Pillows evoke comfort and graceful living. That’s their entire purpose, making them home decorating allies that speak of a life curated to nurture. But the diversity of pillows means they can also pack a punch in your interiors, adding texture and design-savvy color. It’s no wonder pillows are beloved by home decor enthusiasts and professional decorators everywhere.
If you’re in the middle of redecorating and renovating your home, it might help to know more about pillows, their styles, and their uses. Warm, cushy, appealing decor pillows offer endless decorating possibilities, so read on to find out more about them!
A Capsule History of the Pillow
Humans are comfort seekers and so the human-pillow connection goes way back to the Mesopotamian people in about 7,000 BCE. The first pillows were head cradles made of stone to prevent insect incursion. But it’s the Ancient Egyptians who are best known for the practice of using a headrest to sleep, made of stone or wood. In the case of the Egyptians, the head was elevated not to prevent unwelcome insect visitors but to elevate the spiritual center of the body. Of course, it was also cooler to prop up the head in the hot Egyptian climate.
The Chinese were earlier adopters of the head pillow’s precursor cradle or stand. Employing a range of materials from stone to jade, the Chinese version of the early pillows of Mesopotamia and Egypt was ornate and decorated with filigree carving. Chinese pillow users expressly rejected the soft pillow we know today, believing it made one prey to unsavory spirits. As with the Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians, the pillow was a privilege of the wealthy few in Chinese society.
It was during the Industrial Revolution that the now-standard sleeping pillow was born. And it was during this era that the modern decorative throw cushion came into being. With industrialization came the possibility of manufacturing great quantities of goods, including fabric. As the West became increasingly prosperous, the pillow found its way from the sleeping chamber onto the couch, into the chair, and anywhere else pillow lovers chose to place one. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the popularization of the throw pillow as you know it, I’d lay my money on the 1960s sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, with its wealth of cushy throw pillow comfort, encapsulated in a decorative bottle.
Next, we’ll explore the many faces of the decorative pillow.
Decorative Pillow Styles and Shapes
Today, pillows appear in numerous shapes and styles, appealing to consumers in search of novelty. But there are some enduring classics, so let’s talk about those and how they can be deployed in your space.
The Classic Square
I Dream of Jeannie notwithstanding, the decorative pillow has been a staple of interior design since at least the mid-20th Century. The classic square is one of the most popular shapes, usually fitting inserts of a standard 16” x 16”, 18” x 18”, or 20” x 20”, up to the “Euro”, which is 25” x 25”.
Square cushions can be arranged on a long couch, standing on one tip. This use is especially evocative of mid-century modern decor. This shape of the decorative pillow also looks great standing along one side with the top side chopped into a “v” shape, a favored look in modern coastal and farmhouse decor schemes. Grouped in a chair-and-a-half or snuggled together in a tableau of contrasting fabrics and patterns, the classic square is a time-honored favorite in the world of designer decorative pillows.
The Functionally Versatile Pouf
The pouf holds a place of honor. Tall enough to sit on and yet at the correct height for your feet, the pouf is a multi-purpose pillow shape which is also a functional piece of furniture. Poufs may even serve the function of lounge area tables or communal footrests and seating.
More than a footstool, the pouf is a clever design moment in your decor scheme. It serves function while speaking of comfort and design integrity. Choose a pouf in a bold pattern or color that complements your decor. A round shape is often favored but the square pouf is just as beautiful and practical. Choose a pouf tufted at the center with a single button, or extravagantly tufted in leather for a luxe effect. Large or small, the pouf is an elegant addition to any room.
The round pillow brings design interest to your interiors, breaking straight lines with an organic shape that appeals to the senses. Round pillows are increasingly popular, with a variety of shapes and sizes appearing on the market to satisfy consumer demand.
A round pillow placed among square or oblong companions becomes a unitive focal point, pulling the whole together. Arrange a tableau, with your found pillow at the front and to one side, compelling the eye to take in the variety of textures, shapes, colors, and patterns. Or feature the round shape with large round pillows dominating the couch. A single round pillow in a bold, contrasting color placed on an elegant chaise creates an air of careless luxury.
The Visual Surprise of a Bolster
Conceived as a supportive cushion for the lower back (and known as a “Dutch wife” in some quarters), the bolster has evolved to become a feature in the modern home. Frequently placed on well-dressed beds, the bolster is shaped like a long tube with ends that are either gathered, then tufted with a single button, gathered without a button tuft, or plain.
The shape of the bolster attracts the eye making it (like the round shape) a wonderful visual counterpoint to both other cushions and other decor elements in the room. Use the bolster to pull the whole together or to throw a punctuation mark at the end of your statement. Bold animal prints, a large tassel at either end, satin cord accents, velvet, and rich, jewel tones make the most of the pleasantly surprising bolster.
Let’s move on to pillow styles next, and the way these can influence your decor, adding an easily achieved touch of style, comfort, and design interest.
A flanged pillow features a wide strip of fabric around the edges which is superfluous to covering the insert. Entirely decorative, the flanged pillow may feature a self-flange (all of the same fabric) or a contrasting color forming the flange.
Flanging on pillows is an opportunity to create design harmony with color. A flange referencing a wall paint color or a contrasting hue in your furnishings, or even other pillows in the room, pulls everything together with ease. With just one flanged pillow in the right color palette, you create a cohesive designer look.
Like the flanged pillow, the mixed fabric pillow creates opportunities for interior designers and DIY design enthusiasts. Two or more fabrics are used to create a pillow that features contrasting or complementary textures. Two fabrics of the same weight create interesting juxtapositions that demand to be looked at.
When you use the same fabric in different colors, again you’re appealing to the whole in any given room. A neutral with a jewel tone, two neutrals, or two jewel tones send distinct messages when embodied in a single throw pillow. Even patterned fabric united with plain adds interest, with the potential to bring enhanced harmony and design integrity.
2023 is the year of heart-shaped everything, including throw pillows. While this graphic style of pillow may not be everyone’s “thing,” there’s no doubt that some interiors were made for it. Cheeky sayings, Andy Warhol silkscreens, or just the word “Pow!” are all examples of graphic/pop art decorative pillows.
This style of pillow finds a home in a games room, a teen’s bedroom, or even an ultra post-modern living room or home office. Imagine a black, sequin pillow featuring the number 8 on a couch next to the billiards table. Or try a Warhol-print Marilyn Monroe throw pillow perched on a modern interpretation of a classic wingback. When that wingback is next to your Chihuly glass sculpture, you can imagine the impact! For the right room, graphic/pop art pillows signal a healthy sense of humor and an awareness of the arts.
Floor Pillows as Casual Seating
The classic floor pillow was gifted to Western culture by the hippies of the 1960s but the art of the floor pillow as casual seating belongs to the East. In Muslim cultures, seating in the home is traditionally on the floor, satisfying “Sunnah” (a practice of the Prophet, Muhammed).
The floor pillow speaks of casual living with a Bohemian edge. Informal but reminiscent of the Orientalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, the floor pillow signals intimacy, stories shared over a quiet glass of wine, and the easy elegance of a well-loved home. Choose pillows covered in sturdy fabrics, like corduroy or reclaimed upholstery for durable casual seating. Deep jewel tones and large patterns are ideal for floor cushions. Tie them into your decor with select colors and textures.
A Design Powerhouse
Never underestimate the design potential of decorative throw pillows. Bringing pops of color, counterpoints to existing colors and patterns, and boosting the comfort factor exponentially, the throw pillow is a design powerhouse. The small but mighty decorative pillow updates your interiors with minimal effort or expense, adding the sparkle of detailed, intentional design.