To create an interior that is functional, economical, individual, and beautiful requires some design skill, a certain amount of sensitivity, and a lot of common sense. You will become more skilled in this area as you acquire a better understanding of the elements and principles of design.

The elements of design are usually classified as (1) color—light, (2) line—pattern, (3) form—space, and (4) texture.

1. Color is an emotional element and the least expensive design tool. The white light of the universe encompasses about one thousand colors, but when refracted by moisture, this light emerges as a rainbow of violet, indigo blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.

We should understand the several dimensions of colors: Hue or chroma is the color we see, such as red, yellow, or blue. Value is the lightness or darkness of a hue, which can be raised or lowered by adding white or black. Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a hue.

Let’s look at some colors and see how they relate to these dimensions. The yellow-red hues are warm, while the blue hues are cool. Daffodil yellow would visually warm a cold, north bedroom, or blue would give a cooling effect to a sun-drenched family room. Such use of color helps create a desired atmosphere or mood.

Another aspect is that warm colors and dark values are aggressive and advancing while cool colors and pale values tend to be remote and receding. Walls treated with warm or cool hues can be made to visually advance or retreat, depending on the effect you want to create.

How can you know what colors go together when combined in a color scheme? Do you just pick any at random and hope they will look all right? To find out, make a color wheel.

Colors opposite each other on the wheel are called “complementary colors” because they are completely different and thereby intensify each other by vying for attention. As the saying goes, opposites attract; despite the conflict, they brighten each other. Therefore, it is generally not good to use them in equal amounts.

Another method of marrying these contrasting hues is to lessen the intensity or to dull one of the colors. This is achieved by adding to the color its complement or by adding black or white.

Colors that are beside each other on the color wheel are related and therefore harmonize more easily. For example, if you use blue-violet, blue, and blue-green, these colors will intermix because each has a common basis in the color blue. Incorporate these units of color into your room and see the pleasing effects available according to your personal taste.

Now let’s tackle the law of chromatic distribution. According to this law, the largest areas of an interior should be the most neutralized (white, grey, sand, beige). As the areas become smaller, they should be brighter. Accents can be full intensity. Observe nature carefully for an example of this. Elephants are drab grey, while hummingbirds come in jewel tones. Imagine a world of orange elephants and grey hummingbirds. However, today orange elephants are coming into their own. Big bold areas of bright color can really boost the spirits, but you must be careful in using them. A room of fire-engine red can make you wage war. An intense blue can make you sad and “blue.” But try a room full of yellow, and you’ll be filled with sunshine. One color should be dominant in any one room; other colors should be subordinated. This minimizes spottiness.

With these guidelines, don’t be afraid to express your own personality in color.

2. Line is the basis of all pattern and is divided into four types: (1) Vertical lines tend to create height, strength, dignity. The verticality of the Salt Lake Temple suggests a very special kind of awe-inspiring dignity. (2) Horizontal lines parallel to the earth suggest repose and masculinity. Note the ground-hugging log cabins the pioneers built. Ranch houses are another example. (3) Diagonal lines give a feeling of action and tension as slanted-beam ceilings and staircases well illustrate. (4) Curved lines give movement, grace, even femininity. The Taj Mahal in India is a classic example.

3. Form—space. Furniture and other objects within your room create the form and space of your area. The more furniture you put into a room, the less space you’ll have, and space is all-important. This is where you breathe, move, live, and enjoy life, family, and friends. If you think first of space and last of form, you will cherish your living space, keeping furnishings and other accessories to a minimum. What is the reason a person moves from a $25-a-month apartment to a $75 one? Generally it is simply for the extra space.

4. Texture means the characteristics and structure of materials, their tactile and visible qualities, such as the striations of slate, the smoothness of marble, the grainings of wood, the tight or loose weaves of fabric. These textures can give exciting pattern interest to any room if other design details are kept simple. Don’t hesitate to use a variety of textures—coarse and smooth, shiny and dull. It’s all there in nature—the earth, foliage, rocks, and lakes.

Now that you know the basic elements of design, it is necessary to know some general guidelines of how to use these elements. These guidelines, or principles of design, are as follows: (1) balance, (2) rhythm, (3) emphasis, (4) scale, (5) proportion, (6) harmony, (7) repetition, and (8) contrast.

1. Balance has to do with equilibrium. In your room, it means that all objects on the south wall and floor must be equal physically or visually to those on the north, and likewise for east and west areas. If, in trying to create balance, we are matching pairs of identical items, we call it symmetrical balance. This gives an orderly, dignified feeling. However, it tends to be a bit dull because little imagination is required to understand the balance.

On the other hand, asymmetrical balance is nature’s way. A selected group of objects, due to their positioning, appear to equal another grouping. This demands creativity and lends an informal, exciting character to a room. You can successfully combine symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, but there must always be more of one than of the other.

It’s fun to experiment, and your judgment is as good as anyone else’s when it comes to determining whether certain combinations of furnishings are visually in balance with each other.

2. Rhythm simply means the organized controlling of eye movement. The roving eye naturally likes to be attracted to a focal spot and then move in an interesting pattern about the room. This effect is not too difficult to achieve when one understands a few devices. First, the eye can be moved by repetition. This can simply be a consecutive series of squares or any other elements, such as line, color, or texture. Second, alternation is a method of repetition of alternating forms, like a square and a circle. The most complicated device is progression. In its simplest form, it is a gradual change in state, such as a square stretching into a rectangle of increasing size, or it may be white shading through gray to black.

Using these methods, try to make picture groupings and color combinations that will move the eye about your room. For instance, if you have a red carpet with white walls, the attention focus will be on the floor until red is carried up and along the walls, such as with a red band on draperies. Pictures with red mats may further prod the eye along the wall to a white sofa with red cushions tossed along it. Experiment and find your own ways to keep the eyes of your friends moving as they explore the interests of your room.

3. Emphasis involves dominance and subordination. Your room should have one major focal area and two or three of less importance. The focal point will attract attention first; then the eye will move to the other parts of the room to find other areas of interest. If all the areas are of equal importance, your room will be as monotonous as the ticking of a clock.

You can create a focal point in your room by furniture arrangement, color, texture and pattern, lighting, and the use of accessories. It is not difficult, but you must use discipline. Simply tell yourself that one area is focal and all others are subordinate. Prune and rearrange until this is a reality. Have related groupings with air spaces between and not one continuous fence of furniture about the wall of your room.

4. Scale is the relationship of all the furnishings in your room to you. If you are large and rugged, then the objects in your room should express this. Does a 220-pound football player put his size 13 feet on an embroidered, delicately carved, seventeenth-century French Provincial footstool? Of course not. He needs a 40-pound leather hassock.

Look around and you’ll see that we live in a world of violated scales, with large lamps overpowering petite tables, or small pictures lost on bare walls. Always keep in mind the ways in which scale should apply: objects in a room should be in scale with the room size and with one another, and fabric designs should be relative to the objects they cover.

5. Proportion has to do with the shape relationships. Things relate when the mind can accept them as being reasonably compatible. The square and the circle employ the principle of repetition in that they are the same whichever way we look at them. Too much repetition becomes monotonous. Our eyes begin to want something different. The rectangle and the oval then add variety and interest, or a triangle may provide needed contrast. How does proportion apply in our homes? It’s all in the shape of things. For example, tie those curtains back, but do it at the points that are just less or just more than one-half their total length, yet never at the one- or two-thirds mark. Look at things with a critical eye. Create some interest.

6, 7, and 8. Harmony, Repetition, and Contrast. Variety with unity is the first rule of design. Variety is achieved by using dissimilar or contrasting elements, while unity is arrived at by using similar or harmonious elements or by the use of repetition. Variety or contrast is like spice in the cake: use it sparingly.

Every room should have a definite feeling. Unity is putting it all together and coming up with the feeling you had in mind, be it formal, rustic, conservative, mod, or whatever is your thing. Unexpected variations, such as a 1920 dresser, may not look mod at the time, but your ingenuity with saw and color will make them conform. The important thing is to determine the mood you want your interior to express, then go out with imagination and awareness and collect things that are meaningful and seem to sing your song.

Illustrated by Maurice Scanlon


A. Rhythm through repetition

B. Rhythm through alternating repetition

C. Rhythm through progression


EMPHASIS (focal point—fireplace)

SCALE (A very small chair would not be used next to this very tall piece)


A. Symmetrical balance

B. Forms not of the same visual weight

C. and D. Asymmetrical balance (forms that are dissimilar except in visual weight and are the same distance from the center)