Practice Your Scale — Chicago Tribune

It May Be The Most Overlooked Design Element And The Most Pervasive-it’s The Balancing Act That Involves Furniturem Color, Fabric Pattern, Window Treatment, Floor Coverings And More

When Patty Brotman was shown a duplex condo in a vintage courtyard building on the Near North Side, she knew she’d found her new home. It was everything she wanted— «homey and romantic, with pretty moldings and a beautiful fireplace.»

With no set direction in mind, Brotman blissfully set out to buy all new furniture for her 11-by-15-foot dining room and 14-by-15 foot living room, deciding to go for the «overstuffed look» in upholstered pieces.

Fortunately, Brotman was snatched from the brink of decorating disaster by an interior designer who steered her toward an Art Deco sofa and two chairs— and, perhaps more important, explained the role that scale plays in decorating.

«We didn’t realize how small scale the rooms were,» says Brotman, who found interior designer Marlene Rimland through the American Society of Interior Designers. Rimland, says Brotman, helped «us to understand these big, cushy chairs wouldn’t fit and gave us some options.»

«We were looking for an eclectic look. We are getting what we want, but in a dffferent way.»

Many others aren’t as lucky and wind up with furniture looking as though it were bought at the Green Giant’s garage sale but crammed into a Lilliputian living room—or perhaps they find the right sofa, but put a short and squat end table and lamp next to it, which makes it a Jack Sprat-and-his wife pairing.

Scale the balance between a room and its furnishings—is all-pervasive in a decorating scheme and includes color, fabric patterns, window treatments, floor coverings, artwork on the walls, accessories and some elements amateurs might not even think of. Which is why it can be so easy to go so wrong.

Most people «just don’t go through the process,» says Joan Blutter of Blutter-Shiff Design Associates in the Merchandise Mart, whose design work in author Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Connecticut home was featured in December’s Architectural Digest.

Back up a minute

The first step in successfully decorating a room, says Debi Reinhart-Kenlay of Surrey House Interiors in Glenview, is to adapt the scale of furnishings to the architecture and function of the room. Many times the decision of what scale furnishings to use is made for you by the architecture, she says.

For example, a huge overstuffed sofa is right at home in the middle of a high-ceilinged great or family room, but wrong in, say, a Victorian cottage with small, narrow rooms.

Other times the spaces are extremely mundane, «a rectangle,» says Reinhart-Kenlay, and the problem is how to make it special and, at the same time, reflect the owner’s personality.

«For one client you could do white walls with mahogany period furniture that would open that room up and make it look proper and restful,» says Reinhart-Kenlay. «Someone else might have a bold personality. For that person, you could paint the same walls charcoal gray, which would be smashing with overscale artwork on them and two overstuffed chairs, and that would be it.»

The artwork and chairs would grab the spotlight while the neutral gray on the walls would make them visually recede, and take the eye away from the shape of the room.


Once those considerations are taken into account and the basic approach in style is decided, Reinhart-Kenlay says attention should be turned toward establishing a dominant feature.

«Where a lot of amateurs fail is they don’t realize something has to dominate and something has to be subordinate in a room-just as in relationships,» says Reinhart-Kenlay.

«There’s got to be a star or a focal point,» adds MJ Kamin of MJ Dvorak Design Interiors of Riverside, so the eye’s attention is not scattered all over the place.

«Sometimes it is the windows, sometimes the fireplace. You choose something-an open etagere, a very interesting piece of upholstery or a plain couch with some wonderful pillows on each end, and determine where it is going to go.

«If you’re floating a sofa in the middle of a large family room, you can do a lot more. If you are dealing with small spaces you have to be a lot more careful» in choosing pieces that are more exact in scale, adds Kamin.

Heroic proportions

Some designers, like Richar of Richar Interiors, intentionally use overscale art to provide drama in a room.

In his Lake Shore Drive apartment, Richar uses an enormous mid-19th Century rococo-style gilded mirror, which nearly fills the 10-foot-high space from floor to ceiling, as a focal point in his living room.

«People describe my apartment as having a heroic quality,» says the designer, who has done interiors for many prominent Chicagoans, such as commodities trader L.T. Baldwin; WXRT-FM owner Dan Lee and his wife, Karen; WLUP-FM radio personality Jonathan Brandmeier; and Arlington Toyota president and owner Tony Vicari and his wife, Ann.

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