Tension is a good thing in interior design

Inocencia Blewett

Ahhh, the holidays. Time off work, festive decorations, parties, presents, an excuse to wear sequins — what’s not to love? Well, since you asked, how about the gift gathering, budget blowing, card writing, binge baking, mad wrapping and overindulging? How about the worries that your son’s girlfriend will come to […]

Ahhh, the holidays. Time off work, festive decorations, parties, presents, an excuse to wear sequins — what’s not to love?

Well, since you asked, how about the gift gathering, budget blowing, card writing, binge baking, mad wrapping and overindulging? How about the worries that your son’s girlfriend will come to Christmas Eve services in a black bustier and leather mini skirt, that the puppy will water the Christmas tree and that Aunt Sally will be drunk and snoring by noon.

Sure, there’s magic in the air, but there’s also t-e-n-s-i-o-n.

But let’s stop and reframe. Whenever I feel my stress-o-meter rising this time of year, I apply this important design maxim. Tension lies at the core of both great design and memorable occasions. Imagine how boring a movie, a piece of music, a novel or even a sporting event would be without tension to hold our interest.

Tension is the secret sauce, the twist, the spice, the curve, the zing.

“No one wants predictable,” said Los Angeles interior designer Jhoiey Ramirez, when I called her to discuss my theory. “Tension is what catches you slightly off-guard and makes you ask why?”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “If everyone behaved themselves, holidays would be so dull.”

“When approaching a new design, we always talk in terms of visual tension,” said Donald Strum, principal of product design for Michael Graves Design Group, in Princeton, NJ, who describes tension in design as a push and pull between opposing forces. “When done right, it adds an energy to the overall design.”

“Tension in interior design is what makes you walk into a room and want to pay a little more attention,” Ramirez said. “It’s the interplay of opposites. It’s the curve where you expect a line.”

Although we all strive for a Hallmark holiday, where dinner is magazine perfect and the Christmas lights all work, that’s not only unrealistic, it’s also humdrum. I told Ramirez about the year I made two pumpkin pies and forgot to add the sugar, the year the Christmas tree fell over and the time the stockings hung over the fireplace caught fire.

“Moments like those makes occasions memorable.”

I’m feeling better, aren’t you?

Meanwhile, here are some ways designers say you can add tension — the good kind — to your home décor:

Throw in a curve. Adding curves to a room is an easy and often overlooked way to create visual tension, Ramirez said. “Most rooms are boxes. Then people put in rectangular sofas, tables, desks and artwork, which feel static. Square rooms need curves ― a round mirror, an oval table, a sphere-shape chandelier ― to soften their edges while creating tension.” Similarly, when creating a tablescape on a rectangular or square surface, use round or oval objects; if the table is round, accessorize with square or rectangular objects.

Be off balance on purpose. Asymmetry can add positive tension and make a room more interesting. For instance, when a mantle displays two candlesticks on one side and one on the other, the eye looks a little longer. Because our brains seek balance, when we perceive something is off, we pay more attention.

Create a ripple. A straight line that goes forever is not that interesting, Strum said. But create a disruption with a zig, a ripple or a curve, and that changes the way the eye travels across the form. “The more moves, the more exciting it is.” Just don’t overdo it.

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