Though our interior spaces are often a reflection of our individual design styles and preferences, there are a few fundamentals that transcend any one style and can be used tactically to elevate the design of our interiors. Scale and proportion fall into that category of design fundamentals. Applying the principals of scale and proportion can help to lend visual balance and intangible 'wow' factor to interior spaces. And unlike other facets of interior design, using scale and proportion to your decorative advantage won't cost anything.
Scale and proportion—how are they the same and how are they different?
While you might hear the words scale and proportion used interchangeably (and the two terms are certainly related), there is a distinction between the two. Understanding what each term refers to is a precursor for using both scale and proportion to elevate your interior design.
Scale and proportion are the same because they both concern the size of objects in relation to their context. They can be used individually and in tandem to cultivate a sense of harmony in an interior space.
Scale and proportion are different because scale refers to how the size of an object compares to the size of its surroundings, including the people occupying the space, while proportion deals with the design elements of individual objects, how these elements relate to each other within each object, and how one object relates to another within an interior space.
Confused? You're not alone. To paint a clearer picture, here are some examples of scale and proportion commonly found in interior spaces:
- Chairs and bar stools, which are scaled to accommodate the average person.
- Artwork above a sofa, the proportions of which should generally be about two-thirds the width of your sofa.
- A chandelier, which should be scaled based on the square footage of your dining room and the distance between the ceiling and the dining room table's surface (approximately 30-36 inches).
- A table lamp, which is comprised of a shade that is proportional in size to the base in order to maintain functionality.
Why is it important to consider scale and proportion when designing?
Aesthetics aside, paying attention to scale and proportion can have very practical upsides. While you may not have the ability to change the shape and size of furnishings and decorative objects in your home, you can use the principles of scale and proportion to help shift perceptions of those objects.
For example, if you're in the midst of a move and your couch ends up being too small for your new living space, a rug, artworks, and perhaps an accent chair can help to fill the space. By giving your couch a sense of proportionality in relation to the other objects in the room, you can distract from the couch's lack of scale compared to the space itself.
The same rational can be applied if you mistakenly purchase a furnishing or decorative item that is too big or too small for your space.
For instance, a small piece of art above a king-sized headboard might look lowly and odd, but by simply adding two more artworks to form a grouping of three, that area will make a bigger visual impact and will look more proportional the headboard, and probably even the wall itself. In other words, by simply editing the items in your space and enhancing the proportionality of one item compared to the next, you can lend an intentional feel to what would have been buyer's remorse.
6 ways to improve scale and proportion in your interior spaces
1. Use the golden ratio
The golden ration, 1:618, is something that is naturally occurring in our bodies, nature, and art, and is naturally pleasing when used in interior spaces. The golden ratio is most often applied to the proportions of a room's layout. Put simply, the ratio dictates that you should fill approximately 60 percent of a room with furniture, while leaving 40 percent as negative space, lending a sense of visual balance and preventing visual overload. The golden ratio can also be applied to the use of base colors and accenting colors within an interior space.
2. Read your room
If you're designing your home from scratch, you can use the dimensions of your room to dictate the scale of your furnishings and decorative accessories. To put it simply, if you're working with a small room, opt for smaller furniture pieces or less furnishings in general. Conversely, if your room is spacious, you can feel free to invest in larger pieces. The same logic can be applied depending on your ceiling height: the higher your ceilings, the taller your furniture can be in order to fill the room, and vice versa.
3. Design around important, expensive, and priceless items
Furnishings and decor come at a variety of price-points, with some items being more expensive and less replaceable than others. If you have a family heirloom or an especially expensive furniture piece in your possession, you can use it as a focal point and to guide the size and style of accompanying furnishings and decor. For example, an antique piano in a formal dining room can be used to set the tone for the dimensions of your dining table, which will subsequently inform the dimensions of your dining chairs and any overhead lighting. Once you have established a sense of scale in your space with a few big furnishings, stick with it throughout the space.
4. Repeat patterns and shapes
If you're struggling to integrate a certain shape into your space, consider finding a way to repeat that shape somewhere else in the room. Reoccurring shapes and patterns can help to create a sense of balance, intentionality, and proportionality. With that said, overloading your space with patterns can also have a dizzying effect, which is something to be wary of.
5. Use negative space to your advantage
Negative space refers to the empty space between objects and is incredibly important in interior design. Without sufficient negative space, it can become difficult to appreciate the intricacies of scale and proportion within your space. Leave plenty of negative space between furniture and furnishings - for example, between different pieces of wall-mounted artworks in a gallery wall. This way, you will allow the composition of artworks that you have chosen to really shine.
6. Keep functionality in mind
In a way, interior design can be boiled down to a science - but metrics aside, functionality really should trump all. Basing your scale on the human form is one way to ensure your space will cater to… well, humans. One more thing to keep in mind is how your space will facilitate traffic flow. How will people maneuver the room? How will they enter and exit? Furniture and furnishings can be used to create functional spaces as well as transitional spaces so that the room is not only pleasing to look at from an objective standpoint, but livable as well.