by Shirley D. Horowitz, ASID, NICDQ
Interior Design since 1985
Interior Design since 1985
We've all seen them. The rooms that look as if the furniture has just been delivered, but never quite found its place. When I see a setting like this, as a designer, I want to give the client the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the kids arranged the room. Maybe the housekeeper is an independent sort and rearranged the furniture to make cleaning easier. Or maybe the furniture moved itself when nobody was looking. Just as uninviting as the room with a bizarre arrangement, is the room that looks like the furniture is in a police lineup, being forced to stand around the walls. In either case, you know it when you see it: the poor deranged room.
As with all interior design SNAFU's, this problem began with a series of 'unbreakable rules', and if you've read my previous post, you know what I think about 'rules'!
'Rule' 1: arrange furniture at right angles, never on 45-degree angles, and place the furniture round the perimeter to make the room appear larger.
OH MY, MY. As if the decorating police didn't already have their hand full. Now, they find it necessary to tell us not to waste corners. Whew! Excuse me! I'd be in for life if I was sentenced for each and every time I've bashed this rule to bits, much to my clients' delight. However, rule keepers everywhere have adhered to this one religiously. That's why most rooms have furniture smacked against the walls.
Now, just in case this rule is tough for you to break, consider how furniture feels in a lineup. That's right. Just think how uncomplimentary it is to see people with their backs to the wall in a police lineup. Well, furniture with its back to the wall stares straight ahead, glumly hoping not to be identified. But, break the rules and put a sofa on an angle! Voila! It becomes an instantly interesting hit with personality bubbling!
So, how do we take a sofa from looking guilty to absolutely giddy? First of all, once it's happily on an angle, we don't pronounce the triangular space behind it 'dead'. Instead, we look at all the possibilities this newly-found area provides. Got a tall plant? It's a perfect backdrop. How about a torchiere? Or a sofa table with lamp and accessories? Maybe a tall easel with a piece of artwork? And now, since you're a risk taker, and your creative juices are no longer suppressed, you may very well come up with other fabulous ideas. The main thing to remember is: furniture in a lineup is much less exciting than furniture turned loose to make a room zing!
I often go into large rooms and see a sofa with its back to the wall as if a mouse had just run across the floor and literally scared it to the point of terror. And usually in the center of such a big room! So what do we do? I suggest we 'float' that sofa. Now, before you start asking about flood insurance, let me assure you that there will be no water involved. Heavens! My dining room ceiling fell with rains after the city had 'bombed' our street to install sewer lines. My master bedroom ceiling fell when a tornado came through accompanied by more than 10 inches of rain. So, I have no desire to purposely 'float' anything that's meant for dry ground.
To 'float' a sofa simply means getting the poor thing off the wall, and out into the center of things. If you've ever been to a 7th grade cotillion dance, you know that no sofa in her right mind would want to be a wallflower. So, we move her out and give her a prominent place, perhaps grouped with chairs in a conversation near a fireplace. And, we surround her with her favorite tables, lamps, accessories, and flatter her with decorative pillows, and Voila! She's the center of attention!
Rule 2: always make sure your furniture fits the room.
This one had to come from the cave woman! Obviously, you're not going to get a ten-foot tall armoire into a room with eight-foot ceilings. I doubt that you've mastered a way to put a nine-foot long bookcase unit on an eight-foot wall. No matter how much you love Grandma's baby grand, if it won't go into the room, it just won't go. So, unless you want to look like Cinderella's mean stepsisters trying to fit their feet into their glass slippers, you'll choose furniture that fits.
Well, what do we do to break this rule? We just break it. For instance, we intentionally place a chest that fits on a wall, but looks too large for the space. Or, we use a table that's three or four inches taller than the arms of the sofa or chair right next to them. Or, we put an antique hall tree in the mudroom, which consumes it. Why? So that everything is not 'decoratively' perfect, and to make it look like some pieces have been passed down from previous generations. Now, bear in mind, you can only do this a few times within any single interior. Otherwise, the balance and proportion police may arrest you.
Rule 3: use large pieces of furniture on large walls and small pieces on small walls.
This rule, believe it or not, is one that generally applies. However, remember balance and scale? What happens when all the large pieces are placed on those big inside walls? What happens to the outside walls? Hopefully, large windows or fireplaces, or some other architectural feature will balance that breakfront, or what have you.
Since I know how prevalent this problem has been throughout history, I have my own theory about what probably sank the Titanic. Yes, she hit an iceberg. However, there may have been so many large, oversized pieces of furniture in first class, that that's what most likely sank her. Think of it! The crew might have saved lives and changed history by simply rearranging the furniture!
Maybe you don't really buy this Titanic theory. However, too many large pieces of furniture can visually sink a room. When I enter a bedroom with an armoire, large chest, and bookcases in the same area, I go for the lifeboats. Oh, I know it's a visual thing, but I still feel myself hanging onto a door-facing newel post, or something that I know is anchored. A room with floral draperies, a flowered sofa or coverlet on the same wall will have the same visual effect.
Here's what we can do to keep our rooms from appearing to be on the verge of taking a plunge. Large pieces need to be placed at various points and in opposite areas. The same would be true of tall and heavy pieces. When they're balanced in proportionate areas of the room, they all show up better, and the room doesn't appear to be ready to take a nosedive to one end or the other. Groupings can also be arranged in settings opposite to larger pieces, making rooms functional as well as balanced.
Now as to scale: do you remember the old photos of big ol' six-foot 'Cousin Joe', standing next to itty bitty three-year-old 'Annie Jane' at the family picnic in '45? Annie would have photographed much cuter licking the ice cream freezer paddles than being dwarfed by Cousin Joe.
As uncomplimentary as this picture is to Annie, we often make the same mistake in a room. For example, why would anybody take a beautiful little imported French chair with carved back and place it next to an entertainment center or other gargantuan piece? Well , trust me, it's done all the time. And, the darling little chair doesn't even have as good a chance as Annie Jane. At least she grew taller.
As long as we're talking about furniture placement, I have to insert an observation. There has never been a piece of furniture invented that a determined woman cannot move. I don't want to take away from the heroic war stories men like to tell about someone miraculously moving heavy equipment off a buddy, but I'm convinced that a 110 lb. woman could move a Sherman tank upstairs, if she decided it would go better in the guest bedroom. In fact, I had a client once (of very small of stature) who had moved the baby grand piano every time I went to her home. It was incredible! So, don't tell me that you can't place any piece of furniture anywhere you want to.
Before you start running all over your house moving things, let me offer another word of caution. Just as we don't want all the furniture 'scared to the walls', we also don't want a lot of tall pieces of furniture in the middle of the room. Unless you want your living room to look like the Chicago Bears' huddle, use low tables, low back chairs, and other less imposing pieces when floating a grouping. Area rugs and Oriental rugs are another great way to bring focus to the center of a room and give furniture a natural placement.
So, now, I hope you've gotten the idea about creative furniture arrangements. Just remember to keep every single piece in mind and display it to its best advantage. And, don't forget the concepts of balance and scale. When in doubt about these concepts, try to enter the room as if it were your first time there. What you see first can tell you if things are out of sync and unpleasing to the eye. Be especially aware if you walk into the side of a large piece of furniture upon entering a room. Soften it with a plant if it needs to stay. We want to be risk takers, but remember, furniture, just as with people, wants to be seen from the best angle.
Copyright 2018 - Shirley D. Horowitz