To the uninitiated, interior design can be confusing—the jargon even gets us tripped up sometimes. Let Homepolish's Angela Belt demystify the design world with our guide of the top 10 most misused terms.
I was on a recent consultation with a potential client when he pointed out how much he loved the bullets on a chair. All of a sudden, I was thinking, “What?! Where? Should I duck?” Dramatics aside, I found out he was referring to the nail heads on the bottom trim of his accent chair. Now, I’m not judging him (I was just relieved to know the room was totally safe). However, he did prompt me to write this piece, and to clear things up so no one else confuses an accent with a weapon, or any other potential misconception. Here are what I feel are the 10 most misused terms in interior design
Photo by Sean Litchfield; Design by.
1. Modern vs. Contemporary
Let’s start with a big one. These two terms are the biggest mix-up in design speak. And I don’t blame people! They are often used interchangeably on design shows and online resources, and that makes it easy to get tripped up. “Modern design” evolved from Modernism the historical movement of the early 20th century, spanning across genres of design architecture art and more. New technologies in construction, particularly the use of glass, steel, reinforced concrete, plastics, molded plywood, changed the way furniture pieces were made (and what was desired). Think Bauhaus School, Eames furniture, Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Arm chair, the Wassily Chair, Barcelona chair, anything Mies van der Rohe. The feelings was much more neutral and minimalist, thanks to the machine-made production. Contemporary design, on the other hand, deals with what’s currently trending in design at that present moment. Right now, most “contemporary” spaces have white walls, raw and rustic materials for accessories, Moroccan rugs, and color sprinkled throughout, but the idea of “contemporary” is constantly fluctuating.
2. Vintage vs. Antique
Don’t let a salesperson fool you: vintage does not equal antique. An antique is a relic from the past that has considerable monetary value. Typically, the piece was created during a specific time period (aka Louis XIV, Baroque, or, more recently, Shaker folk work) that has now come back into popularity. A vintage piece, however, may not necessarily have any financial value. It’s something that was manufactured in the past, at least 30-50 years ago, and is now back in style. Case in point, vintage rugs might be just old and in fabulous shape, but an antique rug will cost considerably more—and require much more nuanced care.
3. Sofa vs. Couch
Almost every one this side of the Atlantic uses these terms interchangeably, but believe it or not, if you look at their origins, they are, in fact, different. A couch is a piece of furniture originally designed for reclining, typically with only one arm and no back. It’s more casual. You can crash on it. A sofa, with that one extra syllable, is something more ostentatious and formal. That sofa has two whole arms and a back to boot. It’s a piece to host company on. Perhaps while sipping on a gin martini a la Roger Sterling.
4. Love Seat vs. Settee
A love seat is normally between 55”-65” in size and considered any small-scale sofa fit for just two (hence the word LOVE). Think of it as the perfect cuddle piece of furniture. A settee is a little different. Typically, it refers to a sofa with a bench seat that can fit one or more than one person. That extra bench seat adds that flair of elegance.
5. Accent Chair vs. Lounge Chair
A lounge chair is normally deeper in size than an accent chair, and sorry to be so on the nose about it, but it’s made to lounge in, relax in, and maybe even recline in. An accent chair is normally in a space to add a pop of color or inject some personality. It may not be as comfortable as a lounger, but when it looks that good, we will let it slide.
Photo by Claire Esparros; Design by.
6. Daybed vs. Chaise
These two phrases get mixed up all. the. time. But they are definitely not the same thing. A daybed is a three-sided piece of furniture that typically features a twin-size mattress as the bottom cushion. When people aren’t lounging on it, it can convert to a sneaky place to sleep. (We often see them in home offices or petite living rooms.) A chaise is normally a part of a seating configuration for a sectional and is around 65” deep (some people also call it the “cuddler”). A standalone chaise lounge can actually float on its own in a room and does not need to be a part of a sectional configuration, but typically is not sized the same as a twin bed.
7. Coffee Table vs. Cocktail Table
What’s the difference? Nothing, to be completely honest. A coffee table is normally 16-18” tall, and it sits in front of the sofa. Guess what? It’s the same for the cocktail table. The distinction of terms is more of an old school vs. new school terminology, Europe vs. America. If you want to sound like you’re from glamorous (or feel better about starting happy hour early), say cocktail table.
8. Curtains vs. Window Treatments
If you recently bought a new house or you realize your apartment neighbors have been not-so-subtly spying on you, you start “window treatments.” That term encompasses the entire set of options from blinds, drapes, shades, etc. Curtains refer to a specific type of window treatment, fabric panels that hang on rods all billowy and puddling on the floor. Imagine those old theater spaces with the rippling velvet fabric hiding the stage.
9. Pendant vs. Chandelier
A pendant is a light fixture that hangs from the ceiling with one cord. Pendants come in many shapes and styles, but perhaps most common is the drum shade (a stout cylindrical shape). On the other hand, a chandelier typically has lighting that branches off from several cables or cords to suspend it from the ceiling. Chandeliers (and you might be able to guess from the fancier French name) also make a bolder and more sophisticated statement, which is why they are often found in formal spaces such as dining rooms and sitting rooms.
10. Bullets vs. Nailheads
And lastly, just to clarify for my prospective client pal: A nailhead is actually an ornamental design added to a typically traditional piece of furniture. It can often be referred to by names like beading, buttons, trim, upholstery tacks, or even bullets, but there’s a big difference between each. So don’t freak me out by calling them bullets.
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