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  • Marni Jameson

Design Maxim Helps Put Holiday Stress in Perspective



Ahhh, the holidays. Time off work, relatives in town, festive decorations, parties, presents, fancy food, an excuse to wear sequins, what’s not to love? Well, since you asked, how about the gift gathering, the budget blowing, the card writing, the binge baking, the light-strand untangling, the angels falling, the mad wrapping and shipping, and the overindulging? How about the worries that your son’s girlfriend will come to Christmas Eve services wearing a black bustier and leather mini skirt, that the puppy will water the Christmas tree, again, and that Aunt Sally will be drunk and snoring by noon.


Sure, there’s magic in the air, but there’s also t-e-n-s-i-o-n.


Falalalala. But let’s stop and reframe. Whenever I feel my stress-o-meter rising this time of year, I apply this important design maxim. Tension lies at the core of both great design and memorable occasions. Now stay with me. Imagine how boring a movie, a piece of music, a novel, or even a sporting event would be without tension to hold our interest.


Tension is the secret sauce, the essential binder of design, of holidays, and even of an interesting life. It’s the twist, the spice, the curve, the zing.


“No one wants predictable,” said Los Angeles interior designer Jhoiey Ramirez, when I called her to discuss my threadbare theory. “Tension is what catches you slightly off-guard, and makes you ask why?”


“Exactly,” I agreed. “If everyone behaved, dressed right, drank appropriately, was well-employed and happily married, holidays would be so dull.”


“When approaching a new design, we always talk in terms of visual tension,” said Donald Strum, principal of product design for Michael Graves Design Group, in Princeton, NJ, who describes tension in design as a push and pull betweenopposing forces. “When done right, it adds an energy to the overall design.”


“Tension in interior design is what makes you walk into a room and want to pay a little more attention,” Ramirez added. “It’s the interplay of opposites.”


“Like when democrats and republicans talk politics at the dinner table,” I said, perspiring just thinking about it.


“It’s the curve where you expect a line,” she said.


Although we all strive for a Hallmark holiday, where the dinner is magazine perfect, and the Christmas lights all work, that is not only unrealistic, but also humdrum. I told Ramirez about the year I made two pumpkin pies and forgot to add the sugar, the year the Christmas tree fell over, and the time the stockings over the fireplace caught fire.


“Moments like those makes occasions memorable.”

I’m feeling better, aren’t you?


So this holiday season, when stressors start to pile up like bills in January, and your gatherings start to go off the rails,remember, a little tension may be just what your home needs.


While I probably don’t need to tell you how to add tension to your holidays, here are some ways designers say you can add good tension to your home décor:


  • Throw in a curve. Adding curves to a room is an easy and often overlooked way to create visual tension, Ramirez said. “Most rooms are boxes, then people put in rectangular sofas, tables, desks, and artwork, which feel static. Square rooms need curves ― a round mirror, an oval table, a sphere-shape chandelier ― to soften their edges while creating tension.” Similarly, when creating a tablescape on a rectangular or square surface, use round or oval objects; if the table is round, accessorize with square or rectangular objects.

  • Be off balance on purpose. Asymmetry can also add positive tension and make a room more interesting. For instance, when a mantle displays two candlesticks on one side and one on the other, the eye looks a little longer. Because our brains seek balance, when we perceive something is off, we pay more attention.

  • Create a ripple. A straight line that goes forever is not that interesting, Strum said. But create a disruption with a zig, a ripple or a curve, and that changes the way the eye travels across the form. “The more moves, the more exciting it is.” But don’t overdo it.

  • Pair opposites. The juxtaposition of light and dark, high and low, masculine and feminine, smooth and rough all add tension in design through contrast. When opposites pull at each other, the features of each are heightened.

  • Do the unexpected. Tension also happens when you don’t do what’s expected, Ramirez said. “Forget how it should be.” Decorate a white tree with all black ornaments, or put up an upside-down tree. That break with tradition becomes memorable. And might keep the dogs away.

Photo caption: Round out the edges. Curved furniture and fixtures soften the corners and straight lines of this room designed by Jhoiey Ramirez, of The Sycamore Collection. Photo courtesy of Daniel Dahler.

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