Go big and go home: How to do maximalism right

Marissa Hermanson

THE WASHINGTON POST – The clean-lined, subdued-colour aesthetic of minimalism has dominated the design scene in recent years, and although that contemporary look is still widely popular, maximalism – its rebellious, loud counterpart – is stealing some of the limelight.

“Minimalism is always less is more, whereas maximalism is more is more,” said Beth Diana Smith, a New Jersey-based interior designer.

The look, which mixes colour, pattern, texture, cultures, shapes and eras, lacks a rigid definition, but you’ll know it when you see it. The aesthetic can be rooted in 1980s excess, or traditional, classic styles, or even evoke a bohemian vibe.

“Maximalism is about surrounding yourself with the things that you love,” Smith said. “It can be art, decor, furniture, anything at all, but it all boils down to layering those things beautifully together in a strategic way. For me, the goal is to always create a ‘wow’ factor.”

Smith has brought the design concept to life in her Irvington, New Jersey, home by incorporating bold colours, strong shapes, geometric patterns, African decorative pieces and art of Black people by Black artists. She is also turning old family photos into art as a nod to her Grenada heritage.

New Orleans-based interior designer Melissa Rufty is known for adding a Southern flair to maximalism. She reimagines period pieces, from 18th Century Italian and French antiques to art deco items, by pairing them with chintz, chinoiserie, contemporary art and animal prints. She also embraces unexpected colour combinations, mixes patterns and isn’t afraid of lacquer, giving a fresh and modern feel to her spaces.

“It’s more of an attitude than it is an approach,” Rufty said. “And the reason people struggle with it is you have to check your intimidation at the door. You have to be brave and confident and know that, in this attitude, there is no self-expression that is wrong.”

Although maximalism doesn’t have a birth story per se, you can see it at certain points in history. For instance, Rufty said, old-school designers such as Mario Buatta (the ‘Prince of Chintz’) were overt and generous with traditional elements including chintz, decorative trim such as braiding and tassels, and velvets.

Smith references the Victorian era as an earlier time when maximalism had a moment in the spotlight. Intricate furnishings, decorative objects, wallpaper, complex shapes and pattern-mixing brought the ornate look of the period to life.

Today, maximalism is defined by personal indulgence in various forms. For instance, designer Kelly Wearstler embraces sculptural furniture with surreal silhouettes while Patrick Mele fearlessly blends past with present.

As we find ourselves stuck at home because of coronavirus pandemic, maximalism is piquing people’s interest; they want to surround themselves with the items they love in a space that feels good and is highly personalised.

For instance, you can use art and other decorative items to evoke the vacation you’ve been wanting to take. That could mean incorporating items such as a Turkish Oushak rug, a Danish teak record cabinet or an ornate antique European armoire.

You can go overboard with maximalism. Bad minimalism reads sterile and austere, but bad maximalism feels chaotic and overwhelming.

To create a good-looking maximal space, you need to be an expert at layering. You also need to know how to use colour and what plays nicely together. And you need to know when to stop.

Smith and Rufty shared their advice on how to build your own maximalist look. Here are their suggestions.

Own your style: “Are you modern or traditional?” Smith said. “Is there a certain vibe you want to embrace? Is there a specific era that speaks to you? Do you love African art or chinoiserie?”

Draw inspiration from what you love: “Is it that emerald green lamp you have been eyeballing, or that trip to Ghana where you came back with all those great textiles?” Smith said. “Those things become your focal point.”

Start small: If you’re not ready to go fully maximal, experiment in a nook or powder room. “If you mess up, you just shut the door,” Rufty said.

Cover surfaces: “Graphic wallpapers and bold tiles are a great way to instantly get a maximal look,” Smith said.

Embrace the gallery wall: “I love mixing high and low for gallery walls, which means I’m mixing original pieces with prints and wall decor,” Smith said. “It gives a curated look, which is key.” Smith blends affordable pieces from big-box stores with more sentimental pieces.

Create vignettes: By making small scenes or areas within a room, you’re designing another experience and are maximising every square inch. Rufty recommends attempting a vignette or “a small chapter in a bigger story” in neglected areas, such as under the stairs or in the foyer.

Don’t forget the fifth wall: The ceiling is an often-overlooked surface. Rufty recommends highlighting it with a patterned or textured wallpaper.

Trust your gut: If something doesn’t feel right, fix it or change it. “How things are put together is really important,” Smith said.

Keep it rooted in the classics: “You can go trendy really fast, but if you keep answering back to that antique rug or tempering it with an old portrait, it’s going to feel more deliberate and more timeless,” Rufty said.

Ask for help: Consider hiring an interior designer to assist with the editing process or finishing touches.

Go all out with patterns: “Think the more, the merrier,” Rufty said. “I try to keep some colour continuity when I mix patterns.” she added. Think stripes, florals and geometrics pulled together by one hue: “I also like to use various textures like velvets, chintz and silk, much like mixing colour and pattern,” Rufty said. Be mindful of scale and let only one or two patterns play “the lead.”