5 Common Decorating Mistakes and How to Fix Them

We get a lot of questions to our designers through Decorating Dilemmas, as well as from listeners of our podcast. Over the years, we’ve noticed a few recurring issues. 

If you’re unhappy with your room, there’s a good chance one or more of these issues are plaguing your space. Follow our steps, and we’re confident you’ll be pleased with the results.

1. Your Rug is Too Small

Rugs can be very expensive, so we understand why it’s easy to talk yourself into a smaller size. You can get the nice rug you want, but you feel better about the price you’re paying. We get it. Here’s the problem: when your rug is too small, it breaks up the floor into little pieces, making your room feel even smaller. On the flip side, when you’ve got a generously sized rug in your room, the space feels lush and cozy. Here are our two suggestions that remedy most rug situations:

Get the biggest size that’ll fit in your room.

You want to leave at least 6″ of space around the perimeter of your room, but aside from that, just go with the biggest size you can fit. Of course, be careful not to cover any rug vents and be sure all of your doors can comfortably open.

Layer expensive and inexpensive rugs

If you’re coveting a nice, patterned rug but are uncomfortable with the price, try one of our favorite tricks. Order the patterned rug in a smaller size, probably 5×8 or 6×9, then layer it over a much larger natural fiber rug. Jutes and seagrasses are typically much less expensive than wool rugs, so you’ll be able to get the proper size while also getting the pattern and color you’re looking for. Voila!

2. Your Furniture is Too Far Apart

Laying out a room is hard. We totally get it, and we detailed the step-by-step process our designers use to layout a space at the Design Solutions desk in our stores. Here’s what many of the issues come down to — your furniture pieces are spread too far apart. You probably need less space than you think.

Check out the room above. The occasional chairs are only about 10 inches from the ottoman. You really don’t need more space than that. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

Distance between coffee table and sofa: 8-18 inches
Distance between pairs of chairs: 4-12 inches, or the size of an accent table
Amount of space for a walkway: 24-36 inches

No chair or sofa should be more than an arm’s length from either the coffee table or side table.

Living room from Southern Living 2016 Idea House | Ballard Designs3. Not Enough Lighting

In almost every episode of our podcast, we ask our designer guests about their decorating pet peeve. Nearly everyone calls out lighting. A beautifully lit room feels warm, inviting, and puts everyone at ease. But on the flipside, a room that’s poorly lit feels awkward and unflattering.

Cardinal Rule of Lighting: Never rely solely on overhead lighting.

Obviously if you have canned lights or a chandelier, you should turn those on, though we recommend always using a dimmer unless you need full brightness for a task. In addition to overhead lighting, have at least 3 other light sources in your room. Mix it up and have a combination of floor lamps, table lamps, and sconces. 

In Mark Sikes’ living room from the 2016 Southern Living Idea House (above), we count 8 table and floor lamps and two overhead fixtures! Plus, there are even more light fixtures in this room that you can’t see, like additional floor lamps and sconces.

4. Wimpy Curtains

Curtains serve several purposes in a room, more than just providing privacy. They bring softness to spaces, they make your ceilings look taller, they add color and pattern, and they help fill wall space. Never underestimate the value of a fantastic drapery. But here’s where most people go wrong: they’re hardware is hung too low and their panels aren’t wide enough for their windows.

In most rooms, we recommend hanging your curtain hardware just under the crown moulding. The only exception is when your ceilings are very, very tall. If that’s the case, then hang the hardware betwen 8-18 inches over the top of your window. It’s also a good idea to hang your hardware brackets much wider than your windows, probably between 6-8 inches from the widest part of your window mullions. That way, when you want to let natural light into your room, you can pull your panels all the way back so they aren’t covering the windows.

On the issue of curtain width, your panels should be twice the width of your windows. So for example, if your windows are 50 inches wide, you want a combined width of 100 inches. So that could be two panels that are 50 inches wide or one panel that’s 100 inches wide. If your window is 100 inches wide, you’ll want 200 inches of curtain panel. In this case, we recommend taking your panels to a dry cleaner or seamstress and having them serge two panels together.

5. Out of Scale

Scale is important, but it can be very hard to get right, even for the pros. When we had designers Allison Smith and Anne Scott Shelley on the podcast, they even mentioned getting it wrong on occasion. To master scale, study your room and try options out before making your final decision.

If you have a very large great room, then use larger furniture pieces to help fill that space. On the flip side, if your room is small, don’t choose oversized furniture.

If you have a small room, choose sofas and chairs with narrower, straighter arms. Anything with a big roll arm is a waste of space. An overstuffed sofa with a heavy roll arm may waste 12-18 inches just on the arm, where you aren’t even sitting. While they feel comfortable in a large family room, they’ll eat up valuable space in a small living room. Consider a sofa like our Cameron, Manchester, or Hartwell sofas instead.

The other two problem areas for scale? Properly sizing art on the wall or over furniture and hanging light fixtures.

Here are some more easy rules of thumb:

Art should be at least 2/3 the size of the piece of furniture it hangs over.
Your chandelier should be 1/2 to 3/4 the width of your dining table.
Art over a mantel should be no smaller than the size of the firebox.

See these other Decorating 101 posts:

Did you like this post and find it helpful? Rate it below and share your thoughts in the comments!

Caroline McDonald

Caroline lives for pairing together patterns, mixing furniture styles, and oogling over our newest furniture pieces. As you can imagine, her little 1920's craftsman is in a constant state of flux. Here on How to Decorate, it's her goal to help you turn your home into your own little slice of paradise.


  1. Reply


    March 28, 2024

    This article is so helpful! Can you tell me where on your site I can find the cushioned floral fold-up seat/chairs? They are so gorgeous! I am in love.

    • Reply

      Kelley Bostian

      May 28, 2024

      Hi LeAnne,
      Thank you for supporting the How to Decorate blog and reaching out! The piece you are referring to is our X Bench upholstered in a floral fabric print (and yes, we also agree this piece is gorgeous!); We are not 100% sure which floral fabric this is from the picture alone due to the distance, but there are SO MANY of floral fabric upholstery options to choose from that we’re sure you’ll find the one you’re looking for on our site. Hope this helps!
      Happy Decorating,

  2. Reply

    Reva Forrest

    January 31, 2023

    I love buying from Ballard the quality is top of the line, beautiful and one if a kind! Love Love Love

    • Reply

      Kelley Bostian

      February 14, 2023

      We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Thanks for supporting the How to Decorate blog and choosing Ballard Designs–Please let us know if you ever have decorating or design questions we could help you with!
      Happy Decorating,

  3. Reply


    March 10, 2019

    Yeah these are some of the most genuine mistakes a lot of people make. Recently one of my friend were arranging the furniture in his living room but not living the space between the wall and furniture.

    He was putting the furniture against the wall and then I suggested him to get some space between the wall and furniture so that the kids can play and can move freely. I’m glad you pointed out these mistakes so amazingly. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Reply


    March 7, 2019


  5. Reply


    September 13, 2018

    Great advice and beautiful photos to complement it! I noticed that I often have an issue with getting the scale right. Thanks for the info!

  6. Reply

    do noi that

    September 9, 2018

    Right here is the perfect website for anybody who hopes to understand this
    topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want to…HaHa).

    You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject that has been written about for ages.

    Great stuff, just wonderful!

  7. Reply


    August 29, 2018

    Great pointers! Here’s an idea that would be helpful in your catalogs and online for selecting sizes of paintings: please state the size shown in your photos so we can get an idea of the scale. WhileI have made templates to see the size before buying, it would still be helpful to know what you used in your vignette.

    • Reply

      Heather Daly

      August 30, 2018

      Hi Jeanne,
      Thank you for your feedback! We will be sure to pass that along.

  8. Reply

    Herndon Inge

    April 19, 2018

    Very practical, and helpful advice.

  9. Reply


    March 30, 2018

    Thank you for the information and beautiful photos! Both of them together convey the message perfectly. I’m still hunting for current photos that depict rooms with non-white wood trim and baseboards. Mine are in a lighter walnut tone. The wood is SO beautiful I simply will not paint it. I’m not afraid to mix wood tones but with so much wood in a room it’s difficult to keep it neutral, bright and airy. Light upholstered furniture, draperies and rugs help but would love to see more expert photos!

  10. Reply

    Judy Epley

    March 5, 2018

    Oh my, this is so helpful! Would love to get this info in a nice printed form. I will print it on my printer but would love something more indepth with all the ideas together in book form.
    Thanks so much!