When designing a space it's important to balance the proportion and scale of the items you wish to include to create a harmonious look. The golden ratio is a useful design rule relating to proportion and scale to help you create a vision for a room from scratch, or rebalance an existing space.
Used since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the golden ratio (also known as the Fibonacci sequence) is found in nature, many famous works of art, musical sequences, and web design, and is integral to describing the proportions of the human body.
In order to understand how you balance a space using appropriate scale and proportion techniques including the golden ratio, it's a good idea to have a grasp of design fundamentals. Although you can easily spend years studying the nuances of design and the many varying takes on how to be successful at it, there are a handful of basic elements and principles.
Elements are the ‘building blocks’ of a space when you assess it, and principles are the ‘tools’ used by an interior designer, and then applied to the space. The interior design principle 'Proportion and Scale' is one of these principles.
If you look at a room and it doesn’t feel right, you will most likely find something in the wrong size or something out of proportion. You can use the golden ratio in your styling to make the room more aesthetically pleasing. For interior design this ratio is often simplified as the 60/30/10 rule, making it much easier to apply in practice as you consider each element of your room using this ratio, from the scale of your furniture and structural details, right down to the colour scheme and textural components.
The 60/30/10 rule is used to practically implement scale and proportion within interior designs. It is important to note that this rule doesn't only refer to colour as often assumed; it can and should also be applied to furniture choice and placement. Is a sofa right for the space? Or is it too big or too small? What about the coffee table for example? To create proportion and scale, it is important to look beyond colour too.
Guiding Interior Design Principle 'Proportion and Scale'
When thinking about proportion and scale you want to think about the relationship between furniture, accessories, building materials, occupants etc. in relation to one another and the overall space. Scale and proportion create synergy. Proportion refers to how well all those elements fit together. Scale refers to how well they actually fit in the space.
Focus on proportion rather than size.
While the 60/30/10 rule is the most mathematical interior design principle, your eye can easily identify when something looks out of place, even without doing the maths. Something may not look quite right. A sofa might be just large enough to hold the whole family, but it's simply too small for the space. A gorgeous rug won't look anywhere near as nice when it's too small to ground the space. A gallery wall will lose its effect when the individual pieces are too small and get lost on a large wall.
In these cases, you want to focus on proportion rather than size.
Scale and proportion are also important when you start decorating, adding accessories and finishing touches. A general guideline is to keep items no taller or wider than one-third the length or the height of the piece it will sit on. Doing this results in natural rhythm and flow. Read more on how to create rhythm in interior design here.
6 Ways of Applying the Golden Ratio in Interior Design
The golden ratio can help you strike the right note. Let me give you 6 ways to apply this ratio for optimal results in your designs.
1. Use the Golden Ratio to Create Your Colour Scheme
The rule states that for the most balanced, appealing look, you should choose a three-colour palette for decorating a room, and use it as follows:
Decorate 60% of the room with the dominant colour
Decorate 30% of the room with the secondary colour
Use the remaining colour as an accent in 10% of the space
This is however not an exact science and you can take the precise measurements with a grain of salt:; you don’t need to measure the space and figure the exact percentages. Just follow the basic idea: one dominant colour for the majority of the space, a secondary colour that fills roughly half as much space as the dominant colour, and a third colour (if you want to use two accent colours, then each gets 5% of the space) to add splashes of interest around the room.
2. Use the Golden Ratio to Introduce Pattern
The golden ratio is really useful when introducing pattern to a scheme and for example making use of three complementing patterns. To get the balance right, you use the same basic principle as for applying the 60/30/10 rule for colour:
Choose one pattern for 60% of surfaces
Choose one pattern for 30% of surfaces
Choose a last (perhaps bolder) pattern to use as an accent
3. Use the Golden Ratio to Balance the Room Lay-Out
Ever wandered into a living room and felt instantly claustrophobic? Like you couldn't breath for the abundance of furniture? Or the opposite, a room that felt so cold and empty with a few loosely placed furniture pieces that weren't 'grounded' anywhere?
Try sticking to roughly 60% of floor space being covered by furniture for an ideal setting. If it's much lower than 60%, it's likely to feel too minimal. In an ideal world you aim for a layout that leaves 40% of floor space clear, or as 'negative space'.
Probably the clearest definition of negative space is simply that it is the space between things; the empty or blank areas, or the “holes” where the room shows through between the main design elements (your furniture and decorations for example).
4. Use the Golden Ratio to Choose Furniture
The balance of positive space (furnished) and negative space (unfurnished) in interior design as mentioned above will also help you choose furniture that's the right size, allowing you to scale up or down a sofa or coffee table so that it's in proportion not just to the room's floor area, but to other items of furniture, too.
Take a look at the image below: the coffee table is about 2 thirds the size of the sofa, and the chairs about 1 third. This is scale and proportion of furniture done right.
5. Use the Golden Ratio to Arrange Your Accessories
To prevent your composition from feeling flat, you will want to include items of different heights and varying scale. Displaying objects of varying heights helps to create movement and will prevent your styling from appearing one-dimensional. If you use items of the same size, stagger them so they feel layered. You can for example create height with picture frames, tall pitchers or vases, or objects that stack well together - such as bowls, plates, and platters or books.
You may like to read this blog on How to Style a Display Cabinet.
6. Use the Golden Ratio to Hang Art
Make sure the way you style and hang artworks is as meaningful to the space as all of the other design choices you make. Think about the golden ratio to get the perfect proportions.
A space that's perfectly proportioned is just something that feels right when you enter it for the first time.
Rules are meant to be broken
The golden ratio or 60/30/10 rule is a great guiding principle to check your designs for appropriate proportion and scale. It's important however not to stare yourself blind to the mathematics and the theoretical implications of your choices.
More often than not, a space that's perfectly proportioned is just something that feels right when you enter it for the first time.
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