Space Planning, Design 103: Choosing Colors, Fabrics and Finishes

Whether planning a space on your own or working with a design team, the elements you include work to bring a space to life. Appropriate colors, fabrics and finishes can also help a space stand the test of time. Careful planning, applying basic design principles and consulting with a design professional are worth the investment of both time and money.

There are 4 key elements for creating attractive and lasting spaces:

  1. Start with color
  2. Select appropriate upholstery materials and fabrics
  3. Consider furniture lifecycle issues
  4. Incorporate finishing touches

St. Michael Public Library, St. Michael, MN

1. Start with Color

Color is the starting point for establishing the desired atmosphere. Well chosen wall colors and flooring in an appropriate color scheme create an attractive and inviting space. However, pairing the right fabrics and finishes really pulls everything together. Since library environments often need to last for 10–20 years, it’s important to carefully select colors in a way that allows for the introduction of trendier colors over time but doesn’t overwhelm the space or apply those colors to permanent structures.

Eastern Christian High School Library, North Haledon, NJ

Basic Color Schemes

A color wheel is a great resource to help you choose colors. Using the basics of color theory, you can create a color harmony that is pleasing to the eye and can be implemented throughout a space. Many different schemes can be created with different tints, tones and shades providing exciting variations. For more information about color theory and choosing color harmonies, see our on-demand webinar Make It Last: Choosing Colors, Fabrics & Finishes.

Tips for Selecting Color

60-30-10 Rule
60-30-10 Rule

Generally spaces benefit from incorporating more neutral tones into your scheme. Neutrals often work well for some of the more permanent elements of the space such as walls, carpet and shelving. More defined color can be introduced based on the different color harmonies to create interest and organization within the space.

Choosing complementary schemes that go beyond primary colors or choosing a dominant hue within a scheme creates interest and balance. One tip to achieve a cohesive look is to choose 3 shades and break them down using the 60-30-10 rule.

60% = Dominant color
30% = Secondary color
10% = Accent color

2. Select Appropriate Upholstery Materials and Fabrics

Choosing Colors and Patterns

Just as carefully planning a color scheme creates an attractive harmony within a space, the same is also true when it comes to planning fabric patterns. Lounge seating is often one of the best places to incorporate patterned fabrics. Choosing a dominant or common color across all of your patterned selections is the first step to a cohesive space. Accents that draw out colors from the pattern or provide pleasing complements can be added to prevent monotony within a space. Consider not only using these accents in other upholstered pieces but also in pieces that incorporate other materials such as painted steel and plastics.

Finally, varying the scale of your patterns will add interest and create a pleasing balance. A small, medium and large scale can be used, but no more than one pattern of each scale should be used within any one space. Surprisingly, the variation in patterns keeps spaces from feeling too cluttered. Keep your flooring and other finishes in mind when making your pattern choices. For example, if you plan to use large scale or dominant patterns in flooring, choose smaller scale patterns or solid fabrics for your furniture.

The Maharam fabrics above illustrate examples of different scales of fabric that work well together in terms of color, scale, shape and texture.

Another consideration when it comes to determining fabrics is the style of furniture selected. Ultra-modern patterns tend to look out of place when paired with classic furniture styles or a traditional building interior. Nonetheless, careful consideration and balancing old and new can create a very interesting, updated space. In addition, the activities that occur in a space affect appropriate colors, patterns and material types. Consider the frequency of use for the space and factors such as whether food and drinks are allowed.

Fabric Selections that Last

All fabrics have technical specifications that are good predictors of how they will perform over time. Understand the properties, such as double-rubs and finishes, before falling in love with a particular fabric. Each fabric manufacturer has a website that presents their product offering and provides detailed technical specifications and care instructions for each fabric.

What impacts fabric performance? In the institutional market, one of the most important is double-rubs which is a measure of durability. More specifically, resistance to abrasion which indicates how the fabric will perform when repeatedly rubbed against another fabric. Generally, fabric manufacturers consider fabrics with 30,000 or more double rubs to be appropriate for heavy-duty use. For libraries, schools and other high-use environments fabrics rated for 100,000 double-rubs or more are recommended. Using fabrics with lower durability can be done, but strategically placing those fabrics on areas of the furniture that receive less wear such as chair backs versus seats is the best practice.

The other features that will significantly impact your furniture’s maintenance and wear are coatings and finishes that enhance stain resistance and provide a moisture barrier. For example, Crypton® fabrics feature fibers that resist moisture and stains and also have an integrated moisture barrier. The result is easily cleanable furniture with a surface that repels moisture and stains. Many other finishes, such as Teflon®, Nano-Tex™ and C-1™, enhance the ability to clean fabrics. Note that the finish you may use often depends on the type of fabric it is being applied to.

Spills on Crypton® fabric

3. Consider Furniture Lifecycle Issues

Generally when you are purchasing furniture you get what you pay for and it is important to understand the features that allow furniture to hold up and best support needs over time. The amount of time you expect a piece of furniture to remain in service divided by its overall cost is a measure of lifetime value that should be considered.

Getting the Most Out of Your Investment

Specifying contract grade furniture that is designed and manufactured for commercial use is a best practice because the furniture will withstand the wear and tear of a public environment. The upfront cost may seem high compared to residential products but the value will be demonstrated in the long run. Providing unifying elements and repetition throughout the building adds value by reducing the complexity of maintaining the facility. Consistent materials reduce the variation in cleaning procedures and limiting the variety of fabrics and patterns selected in the furniture makes it easier to replace items when damage occurs. In addition, remember to prioritize high impact public spaces over private or employee spaces when investing in high-performance fabrics and finishes.

Be sure to consider more neutral colors in furniture and architectural elements that are expected to be more permanent or long term features. Furniture that is intended to be replaced more often or has a lower price point is the perfect place to experiment with color.

Materials, Features and Technology

There are several other considerations beyond upholstery in commercial spaces:

  • Avoid veneer on horizontal surfaces, such as tables and the tops of shelving units. Materials such as high-pressure laminate, Marmoleum® and Corian® provide more durable surfaces that are easier to clean.
  • Choose armless chairs or use wood or plastic arm caps — arms are one of the first areas to show wear on lounge chairs.
  • Specify casters on furniture that needs to be moved often. Not only does this add flexibility, but it also maintains the integrity of the furniture and protects the carpet from unnecessary wear.
  • Integrate convenient power access into your furniture and account for technology, including wire management as you plan your space for flexibility in the future.

4. Incorporate Finishing Touches

Small details matter in your space. They add richness and depth and create a welcoming and harmonious environment.

Elements to consider:

  • Artwork and signage adds color and personality. Depending on your budget and type of space, you can utilize commercially available solutions or establish something unique and customized that suits your environment.
  • Plan for lighting beyond the overhead lighting; such as task lights at workstations, pendant lamps over counters and floor lamps near lounge chairs. Lighting adds ambiance and functionality.

Include unexpected features and focal points like a plant wall or a series of hanging mobiles.

Additional Resources

    Awesome interactive color wheel to help create color schemes. You can adjust the saturation and brightness of the color scheme to see the colors in tints, tones and shades for more depth and variety.
    Association for Contract Textiles: ACT is a professional trade association comprised of companies involved in the design, development, production and promotion of textiles for commercial interiors. ACT has developed widely-used voluntary Performance Guidelines to make commercial fabric specification easier.
    Learn more about Crypton fabrics.
    Learn more about Nanotechnology in fabrics.


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.