Interior Trends 2012 – The Anatomy of GREAT Design – Part 4

BEWARE the designer who makes no mention of “…and something unexpected…” during a flat-line pitch that includes matchy-matchy elements of any sort. No one should be allowed to charge for the ordinary or unremarkable! It’s like looking for a house with a vacant wishlist. Every room has a dream…

Veranda’s Feruary 2012 Cover detail sports an unexpected sculpture of cherries between Asian porcelain vases

When I use the term “unexpected” or worse yet, “jen ne se qua” a malaise of fear seems to glaze the eyes of the person with whom I am speaking, like the only attendee at a modern art reception who has no knowledge of the artist. There is nothing here to dread – you have already successfully baked and frosted the cake – but for many, three tiers of flawlessly naked white frosting waiting to be decorated is almost as scary as a certified letter from the IRS.

“Jen ne se qua” translates from French to “I don’t know what”. In interiors it’s that undefinable, alluring unexpected something that captured and fleshed out, is the maraschino cherry that announces the confection of your design. The unexpected lurks awaiting discovery in many guises; but here are 10 ways to discover that elusive design magic and  it work in your space:

1) Introduce an element that is either subtly or blatantly out of place amongst its surroundings.

St. Bartholomew’s Church in the village of Chodovice, Eastern Bohemia – image from Dezeen blog

St. Bartholomew’s Church in the village of Chodovice, Eastern Bohemia is a study in the unexpected. Bell-shaped windows illuminate unapologetically aged plaster walls, and appear to be staring down in disbelief at the modern seating, embellished with templates of crosses. This blatantly modern design is genius, whose function is to cradle the faithful in modernity is lit, as from heaven itself by the ethereal sparkle of traditional crystal chandeliers.

2. The pairing or combining objects whose function, although completely unrelated, shine in combination with aesthetic and function – no one does this better than Phillipe Starck.

Phillipe Starck’s”Marie Conquine”, cobines an umbrella with a chandelier.

3. Force the viewer to see an every day object like a sofa or chair through an entirely new lens. Janet Fish’s paintings did this in the 80’s, as did the works of Andy Warhol‘s images from icons to soup cans. They passed that pop mantle on to artists like Jeff Koons.

L-R – Janet Fish Windex bottles, Andy Warhol portrait of Ingrid Bergman, Jeff Koons balloon dog installation

In Milan, the unexpected is proclaimed annually, challenging our interpretation of the mundane. But you don’t need a sofa melded with a rain slicker to be unexpected – a chair with a fabulous profile in an unexpected fabric or color will do! There can be a fine line between unexpected and the irrelevant. I once ascended the stairs in the MOMA to encounter twisted mattresses covered in dried tubed frosting suspended from the ceiling. To this day, I don’t get it.

transparent furniture by poltrona frau – image from Washington Post

4) Look for objects whose utility and aesthetic has been expanded or redefined in unexpected ways. Steve Jobs built an empire on such a foundation, with both Apple computer and Pixar. Below, unexpected lighting fixtures remain lit for hours after the power is switched off.

Glass lamps that glow well after the light bulb goes dark, like magic – before being turned off – image from

Glass lamps that glow well after the light bulb goes dark, like magic – AFTER being turned off – image from

5) Re-purpose every-day objects to make personal statements about who you are or what you do (or don’t) believe. Rhino horns become sought-after design objects in bejeweled ceramic. You know the problem of extinction is real, but the solution chuckles to itself and doesn’t take itself altogether seriously – it’s like “the ant and the rubber tree plant”.

A Rhinstone Rhinocerous from Etsy for about $300

6) Look in your garage. The wood block chair is from Milan’s Furniture market – but the decoupaged version from Etsy offers all the color and function, and can be done in a weekend.

Milan Fair 2011- Wood Block Chair (left) – I won’t venture a guess at a price – at right, a decoupaged chair from Etsy for less than $400

Up-cycle instead of recycle. Pages of an old books neatly preserved or newspaper combine up-cycle a blah unfinished or old chest of drawers creating an unexpected treasure.

before-after-chest – grand home design

7. Color. Unexpected vivid color within a sea of neutrality is not as frightening to the color-phobic, who cling happily to those calm neutral shores. A little goes a long way, as in our cover above.

TREND ALERT – have a look at the apple green below – my money is on that shade for the grass roots -people have spoken color of the year in the US for 2012.

lamps by FrauMaier industry at the Milan’s Furnishing Accessories Exhibition , in Milan, Italy, April 2011 – image from The Washington Post

Furnished Dylan doll house from

8) Scale creates the unexpected – design oxi-morons are really effective!

A small modern house on a shelf, or pebbles super-sized in scale become a grandiose statement as an eye-catching mural, just as Jeff Koons’ balloon installation shocks us out of our complacency by its sheer scale.

Pebble Mural from Murals Your Way

9. Unexpected accents – I don’t love chachkas!!!!!!!!!!!!!! But some people do – anything can be made to work with a little jen ne se quois, combined with restraint. The way that accents work best is by not letting them resemble an indoor landmine field. Pick a collection space and give it some boundaries. How do all the European Nations co-exist in such close proximity? Boundaries.

Footed Sticks by Les Jardins – image from their website

10. Lighting!!!! If you want something to relate to the addition of a modern chair, or a Bohemian rustic coffee table, lighting is the best way to exhibit and relate to those features. If you will forgive the hopelessly shameless plug, I have cultivated a website filled with both design staples and plenty of unexpected design treasures – even a whole section of Bohemian lighting, to which I will be adding some new favorites this week!

Some new RSB lighting selections coming to – click image to see more!

The big message with the unexpected is no different from my color mantra – it’s about finding the proportion that you’re comfortable with! Many people love the designs of Jonathon Adler, or Thomas Smythe (myself among them) who are comfortable with a significant unexpected presence, holding hands with the traditional.

R – L Thomas Smythe and Jonathon Adler Room Designs

But a little unexpected goes a long way….

An ombre bench from Anthropogie – image from their website

A purple chrome pig bank from

God is in the details.