Learn to Use the Elements of Design to Create Interiors Like a Pro

Okay, we want to create beautiful, glorious interiors and gardens, right? What are the elements of design and how do the pros use them to create beautiful interiors? How do we create beauty?

What is beauty, anyway?

Webster's defines beauty as, "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit." And that is exactly what we hope to accomplish in our surroundings. I believe that our environment plays a significant role toward affecting our moods—alleviating stress and improving our well-being. We should always strive to surround ourselves with beauty.

I think we can easily recognize what is not beautiful. There is something wrong, or something missing. There is a lack of harmony, a jarring sensation, a discordant feeling—even unease. We know that chaos and messiness are not beautiful, so we feel that order contributes to beauty. We know that some things work together and some don't, so we know that appropriateness and harmony contributes to beauty. We know beauty and ugliness when we see it, but what exactly makes that object or a space beautiful or ugly?

The next time you are in a room that makes you go, “Wow,” see if you can analyze what it is about it that you like so much, what makes it successful. Is it the light? Color? The choice or arrangement of objects? Scale? Craftsmanship? Decide what it is about a space that does not work quite so well, also. Train your eye to see everywhere you go (it will become second nature) and you will soon find out what elements appeal to you and what do not—and that is the basis for forming your own personal style and taste. You can look at photographs and read books, but the best education for your “eye” is to personally experience good interiors.

One of my favorite rooms is the library in the dome of Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia. I was fortunate to experience it once, completely alone. It was stunning! The light from the oculus and tall windows, the symmetry, the columns, the bookcases cleverly tucked behind the columns, the scale—were just completely perfect. Hmm, I had a similar reaction at the Pantheon in Rome—not a coincidence since Jefferson based the Rotunda on the Pantheon.

Standards and tastes do change over time. There are certainly things that I loved when I was younger that can make me say, “What was I thinking!” now. Beauty is subjective to a certain degree—in the eye of the beholder, as they say—but there are certain choices we can make that will increase our chances of creating an aesthetically pleasing environment. And those are the concepts we call the elements of design. So, before we even get into the fun stuff like styles and furniture, let’s review the essential elements and principles of design.

Design basics: point, line, space, form, shape, volume, scale, proportion, harmony, contrast, emphasis, balance, rhythm, texture, pattern, and color.

Click here for a useful glossary of decorative fabrics.

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