You’d be surprised by how long it takes to create *the perfect* pillow set. However, once you understand the formula and create your first one, you’ll be a pillow-set-making ninja. You’ll bust out combinations left and right – some shibori here, a little metallic there. On this 26th day of April, I am sharing my super secret formula, decoding the magic of some of my Platonic pillow sets, and I’ll even share some of my favorite sources.
Before we discuss pattern and color, let’s make sure your pillows are not too big for your sofa. Some vendors (ahem Pottery Barn) make HUGE pillows. Like two feet by two feet. This is half a foot bigger than your standard pillow, so unless you have a big sectional or a super deep low-back sofa, I would skip these babies. I know they are pretty, but they will overtake your apartment-sized sofa.
Examples of acceptable sofas for enormous pillows:
Now I will reveal my bias: I am more of a pillow minimalist. I love them for texture and pattern, but I don’t like when people have so many pillows that most of them have to get tossed on the floor to make room for the actual purpose of a sofa: to sit on it.
Before I even get into researching pillows, I come up with a size formula. If you have a regular sofa (let’s say 84″ W x 36″ D x 34″ H), the biggest pillow I would get for it is a 20″. Size constraints will also narrow your options and make the pillow searching process easier.
For a typical set of 4 pillows, here are four size formulas:
- Two 20″, two 18″
- Two 18″, two 16″
- Two 20″, one 18″, one lumbar (rectangular pillow, usually around 14″ x 20″)
- Two 18″, one 16″, one lumbar
If you are one of those lucky (probably non-NYC) people who can fit a sectional in their apartment, then here are four size formulas:
- Two 24″, two 20″, two 18″ for the ends; one 20″ and one 18″ for the corner
- Two 24″, two 20″ for the ends; one 24″, one 20″, one lumbar for the corner
- Two 20″, two 18″ for the ends; one 20″, one 18″, one lumbar for the corner
- For the minimalist: One 24″ for the ends; one 24″, one lumbar for the corner
These are just general guidelines. Basically you layer the smaller pillow over the larger pillows, and keep the sizing similar on each side so the sofa looks balanced.
Now that sizing is out of the way, we can get into the meat of making pillow sets. Patterns! It really isn’t too hard to make a set once you designate a “category” for each pillow. Here are the different categories I’ve identified:
These can be watercolor-y shibori or hand-painted/printed pillows. The effect we’re going for here is irregular and often soft.
This category is bold with large scale shapes or linework. I’d include mudcloths, XL geometric prints, and text.
Small regular pattern
These could be polka dots, small geometric prints, and thin stripes.
Big regular pattern
This is the category I’m most picky about. I have seen way too many trellis/chevron prints in my life, so I don’t source any for my clients’ apartments. They are neither special nor unique. Big regular patterns can be bold and overshadow the abstract and graphic pillows, so they are harder to balance. Here are some big regular patterns I approve of:
These include linens, knits, sheepskins, velvets, etc. You can use a variety of solids/textures to tone down a crazy abstract or graphic pillow.
Putting it all together
Now you are an expert at sizing and patterns, but how do we combine them to create the perfect pillow set?
It’s all about balance. The easiest way to achieve balance is to select a focal point pillow and let the other pillows play supporting characters.
I tend to prioritize the abstract or graphic pillow since it’s irregular.
This doesn’t mean the other pillows have to be boring, but they do need to fade into the background a bit. Each side (and corner if it’s a sectional) should have equal “visual weight.” This means having well-dispersed pattern and color. Don’t put two solids on one side and two patterns on another. The pattern side will grab your attention and you won’t bother to look at the solid side.
The other part of the formula is sizing.
Balance each side (and corner for a sectional) of the sofa with at least one pillow that is the same size.
I prefer the look of the larger pillows being the same size. For example, if you have a sofa with four pillows, make sure there are two 20″ pillows on each side. Then you can throw in an 18″ and a lumbar to layer over the two larger pillows.
I’m a visual learner, so here are some sets I’ve made for clients along with the formulas and why they work.
Two solids, one small regular, & one graphic
The showpiece here is the embroidered bull (sadly no longer available). To make sure it stands out, I paired it with a small regular leaf print in navy, a solid indigo raw silk for more navy action, and a solid fuzzy sweet pink sheepskin to pump some more warmth back into the set. I prefer pillow sets to look more collected than planned all at once, so I like to throw something unexpected into the mix.
Important size note: try not to make your focal point pillow the biggest if it will be layered with a smaller pillow. The bull is 18″ and is layered over the 20″ solid indigo pillow.
Two abstracts, one graphic, & one solid
This set has two abstracts in the same style (shibori) but in different colors. The mudcloth is graphic and is more bold than the soft shiboris because of its linework. I threw in a sheepskin to add texture and to enhance the organic nature of this pillow set.
Three abstracts, two big regular, & three solids
This was for a client with a big sectional. The top and bottom rows were the pillows on the ends (24″, 20″, 18″), and the middle row was for the corner (18″, 16″). This client preferred neutrals and has a carpet with a very bold, large regular pattern, but she was hesitant to accept a completely solid pillow. I gave her some faded ivory velvet scrolls from West Elm that almost look solid but are subtle big regular patterns, a solid natural linen pillow with fringe, and two solid crackled gold patina metallic pillows to add texture without a ton of pattern. I’d categorize the shibori pillows and metallic moonphase pillow as abstract.
One solid, two graphics, & one medium-size regular
This is one of the most recent sets I’ve made and I’m totally in love with it. I saved it for last because it’s a little more complicated than the rest. The medium-size regular pattern ruby twinkle is the focal point since it’s the busiest. To balance its eye-catching pattern, I paired it with two graphic pillows and then a solid mongolian lamb fur for texture. The metallic circle is a large graphic, but it’s more quiet than the ira zig zag pillow cover. The layering here is important too. To balance the visual weights, I layered the metallic circle over the ruby twinkle, and the mongolian lamb fur over the zig zag.
I really like sheepskins because they’re an easy way to add texture and they’re super soft. However, many of my clients are vegetarians, so I substitute another type of solid textural pillow (like raw silk, velvet, or a chunky knit) in its place.
Favorite pillow sources
Ready to put together some of your own sets? Here’s a roundup of my favorite sources: