an instant shot of warmth and has a tendency to make people happy when they see this color, so how can you go wrong?” she said.

If you can’t live with bright orange, try more muted shades like pumpkin or rust. Or experiment with other warm hues.

In a new contemporary scheme, accent colors make an appearance on art, lamps, pillows and other accents, but not on walls.

“We’re not doing so many accent walls anymore. It’s not popular right now,” she said.

For a cleaner look, stick with one dominant accent color. If you have a favorite painting with a multitude of colors, select your favorite color from that painting and repeat it on other accents around the room.

As for fabric prints, she advises to stay mainly with solids, textural solids, or tone-on-tone prints. A pattern or two in the room is fine, as long as you go with larger prints and contemporary geometrics. Stripes, florals and the like are all too traditional.

This doesn’t mean that you have to part with your favorite Oriental rug or Grandma’s needlepoint pillow. Just keep in mind that adding in an item outside the contemporary realm causes the room to veer toward eclecticism. The more eclectic pieces, the less contemporary the space becomes.

Balance out accessories

Contemporary accents tend to be simple and cool: a blown glass vase, a silver frame, or a metal sculpture. Hutchinson finds balance with a few warmer, more textural pieces. Once again, she usually looks to nature.

Contemporary natural accents are sublimely simple — and often free. Some of her favorites are an interesting piece of driftwood, sea shells in a wood bowl, or a sparkling cut geode. She advises staying away from anything “faux” — and that includes silk plants and flowers. If a live plant is too much work, try a pot of succulents or air plants.

When creating compositions, she recommends using no more than three items. Or go with one very striking piece. If it encompasses both warm and cool elements, all the better. She once created a one-ofa-kind wall display out of a salvaged steel egg crate filled with air plants.

“It was so unique and a fresh take on an old used piece,” she said. “You can find really neat pieces if you take the time to look.”

Reach Rebecca Juretic at .

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