Designing Saratoga

The Saratoga House: Perfecting Pattern with Pillows


I have a confession to make: all the different facets of decorating intrigue me, but I do believe I am involved in a long term love affair with...pillows.

In many ways, what's not to love?  They can be the setting of the stage for the rest of your room, or the finishing touch.  They provide warmth, contrast, and can be changed out with the seasons.  They can be made out of anything--often the more creative the material, the better they look in your living room. And if your passionate feelings for them wane, they can either be stashed in the linen closet for a few months then reinvented elsewhere, or simply recovered for the cost of a few lattes.  And when you are restricted as to the permanent design changes you can make in your home, whether it be because you find yourself in a rental property or are currently not in a position to spend a lot of money, they can easily  brighten your space and make it uniquely your own.

I once had someone survey my pre-Saratoga family room pillow collection and comment, "I would never think that all of these different patterns would ever look good together, but somehow, you make it work."  Let's set aside the" is it a compliment or a criticism?" debate for a moment to say this: when you use pattern in your house, it should be unexpected and interesting.  There's nothing wrong with admiring a collection of bedding or textiles in a catalog or along the aisles of Bed Bath and Beyond, but if you merely copy that image and repeat it verbatim in your guest room, it will be just that...a copy.  The same goes for those of us who sew...going to Joann Fabrics and using three fabrics from the same company's current collection to make three pillows the same size to line our king-sized bed with is just an unpaid advertisement for Waverly, not a reflection of who we are.  The days of a formulaic combination of one coordinating solid, one stripe, and one print should be is time to have faith in our visual judgement and take a risk!  And pillows allow us to take that risk with a minimum amount of buyer's remorse.

back porch bench.jpg

Counting the fabrics used on the seat cushion, 7 different patterns grace this bench on our back porch--including a nubby cream velour that was found in the baby section of the fabric store and a dish towel--yet they all seem to play nice with each other

So of course I do have a few guidelines I keep in mind when I put together pillow patterns in my own home, so for what it's worth, here are several things to keep in mind when you decide to dip your design foot in the pattern pool:

Layer, Layer, Layer.  I make fun of the solid/stripe/pattern formula, but when it comes down to it, it isn't necessarily wrong, it just doesn't go far enough.  Yes, give your eye a solid or two to rest on, and the addition of a linear pattern like a stripe or a check is always a good idea, but then I would suggest two more patterns, plus a dash of texture for good measure.  For the patterns, pick one that is more traditional...a paisley,  damask, a cottage floral...then go bold with a more modern print that screams "I saw this one-of-a-kind design and couldn't walk away!"  For me, that often comes in the form of an embroidered or raised design, a graphic pattern with strong contrasting colors, or something that has a dash of decorator bling (beads, tassles, jute edging) applied to it.  And these elements don't have to all be separate entities--your solid can have a subtle texture to it like a striated linen or a sumptuous velvet, or one pillow can be two-sided--a bold graphic pattern on one side, a stripe on the other, situated in a way where one pattern peeks out over the other to keep things interesting. 

living room pillows.jpg

This unique paisley is repeated throughout the room, but here creates a great partnership with the unconventional green stripe, the houndstooth check, and a softer leaf pattern.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.  We of course don't want to be too matchy-matchy, but I like to use pillow patterns to guide a guest's eye around the room I've designed by subtly repeating it throughout the space.  For example, the modern paisley slipcover on the wingback chair in my living room is also framed on the wall in a distressed barnwood frame I picked up at a yard sale for $10, then repeated in a 2-sided pillow on the cream armchair on the other side of the room.  My hope is that it makes someone who enters the space move their eye from one place to the next, that it makes visual sense and connects the different design elements I've thrown together.  I've done the same type of thing with four other pillow patterns in the same space...situated them throughout the room so your eye will bounce from place to place and take it in as a whole, as if to say it all goes together on purpose.  My one exception to this though is my bold accent pattern--just one because I want it to feel like a unique find.

Play With Shape and Size.  People come in all shapes and sizes and that's part of what makes life interesting, so why not pillows too?  Time to play hardball with those pillows and cushions that came with your new couch and eliminate some of them to make room for varying shapes and sizes.  Go rectangular, circular, throw a few bolster (the ones that look like oversized hot dogs) pillows in the mix--and don't be afraid to make them small, medium, large, and anything in between.

guest room pillows.jpg

A primarily white color palette can still be pattern happy--in our guest room the matelasse bedspread contrasts with quilted texture on several accent pillows.  The pair were reinvented with the addition of newly upholstered buttons and the black and white botanical pillow was made from a place mat

If You Can't Find It, Create It.  Don't ever limit yourself to what you can find on the shelf at Target when it comes to pillows.  I know that some of you start to freak out a bit when I mention the "S" pillows are very easy thing to make, and if you really can't pull it off, find a friend who can and enlist their assistance.  Not only do the fabric stores have great options that extend beyond what you can find premade (recently I discovered KC Fabrics and Framing here in Saratoga and I'm hooked on their unique inventory), but a variety of other materials are easily available and can become the star of your display--vintage fabrics from estate sales and local shops, tea towels, your favorite skirt that no perfectly, your child's baby blanket or part of that quilt someone spilled grape juice on...the possibilities are endless.

So give the patterned pillow a try, and be bold and passionate in your just might love the result!


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Kimberlee Billok
From humble beginnings redecorating my childhood bedroom every few months much to my mother’s chagrin, to years of life as a military spouse making short-term stops our own, to finding myself in Saratoga Springs in a 90-year-old home in need of lots of TLC, I have always enjoyed honing my home decorating and design skills in pursuit of making a house a home for the most important people in my world, my husband Mike and our three children. In pursuit of this goal/obsession I have put my undergraduate studio art studies to work, as well as the unofficial HGTV degree I’ve earned under the tutelage of Vern Yip, Genevieve Gorder, Candace Olson, and the other pros who make us all feel as if we can create as they do. I’ve had the good fortune to have numerous colleagues, friends and family who have trusted me enough to allow me to design their spaces as well, and even redecorated the office of my children’s elementary school principal, which although intimidating, was quite a good time (think a juxtaposition of animal prints and sharpened pencils…luckily she loved it!).

Outside of the decorating/design realm I inhabit in my free time, I am fortunate to spend my days teaching 3 and 4 year old preschoolers here in Saratoga, who can’t help but inspire me to be creative on a regular basis. So since every part of life is an adventure, please join me on this one…combining form and function, design and real life, making each room feel beautiful, comfortable, classic, and personal. All wrapped up in a structure that has been in existence before the invention of spray paint (it’s true—I looked it up!). Here goes!!