Lessons on Scale and Proportion

Consider scale and proportion when you decorate. Attention to these details will create harmony and make your rooms visually appealing.

By Kristin Schmitt


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Dining room with white table
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Using Scale

    Scale refers to visual size—how furnishings look next to each other and how they fit in a room. Rooms need big things, little things, tall things, and short things. If everything is the same size, nothing will stand out. Vary scale within a room to create interest and drama.

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Make Compliments

    Variation in scale throughout a room is important. But, drastic differences can be unsuccessful. An oversize lamp on a petite table or one small piece of artwork above a large-scale sofa creates unbalance. Use similar scale when appropriate, such as this substantial piece of art over the fireplace as a focal point.

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Find the Right Size

    Make sure pieces of furniture are scaled for their function. A sofa provides seating for several people, so the coffee table should be long and large enough to provide space for drinks, reading material, and more.

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Adding Dimension

    Layers keep a room from being flat. To achieve layering successfully, vary the scale of each item. Here, framed mirrors and art are layered against the wall, with smaller accessories on the table. Gradual transition from large-to-small scale keeps the grouping cohesive.

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Architectural Touches

    Consider proportion when adding architectural elements, such as paneling, to a room. Furniture weighs down the bottom half of this room, so carrying the wainscoting two-thirds up the wall lifts the eye. A tall floor lamp and artwork placed above the paneling also brings balance. In a dining room, a classic chair rail hung at the bottom one-third of the room compliments the proportion of high-back dining chairs.

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Working with Pattern

    When working with multiple patterns, vary the scale to give each pattern special attention. Start with large, airy prints on the wall or windows, then layer smaller-scale patterns on the furniture. Here, the large-scale draperies and medium-size pillow and ottoman fabrics are followed by even smaller and more neutral patterns in the upholstery and on the rug.

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Finding the Right Pair

    Scale and proportion is important in the simplest of decorating tasks, such as a pairing a lamp with a table. This shapely lamp has enough heft to balance the dark wood of the writing table without being too bulky to contradict the table's petite size. To determine height proportion, use this rule: The bottom of the lampshade should be at cheek-level when you're seated.

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Group by Scale

    Pieces of furniture don't have to be an exact match to create symmetry. Use scale to pair objects. These different armchairs work together because they are similar in height and weight. Apply the same concept to bedside or end tables.

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Grouping Objects

    Combine small objects with other like objects to create impact. This collection of ceramic pots makes one big statement on the mantel because the similar pieces are grouped together. Just a few pots scattered about would look disconnected and out of proportion. Try this approach with artwork over a sofa: A cohesive group of small frames can work as well as one large piece.

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The Scale of Art

    The scale of a wall art grouping can vary as long as the variety has purpose. Here, different size photos and frames still create a unified arrangement thanks to other similarities: Black-and-white photography, white frames, and repeated color mattes.

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Control Clutter

    Too much variety of scale can cause visual chaos in a focused area, such as bookshelves. To make open shelving more pleasing, group items of similar scale together, such as lining up like-size books and arranging glassware or other collections in groups of similar type and scale. Another trick: Use same-size storage bins or baskets throughout to keep clutter out of sight.

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Create an Illusion

    You can use scale and proportion to create an effect. Choose longer curtains, for instance, and hang them near the ceiling rather than just above the window trim. This gives the illusion of height and improves the proportion of small windows, a small room, or a low ceiling.

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Playing with Pillows

    Consider proportion when placing and arranging pillows. On a sofa, use proportion to set the mood: For a cozy look, layer multiple pillows, keeping their height in scale with the piece of furniture. For a clean, contemporary look, add just a pair of large pillows at the ends or line up an odd number spaced out across the sofa.

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Pillow Arranging

    Mounds of large pillows on a bed are usually impractical and overwhelming. Simplify with a better proportion: Pare down to just the sleeping pillows and decorative shams, then add a decorative accent or two.

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Fill the Space

    Use scale to balance a room. High ceilings and tall windows require at least one other tall object in the room to achieve balance. Consider a tall cupboard or artwork that reaches up the wall.

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Color and Scale

    Color has scale, too: Dark and bright colors are heavy, while soft and muted colors are light. Balance the color scale in a room to prevent it from feeling too heavy or too light. Here, a dark leather sofa is balanced with light pillow fabrics and a wicker ottoman. Likewise, the wall art uses color differences to create interest with light-color artwork surrounded by dark frames.

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Creating Height

    Use height to expand the feel of a small space. In this small bedroom, curtains hung at ceiling height and a tall headboard that stretches up the wall use vertical scale to grow the feel of the room's size.

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Finding Balance

    Use multiple items to build scale. This petite sconce and single chair would look dwarfed and lost next to the large, dark armoire. Adding the decorative plates as artwork unifies the single items into one larger visual collection that balances the single substantial piece.

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Build Proportion

    When working with scale, start with the largest piece of furniture in a room, then add pieces that fit. A table and lamp may be proportionate to each other, but when placed next to a bed or sofa, they may look too large or too small. To maintain the simplistic, clean-line design of this bed, the sparse linear wall-attached lights are a better complement than bulky table lamps.

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