Many years ago a mature woman took some interior design classes from me and was in awe when we began to discuss informal or asymmetrical balance. She said that her original design training had been post World War II and at that time the only thing taught was formal balance, or symmetry. Symmetry or bisymmetry is the balance of objects on both sides of a centerline where each object is identical or nearly identical. Pairs of objects in perfect symmetry create a type of formal, or perfect balance, which was the only way of the world up until about the 1960s.
Interestingly, since then we often find formality has bowed out
graciously in interior design in favor of more casual environments.
Yet, it still has a place—an important place—in the
creation of lovely rooms, upscale and prestigious and where one
feels a sense of the important and where propriety is deemed of
WHY FORMAL BALANCE
When teaching university students about symmetry, I often use this
classroom activity. It’s fun and I encourage you to explore
it, as well. All class members sit up straight in their seats, square
their shoulders and look forward. They position their feet and knees
side by side and place each hand on its matching right or left front
thigh. This puts them in a position of formal or symmetrical balance.
Then I ask them to call out adjectives which describe the way they
feel in this position — positive words first, please.
Their words are inspiring and the reasons why we should maintain
some formality in our lives. A few examples are, “alert,”
“dignified,” “attentive,” “awake,”
“directed,” “balanced,” “aware,”
“taller,” and “important.”
While these adjectives do not describe every room we create, they
can describe rooms that are very special, where important things
take place and where people feel more dignified and more keenly
aware of their surroundings.
A broader view of formality is much more than the placement of objects
in symmetrical balance. Historically, formal rooms have elements
that are more precious, more exquisitely beautiful and more costly
than informal rooms. The room where treasured items can be placed
is often a room where there is less traffic and more protection
afforded to the finer possessions.
During the Victorian Era, this kind of room was termed a parlor.
Today, it can be any room in which when one enters there is a feeling
of the special, even the extraordinary. It is a feeling that elevates
the spirit or soul. This feeling gives the viewer a greater sense
of importance and dignity, resulting in elevated self worth. This
is a boon in a culture that tends to devalue people through excessive
criticism. A wise saying about formal interiors is this: “When
we treat people as though they are worth the best, they tend to
live up to our expectations.”
In a formal room, people instinctively use better manners, more
gentility and more kindness.
Formal interiors need not be stuffy or intimidating, trite or museum-like.
In fact, a well-decorated formal room is one that beckons the visitor,
the guest or the owner to come and enjoy its loveliness, to stay
and absorb the attention to detail and the precision that gives
wonder to the viewer. A formal room is first and foremost a lovely
place to be, and gives the occupant a sense of wonder and a feeling
CREATING FORMALITY WITH VERTICALITY
In addition to symmetrical balance, one of the elements useful in
creating a formal room is verticality. This is accomplished through
architecture, window and wall coverings, and the lines of furnishings
Vertical lines pull the eye upwards, impressing the mind with soaring
heights. Vertical lines make spaces seem taller. They lift the mind
and the spirit and convey an appreciation for strength and dignity
appropriate for entryways and formal living and dining areas. They
also command attention and create a stage-like setting, filled with
drama and wonder.
As formal rooms bespeak dignity, they also are gentile, mannerly
and gracious. As tall vertical lines connect by gently curving arches
and soft light bathes a ceiling, there is an element in formal rooms
that gentlemen and ladies are welcomed here and that graciousness
abounds. Softness in contrast to verticality is a balancing factor
in well-designed formal rooms.
FORMALITY AND HIGH CONTRAST
Formal rooms are not ordinary; they are extraordinary. One of the
ways they become memorable is through color and texture. Most formal
interiors have elements of drama through high contrast of color.
For example, a black and white marble checked floor was considered
the most tasteful and formal settings for palaces and estates through
the European Renaissance.
Today you still can create a stunning feeling of elegance through
dramatically high contrast. High contrast elements must be sharp,
precise and detailed. It is commanding and profound. In addition
to black and white, the contrast that sets formal rooms apart may
be a contrast of silver or chrome and deep value—a bit of
shimmer set against a deeper value.
TEXTURE AND FORMALITY
Formal textures are those that evoke elegance. In fabrics, satin-based
fabrics such as Jacquards work well, damask, brocade, brocatelle
and lampas are formal. Also, velvets such as upholstery velvet,
cut velvet, panné velvet, moquette (woven design with some
plain weave background areas) are largely formal fabrics.
At the window, the ninon, chiffon and other smooth or refined sheers
are more formal than those with texture. Traditionally, the Jacquard
fabrics are installed as draperies over sheers and edged with passementerié
or trimmings—fringe and rope ties with tassels, for example.
Swagged top treatments and upholstered cornices are among the most
prestigious and seem to be most appropriate if the style is lovely
Smooth textures are mostly used in background applications. These
include marble floors and walls and highly polished or lacquered
wood furniture and floors. It may be that these fabric and background
textures are considered formal in part because these textures generally
are higher upkeep materials, so those who can afford their upkeep
are on a higher social or financial plane. They also are reserved
for rooms with little traffic, these fabrics would not hold up under
much use. It is also because these textures are thrilling to behold.
They are refined to the touch and to the eye. They are elegant and
create a feeling of smooth sophistication.
Not all formal rooms, however, are all smooth textures. In fact,
there is a trend toward utilizing smaller amounts of rustic, artifact
or complex unique design in rooms that are high in formality. This
keeps them from becoming too predictable and stiff. A bit of the
unexpected brings relief and a bit of humor, a relief from the stringent
qualities of a strictly formal interior.
An often-used phrase in balancing formality with livability is,
“harmony is made of unity and variety.” Unity is an
important principle of design. Unity is the key to making choices
that are similar in effect—the same style of furnishings or
a close-knit color scheme, for example. However, if everything matches,
the effect is lost and the room becomes trite and uninteresting.
In this case, variety gives back the punch or the excitement by
adding elements that are unexpected and unique—they are interesting
in themselves and also a great conversation piece or area of interest.
Formal interiors are critical to balancing and maintaining propriety
in a culture. They establish a sense of propriety and acceptability.
They serve to keep us trying to act the dignified part. Formal rooms
help us understand that the truly special in life is worth savoring
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of
design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books
including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors:
An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies
& Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education