Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Maximalism

published Mar 29, 2021
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Maximalist living room by Right Meets Left Interior Design

For years, much of the design world has worshiped at the altar of minimalism. From professional organizers that became cult heroes (I’m looking at you, Marie Kondo) to decor trends — think Scandinavian design and Japandi — that center around an airy mentality of “fewer, better things,” it’s safe to say minimalism is an ethos most people are familiar with. 

Have you ever walked into a room though and thought it felt a little… lonely? Empty? Wishing you were surrounded by more things, at the very least a few signs of life in a room or a space’s inhabitants’ personal effects? Then it’s possible that maximalism is the design mindset calling your name. Like two sides of a coin, maximalism design is pretty much representative of everything minimalism, well, isn’t. “Maximalist design is all about expressing your individuality and unique perspective,” explains Courtney McLeod, designer and owner of Right Meets Left Interior Design. “Maximalists don’t care what the ‘Joneses’ will think; they design for their own joy, incorporating well-considered and bold color palettes, interesting prints, statement lighting, and curated accessories. For me, it’s not about too much stuff in a space — it’s about creating a bold and interesting mix for the eye to enjoy.” 

Credit: Sasha Bikoff

Maximalism by definition

True to the age-old adage of “what goes around, comes around,” the resurgence of maximalist decor is, in fact, nothing new. The more-is-more mentality gained traction in the early 1980s with the onset of the bold, unconventional design work of Claire Bingham, a UK-based journalist and author of the maximalist design tome, “More is More: Memphis, Maximalism & New Wave Design.” “The rise of Memphis was a kickback from the elegance of mid-century and a desire to rethink how objects could look. It’s no surprise that the wheels are turning back again, thanks to people who grew up with lots of beige and now want to mix materials and generally be more playful with color, graphics, and design.” 

Credit: Minette Hand

However, maximalist design goes way beyond just filling a room with lots of stuff. Here’s how to spot the style in the wild: 

  • Rooms that play with multiple patterns within the same space, all united by a common color or color palette 
  • Unique architectural shapes, especially when it comes to furniture silhouettes (stools, couches, mirrors, etc.)
  • A surplus of accessories and design accents, all of which are thought-out, well-appointed, and visually stimulating; they add interest to a design scheme — not just create “noise”
  • Lots of layering, which helps unite the various color schemes and patterns at play
  • Bold, saturated colors that draw the eye and energize a space
  • Moments of “high impact” like a wall mural, neon sign, or an oversized light fixture

Consumer culture also plays an important role in the rise (and fall… and rise again) of maximalist design. Come the 19th century, production capabilities were ramping up in the United States and beyond, and shopping became sport for Americans. Filling homes, which increasingly became larger in size, with decor that had little function beyond looking aesthetically pleasing was a sign of the times — and a sign of an upper middle class identity that came with the disposable income necessary to collect.

These days, maximalism has taken a more considered approach, and accumulating stuff is less for the sake of posterity and more as a means of a homeowner expressing their personality, preferences, and outlook. Designers like Kelly Wearstler, Dabito, Rayman Boozer and more (as well as the talents interviewed for this piece) bring a thoughtfulness to the trend, where every corner of the room is full, yes, but also carefully considered. “The emergence of social media and the desire for that unique, bright image absolutely plays a role in maximalism’s most recent rise,” says Sasha Bikoff, designer and owner of Sasha Bikoff Interior Design. “The Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment, and lack of travel have also affected how we want to live, and our craving for happier and more personalized spaces that teleport us to the places we love reflects that. Interiors are getting more inspired because we no longer have to take a trip or buy a book for inspiration — we can just scroll through our phones.”

Maximalism vs. Minimalism

While they may seem like polar opposites, many designers believe important parallels exist between the quietness of minimalistic decor and the loud, in-your-face nature of a maximalist room. Moreover, many even think the two can actually benefit from each other, creating a more cohesive and complete space when you use elements of both in a room. 

“I consider it a breath of fresh air when minimalism and maximalism are blended into the same home,” says Beth Diana Smith, designer and owner of Beth Diana Smith Interior Design. “Doing so can create a sense of balance and keep things visually interesting. Even though I prefer maximalism, I include ‘quieter’ design moments in my work so that the eye has a chance to rest before something else catches its attention.” 

To strike that elusive “maximal minimalist” balance, focus on pairing a minimalist “shell” of a room with maximalist decor. This means you can keep your streamlined, less-is-more approach to furniture but enliven it with personalized accessories and decor objects that tell the unique story of your family, your culture, your hobbies, or your travels. 

“To my eye, there are very few spaces that fully embrace the extreme of minimalism or the extreme of maximalism,” says McLeod. “Great design can easily incorporate both styles, like using a bold color palette in an otherwise minimalist space.” 

Maximalism vs. Boho

While maximalism and a boho aesthetic have a few hallmark similarities, the actual design applications between the two are what differentiate them. Boho interiors fuse color and texture but in a more muted, earthy, and tonal way than maximalism, which prides itself on a slightly-left-of-reality approach to combining hues, patterns, and textures. Likewise, both design styles incorporate lots of greenery and live plants. However, boho schemes embrace the green as a calming extension of the space, while maximalist spaces choose plants that can add to the overall attitude of a room, like a bold, other-worldly anthurium.

How to get the maximalist style look

Here are a few ways to infuse maximalism into your home:

  • Choose fantastical fabrics and wallpapers like those from Christian Lacroix or York Wallcoverings, suggests McLeod.
  • Work in leopard print in an unexpected way, which Bingham calls a “brilliant pattern neutral.”
  • Incorporate what Smith dubs “funky statement pieces” into your space that can stand out as their own moment, like oversized art, stools with bold shapes, or upholstered furniture in colorful patterns.
  • Look for pieces inspired by the original Memphis design movement; Bikoff recommends scouring sites like The Future Perfect and Artemest.
  • Incorporate family heirlooms, unique collectibles, or stylish travel souvenirs into your schemes.
  • Shop vintage for pieces that add a one-of-a-kind look to your space (Smith loves sites like Chairish for vintage hunting).