Composition is a funny word. For me, it conjures memories of grade school and the tickle of dread that accompanied early writing assignments for Miss Spry's English class. And then from art school, thoughts of Lucien Freud, in his paint-smeared khakis, rapt, squinting past his thumb.
The principles of composition are at work constantly in interior design - but they're as subtly shaded and various as the word itself. Do you compose your home as you would a letter, for example, assembling it, rendering it line by line? Or do you compose your home as you might yourself, calming it, settling it and readying it to be seen?
I have an enjoyable recurring conversation with a writer friend about the parallels in our work. There are more than a few. Sentences and homes both have their grammar, for one. Both necessarily exist in some form - and the form you select says everything about you. And although few people call themselves professional writers or designers, everyone writes and designs nearly every day.
I don't have any writing tips for you, I'm afraid. But, looking over a sheaf of images recently, I got the idea of relating a few simple suggestions for how to sharpen the composition of your home's interior.
Reduce the evidence of visible lines
That sounds like the slogan from a cosmetics advertisement. It's certainly a notion women of a certain age - sadly, this age - can get behind. But where a woman erases lines to promote visual confusion (that is, to appear younger than she is), a designer does the same to avoid it.
The idea is that more lines have more points of intersection, which creates more work for the eye. When designing a home from the ground up, I always try to minimize its number of horizontal planes. Taking wall panelling right to the ceiling rather than cutting it 18 inches short is one way. Aligning door and window heights when they share a common wall is another. Less is more.
Cabinetry, too, often trashes that principle. Many kitchens have millwork towers that climb to two or three different heights, without any reaching the ceiling. The additional lines make the room feel nervous and unresolved, and for no good reason. All you get is a dead space between the cabinets and ceiling.
Fix flawed proportions with the number three
What is it about human beings that triads so appeal to us? The principle that animates Catholicism, joke-telling, music, baseball, and misfortune is, you won't be surprised to learn, also crucial to visual proportion.
Keep the rule of thirds in mind next time you're hanging art in your home. Too often, what you'll find is a placemat-sized piece of art hanging dead centre of a 12-foot run of wall, looking as terrified and alone as a toddler left in a food court.
A better idea is to make one art piece occupy at least one-third of one wall. If the surface behind master bed runs 16 feet, the artwork should stretch 5.5 feet, minimum. That doesn't mean that you have to rush out and buy a gigantic painting. A series of framed prints - hung salon-style or in a grid - will fill the same space nicely.
Do justice with scale
Context is everything in design. Which is good: each new situation offers the opportunity to create fresh meaning. And bad: where nothing is fixed, hard and fast rules are scant. It means that designers - as E.B. White said of writers - must steer by stars that are disturbingly in motion.
In composing your room, make good scale your North Star. Begin by stepping back. Is it a large room? Then you'll want furniture that is, proportionally, even larger. The pieces should occupy the space naturally, as though they'd always been there. Just as spindly, delicate settees look lost in open-floor plans, big modern sectionals disagree with Victorian-style homes, whose small rooms are made for finely wrought tables and fancy chairs with upright backs.
The fastest way to improve the scale relationships in your home is with area rugs that match up to your furnishings. Most people make the error of a 4- by 6-foot rug in living room. The coffee table sits on it, but the sofa and chairs rest beyond the periphery, on the floor. Cost is the reason. Making the leap to an 8- by 10-foot rug is expensive.
But the bigger rug is the better plan. What you want is a continent for your furnishings. A big-enough rug will contain and support them, grounding the space. You'll know you've succeeded when you see your friends relaxing, some on chairs and sofas, some on the floor.
What does it mean? That your composition has been judged inviting. There are few higher rewards.