The lamellar/nonlamellar phase preferences of lipid model membranes composed of mixtures of several cationic lipids with various zwitterionic and anionic phospholipids were examined by a combination of differential scanning calorimetry and (31)P NMR spectroscopy. All of the cationic lipids utilized in this study form only lamellar phases in isolation. Mixtures of these cationic lipids with zwitterionic strongly lamellar phase-preferring lipids such as phosphatidylcholine form only the lamellar liquid-crystalline phase even at high temperatures, as expected. Moreover, mixtures of these cationic lipids with strongly nonlamellar phase-preferring zwitterionic lipids such as phosphatidylethanolamine exhibit a markedly reduced propensity to form inverted nonlamellar phases, again as expected. However, when mixed with anionic lipids such as phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylglycerol, cardiolipin, or phosphatidic acid, a marked enhancement of nonlamellar phase-forming propensity occurs, despite the fact both components of the mixture are nominally lamellar phase-preferring. An examination of the lamellar/nonlamellar phase transition temperatures and the nature of the nonlamellar phases formed, as a function of temperature and of the composition of the mixture, indicates that the propensity to form inverted nonlamellar phases is maximal in mixtures where the mean surface charge of the membrane surface approaches neutrality and decreases markedly with increases in the density of positive or negative charge at the membrane surface. Moreover, the onset temperatures of the reversed hexagonal phase rise more steeply than do those of the inverted cubic phase as the ratio of cationic and anionic lipids is varied, suggesting that the formation of inverted hexagonal phases is more sensitive to this surface charge effect. These results indicate that surface charge per se is a significant and effective modulator of the lamellar/nonlamellar phase preferences of membrane lipids and that charged group interactions at membrane surfaces may have a major role in regulating this particular membrane property.