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Decoration And Balance

( Originally Published 1922 )

WHEN a man stands still, his body erect, his mind tranquil and at ease, he is in balance. The two sides of his body, similarly grouped on either side of an ideal perpendicular center, are similarly affected by the force of gravity, with a resulting state of equilibrium. This state of equilibrium, with its accompanying sense of rest, poise and finished activity, is emotionally as well as physically pleasing. It is the state to which mind and body alike tend naturally and constantly to return after periods of effort, activity and excitement.

As would be expected, this instinctive feeling for balance conditions our artistic judgments. Because the state of equilibrium is inevitably associated by the mind with effects of repose and tranquillity, while lack of equilibrium is associated with effects of activity and excitement, we expect to find in any work of art a balanced opposition of one part to another in the degree that the work is designed to suggest the ideas of quiescence, tranquillity and repose, as opposed to those of movement, activity and excitement. And since the latter motives can legitimately play no part in the architecture of a room, and but very small part the total of all the forces upon one side is opposed to the total of all those upon the other. By the law of its nature the mind is bound to attend to the stronger force. It is inclined toward the side of the more powerful stimulus quite as inevitably as the beam is inclined toward the heavier weight. If the total of attractive forces on one side seems greater than the total of those on the other, the mind is conscious of an esthetically unpleasing sense of unrest and strain, akin to that experienced when the body leans from the perpendicular to right or left, or when a weight is borne in one hand while the other remains empty. But when the various features have been so adjusted that the opposing totals seem to be equal in their power of attraction the mind is at ease, and is conscious of an esthetically pleasing sense of equipoise, tranquillity and freedom from effort. It demands, in the furnished room, to be conscious of this balance as between the two sides of each wall with the center of the wall as a fulcrum; between the two sides of the room with the longitudinal axis as a fulcrum; and between the two ends with the transverse axis as a fulcrum.

If the decorative weight, or power of attraction, possessed by the diverse features employed by the decorator varied directly with their area, their mass, or any other measurable factors, every problem in decorative balance would be a mechanical problem, solvable by a simple application of the formula of balance. Unhappily the matter is not so simple. Decorative weight depends upon many factors—upon size, shape, color, tone, texture, and particularly upon contrast—and the interrelations of these several factors make the problems of estimating them difficult and far beyond the possibility of mechanical calculation. They must for the most part be felt, not computed. In this process there is no substitute for a cultivated taste.

The decorative weight of the various objects in a room will vary, other things being equal, directly with their mass ; or, rather, with their mass as affected by the laws of linear perspective. Thus two windows three feet by six feet will, if uncurtained, have the same weight; and this weight will be practically equal to that of a bookcase of the same width and height. In judging of the effect of mass or area the mind attaches a superior importance to width as opposed to height. Thus a bookcase four feet wide and five feet high would weigh less, in a decorative sense, than would a case five feet wide and four feet high. The weight of any object is of course increased by sharply-defined or eccentric outline, striking ornament, or distinctive coloring.

The importance of color in determining the decorative weight of an object is in part absolute, but chiefly relative. Absolutely, without reference to their back ground, the several hues vary in their power of attracting attention directly with warmth and purity. Thus red will outweigh any of the other hues, with orange, yellow, green, blue and violet in order ; while vermilion will outweigh maroon or any red degraded by the ad-mixture of black or white, as emerald will outweigh myrtle or nile, and ultramarine will outweigh indigo or azure. In practice, however, the weight of a colored surface is very largely relative, and varies directly with its degree of contrast, in hue, tone, and texture, with the background against which it appears. Red hangings against a red wall will have less weight than hangings of old gold; while gold will have less than blue, and blue less than green. A satinwood chair, though brighter than one of mahogany, will weigh less against a champagne ground. Dark tones weigh heavily against a light background, and light tones against dark. Considered alone, a smooth texture having a high power of reflecting light will outweigh one that is loose and rough; but against a lustrous satin or damask wall a lustreless tapestry or rep chair covering will outweigh one of velvet or brocade, as Grueby pottery will outweigh porcelain.

It is evident that the difficulties of weighing the attractive forces which enter into a decorative balance tend to grow less in direct proportion to the likeness of the features, and that they disappear altogether when the balanced objects are exactly alike. To arrange a chair and a cabinet against a given wall space in such a way as to place the wall in balance may easily prove a problem. The problem becomes easier with two chairs of analogous size and shape, and progressively easier as the likenesses of the chairs in proportion, color and ornamental detail are progressively in-creased until, with two identical chairs, it becomes purely mechanical and could be solved by a child with a tape measure.

In decoration, then, as in mechanics, we have to do with two kinds of balance : that produced by arranging identical or closely analogous elements at equal distances from a real or ideal center; and that produced by arranging elements more or less unlike at unequal distances from the center. The first type, called bisymmetric, or formal, balance, is easy to produce and so easy to see as to be perfectly obvious. The second type, called occult, or substitutional, balance, is more difficult to produce and more or less subtle. Which is to be preferred, and why? For the general answer to these questions we must turn, as in nearly every other question of practice, to considerations of fitness to purpose.

At the outset it is to be noted that the elements which in combination make up the organic whole of a furnished room vary widely in character and function, and that they are, in fact, divisible naturally into three classes: (a) the fixed decorations; (b) the furniture; and (c) the small, unimportant pieces and decorative accessories grouped by the French under the term decoration volante, or flying decoration.

The fixed decorations, which include the trim, fire-place, walls, floor, ceiling, doors, and windows with their hangings, are clearly structural in character. They are not fortuitous but rather integral parts of the frame-work or skeleton of the room. As such they are in their effect upon the mind properly permanent, immovable and obvious, and they ought to be made to reveal these characteristics immediately and unmistakably. Clearly, therefore, the fixed decorations ought to be characterized in a marked degree by formal balance.

The furniture of most rooms is of many kinds and sizes. In the living room, for example, some pieces; like the piano and bookcases, are immovable and semi-structural in character ; others, like the davenport and reading table, are closely related by their size and importance to the structure of the room, and by their use to the changing moods and needs of the household; still others, like the smaller chairs and tables, which lend themselves to easy grouping and regrouping, are less structural and more intimate and personal. Varying widely in function and significance, these various pieces properly enter the general balance of the room in positions ranging from the symmetrical relationships usually appropriate to the large immovable pieces down to the occult relationships suitable to the arrangement of the small and unimportant pieces.

The flying decoration is made up of small screens, footstools, stands, lamps, pictures, pottery and similar fugitive pieces whose primary function is to contribute the personal touches necessary to individualize the room, to rob it of stiffness or heaviness, give it a note of gayety and animation, and establish among all its elements a sort of air de famille. Accordingly, such elements ought to serve as a tonic or corrective for the room, which would without them seem heavy, over-formal or dead. To serve this end the flying decoration must, as individual pieces and as groups, be distributed in positions of occult balance more or less easily perceptible, according to the size and purpose of the room and the motive of its decorative treatment.

It is clear that the general problem of the decorator is to invest his room, as a unit, with the degree of repose and steadiness essential to comfortable living, while he at the same time invests it with whatever degree of lightness, animation and subtlety best accords with the purpose of the room and with the needs and tastes of its occupants. In other words his problem, here as everywhere, is to create an effect of unity in diversity, since in the absence of such an effect beauty cannot be made to appear in his room. Knowing that bisymmetric balance, being obvious, makes for repose and unity, while occult balance makes for animation and subtlety; and knowing that the fixed decorations, as structural elements, ought to be more obvious and the non-structural more subtle, he will naturally seek to place the walls of his room in a condition approximating rather closely to formal balance. The emphasis properly to be placed upon formal balance in the wall treatment will in general be more marked (a) in a very large room, where emphasis upon structure is necessary in order to prevent the room from appearing weak and amorphous; (b) in any room intended to be markedly restrained and formal in character; (c) in a hall, or room in which people do not linger, since such a room must be made to reveal whatever it possesses of character and interest to the passing glance; and (d) in a room to be furnished with a large number of small and widely-varying elements, since such a room tends naturally to become over-complex and con-fusing. While no definite formula can be adduced, we may, however, consider that in the ordinary room two walls symmetrically balanced will be too few and four walls too many. Three constitute the ideal to-ward which to work.

Where a single opening is placed at the center of a wall, or like openings at equal distances from the center, the wall will be in balance. Where a single opening is placed at any point other than the center the wall will be out of balance, and a balance must be created either bisymmetrically or substitutionally. By the latter method a group of any desired composition—say a wall table, a mirror, a bowl of flowers and a small easel picture—will be placed against the wall on the other side of the center at a point where the total group weight seems to the mind to be equal to that of the opening. By the former method a single object—say a bookcase, cabinet, or large mirror with its supporting console bracket—of a shape and size practically identical with that of the opening, is placed against the wall at an equal distance from the center. Here the mind is far less concerned with identity in height than with identity in width. It will, for ex-ample, accept a bookcase four feet wide and five feet high as a balancing weight for a window four feet wide and seven feet high; but it will not accept a hall clock seven feet high and two feet wide, or a tapestry seven feet high and five feet wide.

In the case of two unequal openings equally distant from the center the wall will be out of balance. Where the difference in width is slight the hangings of the narrower opening can be placed far enough beyond the casing to make the apparent width of the openings equal. Where this is impracticable a balance must be created substitutionally.

In the degree that the decorator finds it possible sufficiently to emphasize bisymmetric balance in the fixed decorations of the room, he will incline toward a more occult distribution of the movables. In the degree that he finds it impossible he must minimize the effect of deficiencies in structure through a greater emphasis upon formal balance in the distribution of movables. Thus in a room having symmetrically placed openings on three sides and the fourth wall blank, he will be likely to arrange the features on that wall in an occult balance. If, on the other hand, the openings of two or three walls are unsymmetrically placed, the blank wall will normally be arranged in formal balance, since such an arrangement will tend to restore the unity and repose of the whole treatment.

In formal balance the most important object will naturally be placed at the center of the wall. If there are two identical important elements they will be placed at either side of the center, at a distance determined by what use is to be made of the remaining wall space. In occult balance the most important object will be placed far enough from the center so that the mind will be in no doubt of the fact that it was not intended to be in the center, and at a distance determined by the decorative weight of the features on the other side, according to the formula that unequal attractions balance at distances inversely proportional to their weight.

In the case of a large piece, like an upright piano, to be placed against a short wall, it will sometimes happen that the piece must be placed at the exact center, even though the decorator may desire to avoid by every means the appearance of formality or stiffness in the room, since the wall space available is too short to permit the use of features sufficiently numerous and heavy to produce an occult balance. In this case he will fill the spaces at either side with features markedly dissimilar ; for example, an English card-table with some small accessories at one side and a floor lamp and chair at the other. Where the weight of one group is slightly greater than that of the other, he can restore the balance while adding to the diversity of the wall as a composition by placing a single small object, as a vase or plastic figure, on the piano toward the end near the lighter group.

While it is the primary function of small decorative objects and of décoration volante generally to individualize the room and to give it animation, snap and decorative charm, it is clear that the decorator will need to resort to formal balance in distributing these objects in rooms where the openings and heavy pieces of furniture are markedly unsymmetrical. Thus a single small piece will, if placed above the center of a wall table or cabinet, emphasize the unity and repose, not only of the piece so embellished, but also of the room as a whole. The same effect, sharply intensified, will be produced by a pair of identical objects placed at equal distances from the center. On the other hand, two, three, four, or even five small, unimportant objects may be grouped in occult balance in such a way as to increase the animation and subtlety of the whole treatment.

In considering the balanced distribution of pictures, it must be remembered at the outset that the requirements of unity demand that pictures to be hung on the same wall, or even in the same room, reveal easily perceptible likenesses. Monochromes will not ordinarily be hung with colored pictures, and, in general. water colors will not be hung with oils, or wood frames with gilt. Normally there will also be considerable similarity in subject and handling, and marked similarity in tone. Moreover, where small pictures are to be hung on a large wall space the requirements of unity demand that they be so grouped that the mind, regarding the group as a unit, will accept it as sufficiently large and important to be congruous with the wall space. In this case the pictures must be fairly close in tone to the wall, since the effect of marked tone contrast would be to emphasize the individuality of each small picture so sharply that the eye could not see them as a group. If all these precautions are observed, pictures may be hung according to the mechanical formula of balance, the decorative weight of each picture being based upon its surface area. It may be noted in passing that pictures should be hung flat against the wall, the smaller ones without visible support, the larger by means of two cords or wires rising vertically from near the ends of each picture to two hooks, since it is only in the case of elliptical or circular shapes, where the cords leave the circumference at a tangent, that we are in ordinary practice justified in running the cords over a single hook. Pictures should be so hung as to place their centers of interest at eye height, and normally those hung in a horizontal line on the same wall will have their centers of interest in line, rather than the tops or bottoms of their frames.

In practice it rarely happens that a picture of any considerable decorative weight will be hung by itself. The mind demands not only lateral balance, but also a support which seems to be adequate. This demand is best satisfied by hanging the picture directly above some such other unit as a cabinet, table or chair, which rests upon the floor and is wider than the picture and therefore appears to be stronger. Moreover, the decorative value of a skillfully arranged group, which reveals the presence of unity in diversity, is so great, and the floor area of most rooms so limited, that it would in general be a waste of opportunity to use two units separately where it is possible to combine them. It must be noted that while a picture hung above an-other unit which rests upon the floor must be narrower than the lower member in order to insure an effect of stability in the group, in the case of two pictures hung vertically the wider or larger must be above, since the mind in this situation regards the lower unit as depending from and supported by the upper unit.

A large rug is as much a part of the fixed decorations as are the walls and the openings, and it must accordingly be placed symmetrically with reference to the width of the room in every case, and with reference to the length of the room in most cases. When a large rug is crowded by a projecting hearth into a markedly unsymmetrical position on the floor, the whole effect of the room is marred, and its balance can be restored only by using an all-over carpet or a number of care-fully placed small rugs, or else by cutting the big rug in the manner suggested in the chapter on proportion.

When the decorator has insured the necessary structural emphasis and repose of his background surfaces by giving to the floor and to the wall spaces and openings a degree of symmetrical balance more or less marked, according to the size and motive of the room, he will proceed to invest his whole treatment with subtlety and decorative charm by a more or less marked degree of occult balance in the distribution of furniture and décoration volante. It is obvious that no rules can be formulated to guide him in this process, and that he must proceed experimentally. For example, in a living room having a fireplace in the middle of one side and covered by a large rug, he may wish to place a large sofa at right angles to the fireplace and toward one end of the room, and to balance it by a reading table and chair placed at right angles to the fireplace on the other side. The exact position of these pieces will be determined by the general arrangement and the lighting of the room, and by the tastes and convenience of its occupants. If, when the pieces are in position, the sofa seems to be too heavy for the opposing group, the decorative weight of this group must be increased by (a) moving it farther back from the center of the room; (b) keeping it in position, while the sofa is moved closer to the center of the room; or (c) keeping all the pieces in position, while adding to the decorative weight of the group by the addition of another chair, a colorful table runner, a relatively larger and more striking lamp, a row of books between book-blocks, or of some similar stimuli. If, on the other hand, the sofa seems too light, these processes will be reversed.

While the balance between opposite ends and opposite sides of a room must be clearly felt, it will be the more pleasing in the degree that it is occult rather than formal. No one wants to see the two sides of a room exactly alike; yet we cannot be free from a sense of unrest unless there is an easily apprehensible equality between the total weights of the two sides. In practice the student will find it of the utmost value to draw an accurate floor plan and elevations of his room, to a scale of one inch, or at least of one-half inch, to the foot, according to the method indicated in Figure 41. With the size and shape of the room and the distribution of voids and masses thus clearly before him, he can pencil in, according to the same scale, outlines to represent the rugs, furniture and pictures and other elements that he purposes to use in the room. These pieces can be arranged and rearranged until their distribution finally seems satisfactory with reference to both axes of the room. The effectiveness of the device can be increased by washing in the principal colors, and by folding up the four elevations to form enclosing walls.

It would be fruitless to extend further the discussion of balance as it conditions the arrangement of the movables in a room, since such a discussion could of necessity deal only in generalities, while the complex of personal and architectural factors, different for each room, makes the problem presented by each room unique. The principles laid down indicate the general method of arrangement, and innumerable illustrations in books and magazines afford a wide field for suggestive study. This study will be made more fruitful by following the plan outlined above; but a perfect or even a fairly excellent arrangement can rarely be attained except as the result of much experiment. In most of the processes of house-furnishing experiment is costly, since it involves discarding some things and buying others. In experimenting with effects of balance no expenditure is demanded save that of time and effort, while the gains, both in the beauty of the room and in the growth of creative power in the decorator, are always considerable and frequently astonishing.

The balance of color is qualitative rather than quantitative. A small area of a given color in one situation will effectively balance a large area in an opposing situation. Thus a small chair will balance in color a large davenport, as a lamp shade or a vase will balance a pair of hangings or a table cover. Color balance will be treated at greater length in the chapter on color harmony, while the balanced distribution of light and shade so essential to the comfort and distinction of a room will be discussed in the following chapter.

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