The Design Process Revealed - Proportion

The Design Process Revealed - Proportion

Getting things into proportion

If you are looking for an over-mantle mirror use the rule of thirds. Take the height of your mantle shelf, double it and you’ve got the ideal height for the mirror to hang above it.

Or, if you have a low ceiling then reverse the proportion, so that the mirror is exactly half the height of the mantle shelf.

Create Harmony

Humans love symmetry - it makes them feel as if they are in control. Asymmetrical arrangements have associations of wildness, nature and entropy.

Since the Greeks harmonious proportion has been based on thirds. It's a very human system of proportion which is why for most of us; three things on a mantle shelf look perfect.

In Georgian times, no mantle shelf was complete without a garniture which could be an urn and two candlesticks, candelabra and two statues, a clock and two bud vases etc. Posh garnitures ran into many pieces but they could always be symmetrically divided within a system of thirds. The traditional Georgian arrangement was for a pyramid - two low objects either side and a higher one in the middle. But often one might find an inverse pyramid with low object in the middle and high ones on the outside.

Balance your objects

All of the above is fundamentally about balance. If you think of your mantle shelf as a see saw then a symmetrical arrangement of objects means you’ve achieved balance. If you want to make an asymmetrical feature or the group of objects don’t divide then group the objects on the mantle shelf according to their visual weight. This sounds complicated but actually it is quite obvious. A black basalt urn will be much, much heavier than a crystal cut vase. It’s an instinctive thing, but it always works. I would suggest that if you have the black basalt urn on the right hand side, you would need the cut crystal vase, a pair of earthenware candlesticks and maybe an ornamental sphere at the opposite end to create appropriate balance.

Alter the proportions

You can alter the perceived proportions of a room by adjusting the height of architectural details like skirting boards or dado rails. Installing a dado rail or chair rail deliberately low will make the ceiling feel much higher, particularly if the skirting, panel and chair rail are all painted darker than the wall above.

Never hang pictures too high. The ideal is for your eye level to meet with the top third of the picture; this will make viewing the picture easy and also ensure that you are not drawing attention to the height of the ceiling.

If your arrangement of objects, your still life, seems a bit samey it maybe because the objects are all the same height. I'll often stand one of the objects on a couple of books just to give it a bit more presence. The books obviously act as an unofficial plinth.

Have Fun

All of the above is fundamentally about balance. If you think of your mantle shelf as a see-saw then a symmetrical arrangements of objects means you've achieved balance. If you want to make an asymmetrical feature or the group of objects don't divide then group the objects on the mantle shelf according to their visual weight. This sounds complicated but actually it is quite obvious. A black basalt urn will be much, much heavier than a cut crystal vase. It's an instinctive thing, but it always works. I would suggest that if you have the black basalt urn on the right hand side, you would need the cut crystal vase, a pair of earthenware candlesticks and maybe an ornamental sphere at the opposite end to create appropriate balance.

Summary of the design rules

Harmonious proportion is based on a division of thirds, use this for hanging pictures.

Consider height as well as number when positioning objects on a shelf.

If you have an asymmetric arrangement, use the items visual weight to create balance.

Hanging pictures or mirrors at the right level can give the appearance of a higher ceiling.

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