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The Rule of Three: The Essential Decor Trick Every Homeowner Needs to Know



If there’s a secret formula when it comes to interior decor, it just might be the rule of three.

This simple guideline can be a game changer for homeowners who are looking to refine their style. It’s also an excellent way to force yourself to declutter.

“Paring down items to groups of three lets you keep the best and donate the rest,” says Jamie Novak, author of “Keep This Toss That.”

Alas, for every homeowner who follows this rule rationally, there’s someone who decides to overdo the mandate. For the best look, proceed with caution before you create trios all over your house. For inspiration, check out the following six tips for the rule of three in your home.

The rule of three, defined

Photo by Martha O’Hara Interiors

The beauty of this number is the natural appeal to the human eye, says Novak: “Three items prompt you to look around more than just one or two would.”

And a pair feels formal because you need to align them just so, while a trio can be arranged more freely. The rule of three means your grouping is light, rather than overly busy.

This guideline may also be an offshoot from the world of photography, adds Beverly Solomon of the eponymous design firm.

“When you take a picture, you divide the shot into thirds, with the main subject in one or two sections—and threes are also evident in Zen landscaping and art when one tries to balance earth, sky, and water,” she says.

Think vertically

Photo by

The rule of three works particularly well with vases and candlesticks because you can add interest by varying the height, say experts. But don’t feel locked into three of the same item.

“A grouping that includes a vase, candle, and potted succulent mixes height and width as you work with an odd number,” explains Liz Toombs, president of PDR Interiors. With a wide vase and a tall candlestick, the small plant acts as your low-lying piece to anchor the arrangement.

Looking for other items for a trio? Consider mirrors on a wall, art books on a table, or indoor plants (three looks like a miniature jungle, says Novak).

Layer a sofa

Photo by Olga Adler

These couches hit the trifecta: three pillows that lend visual interest by way of color and pattern. Fabrics can also play to the rule of three—but don’t go beyond this magic number.

“More than three textures in a space is a messy mistake, but two or less may appear as if your room has fallen flat,” says Novak.

Picture frame trios

Photo by JKA Design

Artwork is another smart way to use the rule of three to your advantage, though mismatched frames and a crazy patchwork of genres can look like a hot mess, say the pros. Instead, streamline your gallery by matching the frame size and shape and then pick a subject matter that has some commonality, suggests Justin Riordan of Spade and Archer Design Agency.

Paint by numbers

Photo by Leslie Goodwin Photography

The world of paint color can seem enormous, but if you apply the rule of three to it, you’ll come out ahead.

“A trio of colors is more interesting than just two, but keep in mind that you shouldn’t use all three equally,” says Toombs. Instead, choose a primary color for the bulk of your room (white, above), a coordinating secondary one for a smaller portion (beige), and then a third shade as an accent (blue).

Less is more

Photo by Angela Free Design

The rule of three generally doesn’t work that well with furniture, warns Toombs: “A trio of sofas, especially identical sofas or chairs, can overwhelm the space and offer a boring aesthetic.”

Furthermore, don’t arrange three things on every surface you own.

“If you have three items on one shelf in a bookcase, place a single item or a pair on a neighboring shelf,” Toombs adds. Using this rule sparingly makes a greater impact.


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