Karla J. Nielson
I confess. I love the stage—the drama, the lights, the
music, the suspense, the thrill of great theater. I equally appreciate
the dramatic effects created when fabulous interiors are produced
and life is made beautiful. I suspect I am not alone—great
interiors that are dramatic and thrilling are exciting to most
people. Although not everyone will choose to—or be able to—live
with breathtaking rooms, most people ooh and ahhh over them, and
they are backgrounds for fond memories, real or imagined.
Why do we need drama in our lives? It is because we are humans who love to experience
and thus feel. This is perhaps even more true today than it was 100 years ago
because so much of modern culture has jaded us. People today who have experienced
amusement park and movie thrills may have been hardened to an extent by over-stimulus
and overexposure and run the risk of not being able to feel.
Yet the desire for good feelings is a drive for people who have much goodness
inside of them. This is where the opportunity to create a fabulous interior falls
into our hands. The thrill of this kind of drama is the product of careful skill
and artistry and results in wonderful feelings and continual positive experiences.
In exploring this topic, there are two areas where the professional must be very
1. The ability to create and manipulate focal point as a powerful principle of
2. The human need for both open and closed spaces with the psychological impact
As a critical principle of design, a focal point is the area in a room where
the eye is drawn and where it often is held. The rules that apply to success
of a focal point are these:
1. Every room should contain a focal point in order to unify and strengthen the
2. Consider first the existence of a natural focal point, and use it as the center
of attention, rather than fight it with competing elements of design.
Wise design professionals always utilize to the fullest what any interior already
has to offer. Examples of natural focal points include a sweeping view of nature,
a fireplace and significant built-in architectural detail.
3. Where no natural focal point exists, it is important to create one. Examples
of created focal points include:
a wall of art—arranged grouping or a massive piece of art or a tapestry.
great furniture pieces such as an artistically filled china cabinet, historic
breakfront bookcase or secretary or a grand piano in combination with other art.
an exceptional window treatment that is well proportioned and very beautiful.
4. Manipulate the following to draw the eye to the focal point with greater effectiveness:
arrange furniture to face the focal point.
where possible, utilize dramatic lighting to emphasize the focal point such as
spotlights or interior lighting, for example.
use color to its fullest effect, again considering what natural colors exist
whether it be the colors of a scene in nature out the window or the colors of
the architectural elements.
build on or enhance these natural colors keeping harmony in mind. Fabrics, wall
coverings, furniture and accessories should feel as if they belong to the focal
point rather than compete against it.
consider dramatic use of color families, such as those that are either rich and
deep or sharp and strong or bright and lively. Keep the color family cohesive
throughout the interior and with careful consideration to its effect as it relates
to what you are really trying to accomplish. Ask yourself, “How do these
colors make me (or others) feel, and is this the effect I am seeking in this
5. Where the room is large or where the interior has a less-desirable natural
focal point, plan the furnishings to accentuate a second focal point.
In very large rooms, there may be three or more focal points where sub-groupings
make sense of an oversized space. Be very careful not to ignore existing focal
points and to consider a progression of focal points from most dramatic to secondary
in importance to third in eye-demand.
6. Consider combining focal points for greater impact and for interior design
cohesiveness. Examples might include:
Arranging a grand piano with other musical instruments, a window view or art
Grouping together tall wood pieces with snugly fitting upholstered pieces for
a massed effect.
Planning for a fireplace and a television screen to share a wall, anchored by
millwork and completed with artwork for times when neither the fire is lit nor
the television or home theater is on.
Incorporate wall coverings and window treatments so that they become an integral
and rich part of a focal point wall or corner. Accent trimmings on draperies
and top treatments should not be too eye catching but rather the eye should be
very satisfied with the whole treatments, not just its trimmings.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SPACE
All humans have a need for two kinds of space: open space and closed space. The
large open space that often is the lead player in a dramatic interior fills some
very real needs. Open space gives us a sense of freedom from the cares and worries
of life. It calms the mind and puts life into perspective; that often the things
that consume us with worry or activity are really not very important compared
to the majesty of nature.
We tend to rush around like little beavers trying to build our own lodges and
stockpiles of material goods and money. When we see the majesty of a sweeping
scene in nature, we feel comfort in its relatively unchanging qualities. Each
scene of mountain or plain, lake, ocean or desert has looked pretty much the
same for the past few thousand years, so who are we trying so hard to build a
small (or large) dynasty that in the end, will crumble and decay back into Mother
Earth? We are truly insignificant.
A large vista or expanse allows our minds to soar, free of obstructions, into
wide-open areas not just in nature or inside a handsome building, but also in
our imaginations. Anyone who has stood on the edge of a seemingly endless sea
or gazed at the Milky Way Galaxy away from city lights on a clear night knows
that if nature can be this expansive, then so can the human mind as we grapple
to understand it. New resolve and ideas come when we are given lots of room to
work on them.
Yet there are times when the vastness of the view and our own smallness as humans
becomes overwhelming and we feel just a bit too insignificant. These feelings,
ironic outgrowths of limitless freedom, leave us longing for some restrictions,
some turf that we can control, a place that is cozy, intimate and small. A return
to a small space from a large space is psychologically comfortable.
Architects of fine hotels know this. The interior atrium often is large not just
in square footage, but sometimes vertically open 20 or more stories. This provides
great drama and spaces that can handle the noise and confusion of hundreds of
people all going different directions. Yet there is privacy, quiet and security
in the beautifully decorated hotel rooms and suites that give relief from the
dramatic, even hard to comprehend, public spaces.
Small spaces give us a sense of control. And in smaller spaces of our own we
can plan, select, arrange and enjoy the furnishings in a way that feels right
to us. Some residential rooms that are very large succeed because the designers,
decorators or owners select color, pattern, texture and furniture that give the
room a sense of coziness. A successful interior often has incorporated into it
elements of dramatic design: rich woods, mood lighting, elements of luxury.
DRAMA ON STAGE
Every room may be considered a stage, a set with a backdrop for living graciously
and well, for function and work sometimes, and for relaxation and renewal at
other times. Yet no matter the size or purpose of the room, it meets its full
potential when it can stimulate in the user the desire to be there and to feel
very good about being there.
Most importantly, the user who is determined to return to that space again and
again has been rewarded for the effort to take part in the process of experiencing
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 and merchandising.