A client recently asked me how to figure out the right proportions for things like lighting, tile and furniture. She said she always seems to pick things that are too big or too small.
She's not the first person to ask me about this. Proportions are a mystery to a lot of non-designers, which means that, even if you have great taste, your home can end up looking "off" because things are out of proportion with the space or with everything else in it (or both).
What I usually say when people ask me about proportions is that it's something I just have a knack for - I know what's going to look right and what's not without really thinking about it. But my client's question made me want to try to unravel exactly how I know and to explain it in simple terms, so here it goes!
First of all, "proportions" are really just about taking the size of one thing and relating it to the size of something else (hence the saying "blowing it out of proportion," meaning making a bigger deal out of something than the comparatively small situation calls for).
Proportions aren't as much about being "right" or "wrong" as they are about simply being visually pleasing or visually jarring. You know how they say that if you notice a woman's makeup and not just her face, she's wearing too much? It's the same thing with proportions in design: If you walk into a room and immediately notice the size of the light fixture it's in the wrong proportion for the space.
When it comes to lighting, I'm sure there are highly detailed and technical ways to find the right proportions. But for the average homeowner who just wants to pick a darn chandelier that won't look like it belongs in a dollhouse compared to their dining room table, here are some simple guidelines.
Tips for picking lighting in the right proportions
1. How high are your ceilings? If you have "low" ceilings (10' or less), go for smaller fixtures. In fact, you can make low ceilings feel much higher by sticking with flush and semi-flush mount lights (not to mention a few can lights here and there so you get enough illumination).
But if your ceilings are a more generous height (11' and above), you may be able to pull off larger, more dramatic fixtures.
2. That said, if your room with a low ceiling also happens to be fairly large, go for a sizable fixture that's wide but doesn't hang low, or add a series of smaller fixtures in a row.
3. For bedrooms, you can opt to have a hanging fixture even if the ceiling's low as long as there's not a walkway directly beneath it (if it will hang over the bed or a bench at the end of the bed, for example). Just be sure to add lamps to the room, too, so your lighting is "layered" for a cozier feel.
4. What are the other measurements of the space? One guideline (though I think it should be used loosely) is to add the width and length of your room together and look for a fixture with a width/diameter that's the same number but in inches. So for example, if your space is 16'x20' you'd look for a fixture somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 inches wide.
5. But of course, there's an exception to that. If your fixture will be over a kitchen or dining table, take the table's width and subtract 12 inches. The result is the width/diameter you need to look for in a fixture (a 42" wide table would need a roughly 30" wide fixture).
Apply the same formula to kitchen islands, or use multiples of a smaller fixture.
That's it in a nutshell. Proportions aren’t as complicated as you may think, and they’re certainly not an exact science. People like me, who seem to "just know" the right size fixture to choose are essentially automatically processing all of that information just by looking at the room and without realizing they're doing it.
I'm betting that once you've used the guidelines above a few times, you'll be able to put your tape measure away and still pick something in the right proportions.
Then people will start asking you how you do it, too!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Proportions series coming soon.
Want help finding the right proportions for lighting, tile and furnishings for your home in upstate New York, Vermont or Connecticut? Let's talk! Live somewhere else but still want us to help? Call us anyway. We like to travel!
Photo Credit: Whitney Nichols Photography