The Greeks discovered something
about the difference between a ho-hum room and
a beautiful one that isn't immediately noticeable
until you have the secret.They called it "The
Golden Mean"....and it is like a small recipe.
It says that you should think in percentages for
color, mass, and even texture. You should have
about 70% of any one thing; 25% of a related thing,
and just 5% of a contrasting thing. So, if we
take color or pattern as an example: If you paper
the walls of a room (large percentage), then you
can put a related stripe on a bedspread (the 25%
item) and then, throw a contrasting color onto
a pillow or two (the 5% thing).
It works also with texture: if
you have decided to put wood grain on the walls
and the floor (75% or more of a texture that's
a very strong and dominant one) then put about
20% into a similarly strong texture (oriental
rug, rag rug) and then stop with the dominant,
strong-speaking textures. Put the upholstery fabrics
into smooth. This principle is why English libraries
look so grand; they put a lot of chintz with all
that wood. By the way, if you have bookcases,
the books add immense amounts of texture and line
into a room. So, you need to consider calming
down on adding more texture to avoid that busy,
This same principle goes for
color, for amounts of furniture of the same bulk..
you get the picture.
You'll also be able to trust your own instincts
if you now look at pictures in House Beautiful
versus any other house magazine; they have this
principle down; they create brilliant rooms!
Principle #2: Color.
Color is and should be fun, but
it has a lot of unexplained rules about how to
use it that if not articulated, are hard to capture
intuitively. It overlaps with the Golden Mean
principle; you need to
think about it in percentages. A lot of one color,
some of a second, related color and a bit, a splash
of a contrasting color for interest. So, for instance,
if you are doing a room in which you want to use
green, let's say, use 70% green (dark for this
example), 24% lighter green from the same color
way as the dark green, and then, perhaps a blue,
cream, or even raspberry for contrast. This color-thinking
applies to every place in the room you plan to
use color; walls, floors, furniture. So, you could
have dark green on the floor (rugs, tiles, painted
floor as they do in the Caribbean), on the walls,
and then use lighter green for the upholstering
or cushions, and then toss your contrasting color
on a few sofa cushions, or in a lampshade, or
in the pictures on the walls. The curtains could
be the lighter green too.
Now, you could also use color
as follows: The walls painted cream so that the
shell of the room is used as museums do, to show
off everything else. Museums tend to use neutrals
to allow the paintings to pop off the walls at
you. Grey's, mushrooms, creams, beige's, camels...those
kinds of colors. If you do this, you don't count
the walls as part of the color selections. Then
you can put a lot of your chosen main color on
curtains, floors, fabrics, counters; wherever
your room wants color.
Color and Wall Paper
Thanks for the specific question
about the wallpaper; that was going to be my next
idea for a 'tip' anyway! Wallpaper is fun and
yet very limiting. It is best to use the wallpaper
as the central item from which all other decisions
for the room's colors and patterns is derived.
I have a fabulous English handpainted paper in
my bedroom now and it influences every other choice
I make. If it weren't so gorgeous and beautifully
made, I would change back to neutral walls, just
to get back the variety of choice I used to have!
Any way, look at the paper you
have in mind. Notice the percentages of colors
in it; which color is the most predominant? If
it's flowers, it usually is the greens used in
the stems and leaves. If it's another 'colorway',
then maybe the stems and leaves are mostly blues.
Then, step back from the paper and which color
springs out at you the most? That's the color
to use elsewhere in the room
for accents at least. Now, the background color
in a wallpaper is your 70% color, and is usually
the best color to repeat in the trims, the baseboards
and anything that directly touches on it. It also
is a place to break that rule a bit too, if you
want; for instance, if the pop-out color is cranberry
let's say, you could do all the trim in that color.
Then, you have to stop using the dramatic color
anywhere else, because you have come to the edge
of what will look dramatic and very tasteful,
and when it will begin to look like a kindergarten
room. The rest of the the color in our 'cranberry'
room needs to calm down to neutrals that also
come from the paper.
Breaking the Rules: White on
Just couldn't resist responding
to your idea about a white-on-white room! You
have picked one of the loveliest looks; a breaking-the-rule
look! You'll be considering almost 100% one color,
for one thing; wouldn't the Greeks, with their
Golden Mean, be freaking!
You really don't have to worry
about getting the wrong shades of whites, creams,
beige's, and so forth. If you just keep all of
them closer to the white, light look, it won't
look messy or cluttered. Use the whitest ones
you pick as the comparison standard; then you
can reject any others you might try by putting
them next to the white one....based on whether
or not being next to the whitest
makes the others look dirty or tired. See, many
fabrics and colors look marvelous on their own,
but when put in close proximity to others don't
really work. This is particularly true of whites
You'll be able to use the Golden
Mean principle here by changing it to textures,
since you aren't using that principle in the area
of color. I mean, you can go wild with textures
in the whites without creating a too-busy look.
Laces, Battenberg, Swiss polka-dot white on whites,
white on white stripes; you can have a ball without
putting a single foot wrong. It will be spectacular.
The drama created by knowing where to break a
rule is always refreshing!
The textures also are demonstrated
in the draping of everything; if everything is
smoothed down, you lose some of the interest.
If you recall those pictures you mentioned, there
is an immense amount of fabric used in order to
create dimension through draping. Lots of folds,
lots of hanging ripples from layering; lots of
pillows with rich and diverse fabrics and trims
to create more dimension....that'll do it.
You might want to consider putting
whites almost everywhere; floor coverings, paint
or fabric-covered walls, as well as the curtains,
bedcoverings, canopies if any; pillows, upholstery.....and
then, throw one surprise in a pillow, or a drapery
ribbon trim; cherry red, pale lavender....any
introduction of an unexpected color in a tiny
proportion just caps off the delight.
The Eye and Architectural Features
In studies of how the eye works
in aesthetics, it helps explain why some rooms
work and satisfy the eye and others are exhausting
to the eye, and feel too cluttered.
It turns out, our eyes like two
things; to roam and flit from thing to thing,
and they also like to come to a rest before moving
on. So, that explains why the best rooms have
one prominent architectural feature. Examples;
fireplaces, large, sculptured fancy-trim windows,
an important painting, rafters, or in furniture;
an armoire, ...you get the idea. That's where
the eye rests. If a room has too many of those
stand-out architectural features, the eye can't
rest; it is pulled repeatedly from feature to
feature to feature; flitting, flitting and thus,
the room is experienced as cluttered.
The Victorian period broke this
rule all the time; filling rooms with hundreds
of eye-catching features; millions of drapings
on the windows; lamps with beads and curlicues,
fireplaces, fireplace screens, Orientals upon
Orientals on the floors, heavily carved and massive
furniture and hundreds of gew-gaws on every layered
surface. Now, they went 70% or more in the other
direction toward movement and and dimension and
texture and pattern. The best ones looked great,
but made everyone itchy to try and live in.....because
of the eye's need to rest.
Take a look at the Thorne rooms;
a lot of why they work, is she knew when to stop.
She left a lot of space between beautiful objects
so that the eye could roam with room to digest
each part before another hove into view.
So, if you look at a room you
are working on, start with the architectural feature
and build from there. For instance, if you have
a fireplace, you don't need also to have lots
of trim; chair rail, superimposed framing, cupboards,
bookcases, heavily framed windows with mullions,
chandeliers with medallions....stop, already!
A good guiding principle, particularly
the scale we're working in, is Less Is More. It
kills me to have to stop putting beautiful stuff
in anything I'm working on; I assume you are like
me; I have to tie myself down to keep from creating
This eye thing applies to numbers
of patterns in one room; amount of furniture in
one room....allow your eye to tell you what feels
right. It will tell you and so will looking at
pictures in the great design magazines; House
Beautiful, Art and Architecture. And, as you get
better at trusting yourself, you will be able
to pick up other magazines, as you wait in line
at the grocery store; Woman's Day, House and Garden,
you know the kind of thing, and you will start
to see why many of their rooms don't work!
Mass and Space
Mass and space, mass and space.
One of the best ways to have a marvelous room,
is to step back and look at the overall effect
and correct the ratio between amounts of mass
and amounts of space if needed. What on earth
does she mean, you are saying........??
Mass refers to how much bulk
or how little, you have put into your room. Space,
of course, is the unused areas in between the
3-D masses (furniture, draperies). If you have
a lot a large-mass pieces in one room, you can
overwhelm any effect you are after, and you end
up looking like a rather crowded furniture store.
My real estate agent retaught this to me, when
I was considering selling my house (I get these
restless periods after all the moving I've done
over the years; 43 moves since I was 15!) and
she told me to store over half of my pieces of
furniture in the living room alone. I had forgotten
that rule; that space makes rooms look larger
and more gracious. When she 'cleansed my aesthetic
eye', I could see, that while my room had a ton
of beautiful things in it, it also had achieved
that furniture-store look. So, in a mini-house
or roombox, it is too easy to get that cluttered
look, because the smaller the scale, the faster
the overloaded look will occur. You have to be
ruthless with yourself, or you have to cheat a
little with the scale to get the right effect
with mass. Ways to do this?
1. Use less furniture than you
wish. A living room? One couch, two chairs, two
tables, two lamps. Not a rule, of course, just
an example to give you the idea. You are trying
to create at least as much space between clumps
of furniture as there is furniture-mass. The best
rooms in miniature, have much more space to look
at than they have objects. The Thorne Rooms again,
are the best common example I can think of. She
cheated with scale all the time to showcase her
beautiful things. The rooms were larger in order
for the furniture not to overwhelm the eye.
2. Use less pattern. If you have
wallpaper with a strong pattern, it acts almost
like mass; it has a slight three-dimensional look,
and so it falls into the 'mass' percentages. So,
use it only on one or a few walls (it then can
be used as a focal point, like a fireplace), or
only down to a chair rail, to lower the amount
that your eye has to deal with.
3. Leave space between a sofa
and the wall. Furniture that is positioned so
that it appears to float, makes the space look
larger on the whole, even though you have less
space in the middle of the room. Try it out; see
what you think. When all the furniture is jammed
up against the walls the way we all instinctively
do at first, your room becomes heavy and unmoving.
You see, the walls are also an influence on the
final effect. If you have put the heaviest pieces
all on the walls, your room becomes smaller, rather
than larger the way we hope it to look. So, put
an armoire against the wall, obviously (it too,
becomes a major focal point, so if you have a
fireplace and an armoire, you are already starting
to go over the top as far as amounts of prominent
mass is concerned)..... but put the sofa angled
away from a wall, or with its back to the armoire.
Play around with floating furniture this way,
until you get a spacious effect; with space flowing
around most pieces. Then, your smaller pieces
can be put in, placing them in proximity to the
larger ones you've already placed. Two wonderful
chairs on either side of the armoire; a chair,
side table and lamp catty-corner to the sofa.
The Oriental partly under the sofa and chair....so
that you have created two large-mass clumps, instead
of trying to fill every wall and every corner.
Just know that everything you
put in has a visual impact, and you are asking
the eye to absorb each and every one of your items.
I mean, you have already put in so much work on
each, most of us are trying to showcase each precious
Make your room larger than you
would; cheating with the scale, is the ticket
here......usually, the best way to get more of
a sense of well-used space, is to raise the ceilings.
Then, for some reason, the items on the floors
don't look so bulky anymore.
Remember, as much as I hate this
rule, it is true for the finest finished looks;
Less Is More.I break it all the time, cuz I do
love the gorgeous things that we humans have created,
and I am always sorry!
Kitchens, Breaking the Rules
One of the true exceptions to
the rule; mini-kitchens. Kitchens, where a lot
of work goes on; stores, where lots of imagined
traffic occurs and things are bought, are two
of the places where the 'clutter' I talked about
so cavalierly, is not only acceptable, but preferable,
to show us, the observers, that life is going
on. With minis, the observer is supposed to be
drawn in to something that feels like a tiny life
really lives there and does things!
Kitchens are usually active,
and if they are too neat, it is only for a picture
in a magazine, right? I mean, my kitchen looks
good if there are only 100 things out on the counters!
If the kitchen police were to enter my house on
a usual day and take one look at my trashed-out
kitchen full of the stuff that people have to
use, they would usually take me away! Kitchens
are meant to feel lively and used, so the look
will always be a bit more filled with wonderful
things to look at!
If the goodies of a kitchen that
you want to show, could be artfully arranged on
a center worktable and a few of the counters with
a bit of clean space, you are fine and dandy.
See, in a kitchen, you can go the exact opposite
direction from lots of empty space and few items,
and not be creating an uncomfortable site. As
you said, your eye is telling you that it's pleasing;
go with your instincts.
I would even leave cupboard doors
open to show cool items inside the cupboard. Knowing
me, I would probably even have some dishes still
in the sink! The ones that take the lively, active
look too far, also have too much for the eye to
have to deal with besides cool items like food,
dishes, dishrags, pots and pans.....if there are
also, curtains with many folds and patterns, wallpaper
of a strong pattern, cupboards with trim, strong
paint colors, rugs, cushions for the chairs.....then
you may want to consider how little rest-space
for the old eyes you need to clear.
Thanks for pointing out an exception
to the rule; that's the fun part; how do you learn
when to break the rules and get away with a great
and original look?
Line is another of the great
illusion-creators. The use of line is well-known
in clothes; fat people in horizontal lines look
much worse. So, in a room, you decide what final
look you want. If you want a room to look grand,
use lots of parallel lines that are vertical.
We have always equated
grandness with a sort of soaring, lifting feeling,which
strong vertical lines produces. That was the purpose
of the tremendous ceiling heights and all the
verticals of the columns leading your eye upwards
in the ancient European churches. Again, the Thorne
Rooms come to mind as a great teaching example
for this principle; look how often those copies
of European aristocracy rooms had verticals; the
plaster work on the walls, making frames with
very long vertical sides; the drapery lines from
floor to ceiling.
An example I learned from my
genius mother; she always hung draperies from
floor to ceiling whether the windows were that
high or not. She was right; the effect was of
higher more grand ceilings. In mini-rooms, anything
you can do to make the room seem larger is a good
thing to know. I agree with the guy who was describing
how kits are cut; that the rooms are often not
to scale so that the manufacturer can get more
out of their boards. So, then we need to have
every secret trick at our disposal, to get more
visual space from our efforts, cuz even the rooms
themselves might be too cramped due to this money-saving
on the part of the manufacturers.
Since you are trying to create
not just a museum room, but a room with life in
it, you need to use every illusion of space you
can, so that you can display all the artifacts
of that life to their best advantage. Vertical
lines is one great way to do that. The strong
verticals are usually created by doors, long windows
and curtains or draperies. You can add to that
emphasis with wallpapers that feature strong verticals
(even many of the patterned papers are based on
a vertical thrust).
Don't interrupt those verticals
with horizontals, unless you don't care about
creating the illusion of space and higher ceilings.
Chair rails are usually the primary way that people
interrupt the eye going up and up. Café
curtains are another interrupter.
If you want to create the impression
of movement around the room, rather than upwards,
use horizontals, like chair rails, café
curtains, a grouping of pictures all the same
size and framing, marching in a horizontal row.
If you already have very strong
lines, like a fireplace or a door, that sets the
tone for what you can do. If the fireplace has
strong horizontals to your eye (prominent mantel,
for instance) then you can repeat those horizontals,
and your room will appear to be larger. It is
always smartest to go with the strongest lines
already in the room. (The architectural features
principle) Otherwise, you can end up with a jumbled
look, as the various elements are competing with
each other for dominance.
You can see the same influence
of horizontals and verticals in furniture. Think
of what your eye sees when you think of an armoire.
It takes your eye mostly upwards, with its strong
verticals in the sides of it. Or in reverse, a
couch.That takes your eye horizontally from end
to end. So these stronger shapes can be the place
you start building from; basing much of what you
select upon those first, strongest shapes.
Patterns & Mixing Them
Anyway, I thought of some stuff
on patterns and mixing them, that might be useful...I
know you will know this as you read; so, consider
it just a confirmation of what your own 'eye'
and instincts tell you.
Have you seen any ads for Laura
Ashley's patterned wallpapers and fabrics? The
ones where she loads the room (usually bedrooms)
with all manner of patterns? For how many of you,
is it "too much?" Well, if so, that's
your eye reacting to the absence of relief from
the movement that is produced by pattern. But,
because she follows the other rules of scale and
mass really well, she almost gets away with breaking
the Golden Mean rule of 70% or so of one thing(color,
pattern, texture, line); 20% or so of a related
thing, (again, color, pattern, texture or line)
and 5-10% of a contrasting thing. (Tip #1, I think,
covered the Golden Mean principle).
Scale: So, using the Laura Ashley
example, let's figure out how she got away with
so much of one thing; pattern. All the patterns
used are of the same scale, for instance. They
are all relatively delicate; no heavy damasks,
no thick stripes. So, scale with patterns simply
means, do you get the feeling that they came from
the same family...the same batch? That is, are
they all sort of the same visual weight to your
eye? Let's reverse the example for illustration...let's
say you're doing a Victorian library, and all
your research shows you that strong, thick textures
are used (velvets, frises, horsehair,) dark colors,
and massive furniture. So, the delicate tracery
effects of certain patterns and papers would be
a waste. They get lost when dominated by stronger
stuff. But, to mix strong patterns? Great look!
Ok, so that's a bit about repeating
the same scale or dimensionality or 'weight' of
patterns when mixing. Delicate and light-feeling;
stay with it, or strong, heavy, dramatic, stay
with that.When you mix scale, it ends up looking
confused. Scale is a huge secret influence on
the pulled-together look. One last example of
that; you can see what effect you'd get if you
use a heavy, dark-colored, dramatic wallpaper
with strong stripes and then put a light-colored,
delicate, flowered chintz on the furniture...the
wallpaper wins and the chintz ends up looking
too frail and washed out.
Color: So, when mixing, do this:
pick patterns that repeat the same two or three
main colors. Start with the strongest of the patterns
you want and make every next choice relate well
to that main one. If that main one has as its
main colors, blue, green and cream, then your
subsequent choices have to have those colors IN
THE SAME TONES. In the Laura Ashley example, her
colors are exactly the same in tone (same exact
greens, blues, etc) and in the colors themselves.
That's important, so that the fact that the patterns
differ is overcome by the strong relationship
in terms of colors. So, I will start with the
strongest pattern, such as a strong floral, and
then experiment with stripes, plaids and dots
on related fabrics until the weight of the supporting
patterns can stand up to the strength of the main
one. That's where your eye will tell you. A stripe
that is full of slender, narrow stripes cannot
stand with a strong floral that's got big flowers,
big leaves and a strong pattern. Right? Right!
Also, for a little training of
your aesthetic 'eye', go to any fabric store or
drapery and upholstery place and look for a long
time at the books that clump fabrics together
that they deem to be related patterns, scale and
color. They do a great job and you can learn to
see what I'm struggling to convey, in the flesh,
so to speak.
So, plaids and stripes and more
random patterns, such as florals, can go with
each other if you ensure that the scale and the
colors are matched. Jeez, upon review, I could've
said all the above in the one last sentence. Oh
dear, chatting on again.