It’s a well-reported fact that what starts on the catwalk tends to make its way to the cushion; and in the case of “dopamine dressing” – wearing clothes that boost your mood – it’s a current concept that translates particularly well to the home. If you’re someone who feels your best in a touch of animal print or a coloured blazer, there’s a strong chance that a decorative home environment will have that same feel-good factor.
It’s also a fact that a home needs to work hard as well as look good, and utility will always be a key concern; but after a prolonged period where practicality has held sway in interior design – with issues such as carving out a home office and squeezing the most out of every inch of living space at the forefront – perhaps it’s time to put the fun back into functional.
Bringing a cheerful element into your home can be as simple as adding a coat of paint or as involved as putting together a layered look with wallpaper, furnishing fabrics and accessories. Either way, imagination and confidence are more important than budget.
Embrace the clash
A playful mix of pattern and colour is a signature for interior designer Lucy Barlow, who never misses an opportunity to add a little extra to a room: signature touches include decorative bespoke cabinetry, elegant panelling, botanical wallpaper and a good dose of printed fabrics, whether on a curtain, a cushion or a set of dining chairs.
Her latest project, Kin House in Wiltshire, is a restored Georgian house available for hire but designed as a private home; albeit a home made for parties. Barlow describes her approach to putting a room together as “happy clashing”; “that is what makes it look like it’s happened organically,” she explains. “If everything’s too matchy-matchy, it ends up looking kind of naff and sterile.” Here, she has executed that effect with flair, so there is something arresting to look at in every corner, without the overall effect becoming too overwhelming on the eye.
Throughout the house, each room has pockets of character, from the wallpapered bathrooms and fabric-wrapped bathtubs in the bedrooms to the tortoiseshell-painted bar and the shell grotto in the entrance hall (which Barlow describes as “an Insta moment”). These may not be the types of decorative features that can be easily replicated in the average British home, but the playful spirit that Barlow has captured is something that can.
That “Insta moment”, for example, could be a dining-room alcove papered in a punchy wallpaper (the perfect spot from which to take Zoom calls when working from home); a bar trolley decked out for cocktail hour; or a chequerboard rug under the coffee table.
Pair the old with the new
Another of Barlow’s decorating techniques is to use traditional design references, but freshen them up with modern colours, which lends a room gravitas, without stuffiness. At Kin House, for example, which is surrounded by forests, an oak-leaf motif recurs in bright patterned wallpapers, and the original shell-like stone canopy over the front door is referenced in collections of shell illustrations in colour-pop frames, scallop-shape stools and kitchen cabinet doors with scalloped panelling (as Barlow points out, if you’re planning to have cabinet doors made, why not do something a little different with them?).
Done to Barlow’s standards, it’s an expensive look; but, she insists, it’s not one that necessarily requires a big budget. “If you have time to do some research, there will be a carpenter in your local area who’s able to make something far more wonderful than you’d find in Ikea, and they might not be that expensive,” she says.
“When it comes to furniture, you could buy most of your pieces from the high street, then find an antique side table that will suddenly give the whole room some soul and patina. That’s how you can easily make a space look more thoughtful, and antiques are often so much more affordable than one might think.”
Find your happy hues
A sense of playfulness is also integral to the work of Scandinavian-born designer Cat Dal (catdalinteriors.com). “It’s important to have uplifting moments in your home,” she says. “There should always be something that makes you smile.”
For her, colour is the key to achieving that sense of fun, whether that’s painting kitchen cupboards in a happy hue, or updating window frames in a bright shade. “Colour really evokes emotions in you,” she says, “so find a colour that ignites joy. You don’t have to use it on every wall to get the effect.”
She’s also a fan of a patterned wall, but suggests keeping bolder, statement designs to “pass-through” areas such as halls and cloakrooms, where it makes an impact but where you won’t necessarily spend that much time.
“We’ll always go for a punchy look in a downstairs loo, with a really fun wallpaper or some colour,” she says, “and we’ll always wrap it onto the ceiling to create that sense of being enveloped in a texture or pattern” – a good tip for a small or awkwardly shaped room too, such as a snug or a loft bedroom.
Adding cheerful colour or a playful note doesn’t have to involve a wholesale redecoration of a room. “I like to include bespoke details,” says Dal. “For a recent project we had a shelf made and added a fun scallop edge, and I’ll often add trims to cushions and furniture.” In another project, she used tiles to create a personal touch for a client: “He’s Danish, so on his bathroom floor, which we were covering with white mosaic tiles, we added ‘Hej’ (hello in Danish) in blue tiles, which you see as you enter into the room.”
Colourful can also be calm
For those nervous about colour and pattern, it’s worth remembering that a room involving both doesn’t have to look “out there”; it can also be visually soothing. “A calming look doesn’t have to be beige,” notes interior designer Kate Guinness.
In her projects, she will often use bold colours (Apsley House Green, “the happiest green”, and Blue Verditer, both by Papers & Paints, are particular favourites). She will also occasionally have a darker version of a colour in one part of the room and a lighter version in another, for a tonal effect. “Using different shades of the same colour can be a nice way of having fun, but keeping it quite calm,” she says.
Another approach is to stay relatively neutral with the walls and add interest in other ways. “If you’re not feeling particularly brave, you can do quite neutral-coloured walls as a backdrop and add fun in terms of colour and pattern with furnishings, rugs and window treatments,” she says (which also makes it easier to change if you get bored down the line). “Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of fun woodwork paint colours too. Windows, skirting boards, doors and joinery can have pops of colour, which is fun but not as scary as choosing a bold colour for the walls.”
However you choose to do it, whether through walls, furniture or accessories, a certain bravery with decoration is coming through – a trend that Guinness believes is here to stay. “I feel like people want those joyful elements at home, and we’re not taking everything too seriously anymore,” she says. “There’s a sense that we’re all lightening up about interiors.” And that can only be a good thing.
Easy ways to add a shot of dopamine decor into your home
“The worst thing you can do when putting a scheme together is to try and match all the colours, so that every piece of furniture and fabric blends into the same palette,” says Lucy Barlow. “That will just make a room look incredibly sterile and corporate because it’s too matchy-matchy. The first thing you should do is try not to make things match. There’s no rule, no equation to follow: I wholeheartedly believe that if you really love everything you choose, it will work together”
Barlow advises getting samples of the fabrics, paints and wallpapers you’re thinking of using in a room and laying them out together on a tray to see if the mix is gentle or jarring to the eye. “Often when you start laying samples together it looks like nothing has a relationship with anything else, but if you leave it there for a little while, it can start to blend together”
Sometimes, a pop of colour is all it takes to lighten the mood. “We’ll often take a traditional artwork and get it framed in an interesting way, with a bobbin frame or an unexpectedly bright colour, so something traditional like a portrait suddenly seems bright and fun,” says Cat Dal
Where you place your artwork has an impact on the effect they have too: “If you find an interesting piece that says something to you, a little sketch or photograph, the way it’s hung – ie not necessarily in the centre of the wall – can also evoke a sense of playfulness,” says Dal. Consider hanging a small sketch or photo that makes you smile above a light switch, for example, or above a doorway, or on the back of the front door
Go large with accessories for an unexpected twist. “I like to play with volume,” says Dal. “An oversized pendant light can create a sense of fun in a room”
If you’re having a piece of furniture upholstered, consider using more than one fabric. Barlow is a fan of using a plain fabric to cover the front of a sofa or chair and a patterned fabric on the back; while Kate Guinness suggests looking for a reversible fabric such as those by Le Manach, and mixing both sides of the fabric on a chair. A contrast piping or trim is another way to add interest: Dal notes that she is using trims increasingly on furniture and headboards
Dal likes to use a shot of unexpected bright colour or pattern on the inside of a wardrobe, cupboard or pantry. “You don’t get to see it until you open the door; it’s just a little moment of fun that no one else knows about”
Don’t forget the fifth wall – painting the ceiling of a room in a colour other than white adds wow factor: at Kin House, Barlow painted the walls of the study in a rich yellow gloss and the ceiling in a contrasting mint green. A bold statement such as this works well in a room that doesn’t get day-long use, such as a dining room or library
In a kitchen or utility room, replace the cupboard door beneath the sink with a patterned curtain, suggests Dal. “It’s a great place to use a fabric, and a good way to break up the cabinetry; plus it’s easier to hide bulky items behind a curtain than a door, so it’s utilitarian too”
How to get the look
Late Afternoon jug (£75), Liberty
Olivia Rubin throw (£195), Amara
Cath Kidston cushion (£35), John Lewis
Spoon rest (£12), Anthropologie
Nick Cranston print (£140), King & McGaw
Striped stool (£225), Oka
Leopard Love lampshade (from £30), Matthew Williamson x Pooky
This article is kept updated with the latest information.