How many times have you stepped into a room, home or office and gone “Oh my God!” on seeing just how well-put-together everything is? How did the designer — whether a professional or the owner or user — know just what designs and colours and materials to use? How did the designer balance aesthetics and function?
Now, interior design is a profession. In Singapore, it requires three years of formal training in a polytechnic, learning about subjects such as principles of design, space planning, and materials and technology, but all that provides only the fundamental knowledge and skills you need for the job. What matters more is experience, ie learning by doing: throwing yourself into the thick of action, learning from seniors and peers, asking questions, and taking risks.
As an amateur, don’t expect to be able to achieve the efficiency and polish of a professional interior designer. But, as with anything worthwhile, there are general principles that you can apply to achieve the best results given your budget and time available, and the space constraints and materials available.
Balance produces a sense of equilibrium, stability. It is created through the skilful use or balance of colour, patterns, textures, and shapes, and the visual impact of objects.
Balance can be symmetrical, asymmetrical or radial. Symmetrical balance is straightforward: placing the same elements on different sides of a space so the two sides mirror each other. With asymmetrical balance, the idea is to balance the visual impact or the design elements you have to play with — colours, textures, lines, and forms — to achieve some kind of pleasing balance. For radial balance think of a central element (focus) with other elements around it (like spokes). The classic example is a table with chairs arranged uniformly around it.
Symmetrical balance can be monotonous and boring. Asymmetrical balance is harder to achieve but can be more interesting when done right. Radial balance involves repetition of design elements too, but provides an interesting contrast to traditional arrangements.
In music, rhythm refers to the beat of a song, ie the movement or variation you get from regular, recurring sounds, musical notes or words. In interior design, rhythm means creating a pattern — something the same, something different — to spur interest. This is typically done by repeating a colour or shape (motif), throughout a space, that the eye is able to pick up.
Harmony is the pleasing combination of the elements of a whole. (Again, music comes to mind. Indeed, interior design and music have several things in common, an interesting parallel covered in a future article.) Harmony can be achieved by using a single colour or complementary colours across the various design elements in the space under consideration. Texture can be used to provide contrast, if required. Rhythm and harmony work in opposing ways: rhythm arouses excitement, harmony evokes a sense of restfulness.
Architecture introduces the concept of a central or focal point: a conspicuous feature such as a wall, high ceiling, or window view that is the first thing to catch the eye when you enter the space. (Contrast this with a space where every object gets equal importance.) This ‘anchor’ can be built-in (eg, a high ceiling) or designed (an unusual or prominent piece of furniture). As a designer, you can elect to emphasise this anchor by, for example, positioning everything else in the room around it.
Heard of the Golden Ratio or Golden Mean? The ancients knew about it; the ratio is used in the Pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, and the Mayan temples in Mexico. It is a mathematical ratio (a fact that may repel you). And, most surprisingly, it is a quantity that appears throughout nature.
The Golden Ratio, approximately equal to 1.618, is famous because our brains are wired to prefer images and objects with proportions (ratio between the size of one part to another) according to this figure. Buildings that use this ratio produce natural-looking structures we find extremely pleasing. Bodies and faces that follow this ratio appear more attractive to us. Designs that employ the Golden Ratio seem much more beautiful, artistic, and natural. Beauty may be nothing more than a combination of harmony and proportion.
Everything worthwhile in life takes knowledge, practice, time, and patience. Interior design is no different. Learning and understanding the principles outlined here can go a long way to transforming a flat or house into a home, a room into a sanctuary, and an office into a hive of inspiration and productivity.