Zen and the Art of Furniture Arrangement

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.” – Robert M. Pirsig

Truth and furniture are not words commonly used in the same sentence; there is no universal truth in terms of how best to arrange your living space for comfort, balance and harmony. But understanding some fundamental principles and practical tips can help you achieve the most comfortable and visually pleasing arrangements possible in your home’s living spaces.

Read on and learn the fundamentals of home furniture arrangement and tips on how to resolve the challenges of fitting everything into place like a pro.

Furniture Arrangement Challenges

Every home and floor plan has its unique furniture-arranging challenges. Rooms may be long and narrow or with odd nooks and crannies to fill, doors may swing into the way of furnishings, walls may be set at angles, all making it seemingly impossible to fit your furniture comfortably into the right spots. But there are ways to manage all these challenges effectively.

Arranging Living Spaces for Scale, Balance and Symmetry

Scale refers to the relationship of furnishings to each other and the space you are arranging. A space that is out of scale will feel out of sorts. For example if you place a very large sofa next to a tiny coffee table, the visual effect will subconsciously seem unbalanced.

Symmetry and asymmetry are also important in achieving a balanced and pleasing arrangement; if everything is entirely symmetrical, the room may seem restful, yet may lack visual impact. On the other hand, a completely asymmetrical arrangement can be jarring to the eye.

Balancing symmetry (i.e. a matched pair of sitting chairs) with asymmetry (i.e. two lamps of different heights) assures the space feels relaxing, yet also retains visual motion and impact.

Begin with a Blank Canvas

One trick interior designers use when starting a project is to treat a space as a blank canvas, the way an artist considers a new composition. Just as a painter creates a sense of depth and motion in a painting, the interior designer can use similar methods in laying out a room.

One such method is triangulation, in which elements are placed left and right in the lower part of a composition and converge at a point above the midpoint, drawing the eye into the scene.
Triangulation may be applied in arranging a room, for instance, by placing end tables on either side of a table and hanging artwork on the wall over the sofa, creating a triangular composition with the apex above the midpoint of the arrangement. This type of arrangement creates an aesthetically pleasing, balanced “vignette” within the overall composition of the room.

Create a Focal Point

Such an arrangement also creates a natural focal point in a room that may lack an architectural focal point such as a large picture window, fireplace, etc. Determining your room’s focal point is usually the best place to begin your arrangement.

In the living room the focal point may be the fireplace or conversation area, in the family room it may be a home entertainment center and in the bedroom it is typically the bed.
If your room does not have an architectural focal point, you will want to arrange furniture in order to create one; the above example makes use of an expanse of wall space to provide a visual focal point. Other examples include using a large area rug to create a focal point, around which a comfy conversation is created with the furniture arrangement.

You should place the largest piece of furniture in a room first:

  • In a family room, the entertainment center is often the primary piece of furniture;
  • In a dining room or eating area, the dining table;
  • In a living room, a sofa;
  • In a bedroom, the bed.

Think in Totality

You want to arrange your furniture with gestalt, or the principle of totality, in mind. For example, a large space may be divided, as is common in modern homes with great room spaces; the kitchen, eating space and entertainment areas each being part of an overall space, but also each having its own form as defined by it’s respective function.

Large, rectangular spaces tend to feel less comfortable, which is why dividing such a space with square furniture arrangements is typical in many interior design schemes. Often designers plan zones within a room, creating a more intimate, informal layout and maximizing use of the space that allows for various functions such as conversation areas, dining areas, etc.

Style is another aspect to consider in totality; for the most part you want the furniture in a given room to be of similar style, unless you are purposely trying to achieve an eclectic look.

Consider the Function of the Room

Obviously the function of any given space is crucial to the arrangement of furnishings. Ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • In the living room, is seating comfortable and arranged such that people are close enough to hear each other readily? Remember that noise levels will increase substantially when you have a larger gathering.
  • Is there adequate table space to set glasses and food down if you plan to serve food when entertaining in the living room?
  • Is the room lighting adequate to the tasks for which you will typically use the room or do you need additional table lamps to augment the ambient light level?
  • In bedrooms, is there enough room for two people to get dressed at the same time?
  • In the kitchen, can more than one person prepare food without getting in the way of the other?
  • In an eating area or dining room, can people walk around the table without others needing to pull in their chairs to let them pass?

The Importance of Scale in Arranging Furniture

One mistake non-designers make when choosing furniture is to buy pieces that are out of scale … either to each other and/or to the room itself. For example; an overly large coffee table paired with a small sofa, end tables that are too small beside a large sofa, a bed that fills a bedroom from wall to wall, or a dining table that leaves no room for diners to maneuver around it.
When furnishings are out of scale the room feels somehow uncomfortable and out of balance. When you find a piece that is out of scale with the rest of the furniture in your room, its best to either move it elsewhere in the house, sell or store it.

Begin with Space Planning

To help plan your space start by measuring and doing some sketches to test various concepts and arrangements on paper or by using a computer design application. Your plans should include:

  1. A traffic flow chart; spaces should allow freedom of movement and openness.
  2. An overall floor plan; consider how your rooms connect and what functions each space needs to serve.
  3. Room sketches; create multiple sketches of each space so that you can compare various furniture arrangement possibilities.
  4. An inventory of existing furniture you wish to incorporate into your arrangement; use this to complete a gap analysis and determine what additional pieces are needed.

Additional Furniture Arrangement Tips

  • Leave room entrances and exits clear and allow a clear walkway at least 3 feet wide so that people can pass through the room comfortably. Consider the “view” you will have as you enter a room.
  • Try moving furniture away from the walls; don’t line all your furniture up against the walls or you’ll end up with something that looks like a doctor’s office waiting room. Remember to arrange pieces around your room’s focal point.
  • Placing furniture on a diagonal can add interest and motion, helping break up an otherwise monotonous room layout; an armoire, for instance, placed diagonally can help disguise an awkward corner. Placing furniture at an angle can help the room appear larger and more complex and may improve traffic flow as well.
  • Try moving the sofa out away from the wall, placing a long table behind it where you can arrange accessories.
  • Vary the height and vertical lines of furniture to add depth and interest to your furniture arrangement.
  • Avoid placing large furnishings in front of windows, where they may block natural light; low pieces that don’t block window light may be fine under windows. A bench or small chair under a window can provide a nice place to sit and enjoy the view outside!
  • It should go without saying you never want to place furniture where it will prevent a door from opening and closing; a free and unobstructed traffic pattern is essential to any good furniture arrangement.

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