Interior Design Principles: Scale and Proportion

Welcome to the first of the Back to Basics posts here on the blog where we’ll dig into the foundations of great design and look at broad principles and also address questions like how to know what size rug to choose for a room. If you’d like to read the intro for these posts, you can find it here.

This week we’re going to look at what Alexander Stoddard, author of The Decoration of Houses, calls “the two defining principles behind designing an interior space.”

Those two principles are scale and proportion. Now, maybe I’m slow, but it took me several days before I really grasped the difference between these two things. They are very similar yet different.

Interiors: An Introduction, defines the terms as follows:

Scale: Overall size, such as the largeness or smallness of a room, object, or pattern

Proportion: Size relationship or ratio of parts to a whole, such as the size of a chair in relation to the size of its arms

Huh? Yawn. Are you board yet?

The best way I found to explain these two concepts is to illustrate them with this picture of my good friend Shaquille O’Neil and his girlfriend (well, ex-girlfriend). Actually, we’re not real friends, but he wishes we were. What with me being famous and all.

via: Buzzfeed

So scale would refer to Shaq’s overall size. He is what you would call large scale. And the teeny tiny girlfriend, she’s what you’d call small scale. Scale is relative to what it is being compared against.

Proportion, on the other hand, would be Shaq’s arms in relation to the rest of his body. Now, if you put Shaq’a arms on his girlfriend, they would just look all wrong and drag the ground like an ape. And vice versa, if you put girlfriend’s arms on Shaq’s body, well, let’s just say that scratching his nether region would be a difficult task.

Does that make sense? Not the part about scratching Shaq’s nether region, but the difference between scale and proportion? Oh boy. Okay, we can be done with Shaq and his nethers for now.

So how does this translate into houses? On another extreme scale you have the Biltmore House (a favorite place of ours to visit). It is magnificent. Definitely large scale.

Whitney Donáe - Two Defining Principles of Interior Design

And than there is this pretty little house by Southern Living.

Proportion would be the the size of the doors used on the entry of each house in comparison to the size of the house. The doors at the Biltmore are grand and magnificent in keeping with the scale of the house.

Whitney Donáe - Two Defining Principles of Interior Design

So how does all this apply when it comes to designing a room?

Some will argue that you only use large scale items in a large scale room and small scale items in a small scale room like in the images below. But I tend to agree with Miss Stoddard that this is not a hard and fast rule and there can be some flexibility.

via: Apartment Therapy

via: Apartment Therapy

She suggests that a few large scale pieces can expand a space and you can use small scale pieces in a large space to create several more intimate settings (something you see done in the Biltmore House. If they can do it. . .  ). The trick is to keep the scale consistent among pieces in a room. You don’t want a dinky side table or lamp next to a massive or chunky sofa or a massive reclining chair next to a delicate love seat.

via: Biltmore

Unfortunately, this is where I get to tell you there is no secret or scientific formula for knowing for sure what will or won’t work in a space. At least none that I found in my research. A tape measure will come in handy, though. Also, visualizing a space. For some people this comes natural and for others it takes practice, but you can train your mind and eye. As inconvenient as it can be, allow yourself to make some mistakes. Furniture and accessories can always be taken back or resold. You’re not married to your design choices, if they don’t work, kick em’ out and try again. You’re husband may or may not love you for this. ;)

What about you? Do you have any advice or questions on the subject? I’d love hear them in the comments below!