Everything You Need to Know about Designing Window Treatments

This bedroom designed by Mario Buatta was called "the bedroom that shook the world." Photo: Architectural Digest

I just washed my windows, which means I have a great view of the leaves changing outside. Now that the glass isn’t dusty, I spend a lot more time looking outside and that gets me thinking about window treatments. (Yes, this is what interior designers do when they stare out of windows at lovely landscapes.)

If you’ve got a pretty picture, you need a great frame — yet window treatments are often such an afterthought in the design process. I think it’s because people are afraid to make a statement with windows, and just want them to disappear. Those people are missing a great opportunity.

So before you slap up a pair of curtains just so your neighbors won’t notice your all-night (or all-day) Netflix binges — and yes, I did just watch the entire new season of House of Cards — you first have to consider the placement of the windows and the function of the room. Ask yourself:

  • Do you need a window treatment for privacy, and if so, what times of the day?
  • Do you need it for light control? If not in winter, does the summer sun stream through? How about streetlights and car headlights?
  • Do you need near-complete darkness for watching TV or sleeping in the room?
  • Does the window covering need to be a major design element (or better yet, can it elevate the room’s overall aesthetic) or does it just need to soften the window?
  • Does the covering need to be easily manipulated, as in a bathroom where you want lots of natural light for makeup and dressing, but lots of privacy when you’re showering?


One of my favorite window treatments in my library.

Antique French Brass Drapery Rod Holders. Click to shop.

Easy, right? Well, no. You probably can’t answer those questions off the top of your head. What you’ll need to do is actually sit in the room you’re decorating, and watch how it gets used during the next week. Then ask yourself how it will be used six months from now, or when the grandkids are over, or if you change the table in the breakfast nook or move the sofa. Remind yourself that you’re designing a part of the room, not just covering a window. In short, you need to be aware of how you live in the room.

I’m not going to kid you; windows are hard. They have to be functional and beautiful, and almost every window design requires some kind of custom solution. Still, a good window treatment can be the element that pulls the whole room together — or tears it all apart, if done poorly — and it’s not something can just throw together after you’re done decorating the rest of the room.

Draperies hanging in my living room.

The good news is you have tons of options. There’s drapery, of course — in fabrics of silk, linen, wool, and limitless other options — which may be used in prints, solids, damasks, sheers, and a whole other limitless set of options. They can be styled casually or formally, and trimmed with tassels, flat bands, or simple seams. And then you’ve got hundreds of options of rods, finials, rings, and valances. If curtains aren’t your thing, you’ve got options in fabric shades (balloon or Roman, and other specialized styles), grass shades, wood blinds, and even shutters. And some designs even do a good job of blending several of these elements.  

When in doubt, call in a professional. You won’t be sorry, because you ll have confidence that you’ve explored all the options, and that you’ve avoided an expensive mistake.

The best advice on decorating windows may be “Don’t overdesign.” Remind yourself that the window treatment should tie seamlessly into the décor of the room and enhance the other design elements, not scream “Look at me!”

But if you want to scream “Look at me,” we might suggest some sheer silk curtains for your street-facing bathroom.

What’s your favorite style of window treatment? What’s been your biggest mistake? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Mary Spalding is a Nashville based interior designer with over 30 years of experience. She has overseen countless home revitalizations, renovations, and restorations. She can be reached with your projects and ideas at mary@spaldingway.com.

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