Cottage style is casual, comfortable and fun

Cottage style is hot these days, and not just because it's summer and everyone's wishing they had a cottage by the lake. Witness the success of Time-Warner's Cottage Living magazine, the acres of casual furnishings available at furniture stores, and the swell of interest in relaxed, comfortable looks and outdoor living on screened porches. Cottage style isn't about cutesy country decor. In fact, some of the best renditions are quite refined. Influences aren't necessarily American, either. A seaside, windswept cottage look in Maine (think rag rugs, painted furniture and wicker) is quite different from a Swedish country cottage, which might be filled with pale furnishings and fresh, checked fabrics.

Here are some tips on creating your own version of cottage style: Think color. Cottage style is casual, comfortable and fun. Don't be afraid to use color, whether it's for the fabrics and accessories only or for the backdrop. A mustard-yellow wall, for instance, would look great with a blue-and-white scheme. Mix patterns, but keep in mind that if you keep a room in the same color family, chances are the patterns will work and the result will be a relaxed, friendly look.

Use plates on the wall. This is a favorite of those seeking an English country cottage look, but it's also a simple way to get color, pattern and interest without springing for wallpaper or more expensive art. And plates don't have to be limited to the kitchen or dining room, either. Use the same color family (such as all blue-and-white or all red-and-white) for unity, and mix different sizes and shapes (platters in with plates and saucers). Find sturdy hangers at hardware stores and old plates at flea markets or yard sales. New plates are widely available at department and discount stores and provide a fresh look. Don't use antiques or heirloom plates, as they may get broken or chipped.

Use collections. "I think a big part of cottage style is collections," suggests Linda Moore, whose family is developing guest cottages with designer Cathy Whitlock of Gallatin, Tenn. If your guest room has a mantel, use it as a display shelf, or create a tabletop display if you have a large number of small items. Don't be afraid of black. So often, we think of cottage style as being about white-painted furniture and bleached woods. Choose soft black finishes or distressed surfaces to keep everything casual, rather than choosing high-gloss black lacquered looks.

Choose imperfection. "Being a little off makes it cottage," Moore says about the mix of reds -- different yet complementary shades on a sofa, a printed lampshade, a French plate and a needlepoint pillow -- in one of the cottages. "I like little quirks. I think it gives it character."

Choose cottage-style materials. Try planked doors -- doors that look like individual, vertical planks of dark wood connected together. Echo the style in the tops of side tables and cocktail tables. This type of small detail, plus the use of dark-finished hardware (look for terms such as oil-rubbed bronze if you're buying faucets and doorknobs), helps bring a casual, cottage feel to a room.

Beaded board is another favorite material when it comes to cottages. Use it either stained dark or painted as a backsplash in a kitchen, a wainscot in a bathroom or on a ceiling.