Matters of Scale: Designers Offer Tips to Get It Right
I knew when we bought the Happier Yellow House that the outdoor carriage lamps flanking the garage would need to go, and the sooner the better. Like so many cheap light fixtures that builders hastily slap on homes, these were too small. To use one of my mother’s memorable expressions, “They look like two fleas on a boiled ham.”
However, as much as they bugged me, other home matters took priority. So, we lived with the dinky outdoor carriage lamps, until one day recently a lightbulb went off, or more accurately, went out. I seized the moment.
“Honey,” I said to my husband. “One of the outdoor garage lights is out.”
DC typically handles home maintenance matters without complaint, but I knew what he was thinking. His lips made a tight seam as he mulled the hassles this would entail: He would need to get the ladder, take apart the 20-year-old fixture (wrangle with weathered, rusty screws, cobwebs, and moth remains), fish out the dead bulb, find a replacement that fit the fixture and matched the wattage and color temperature of the other lightbulbs, and hope he could get the apparatus all back together.
As he headed for the ladder, I made my move. “You know, rather than change the light bulb, we could change the fixtures,” I said. “We’ve been wanting to upgrade those cheap, under-scale fixtures anyway.” (We’ve?). “I’ll find some that are the right size, and we can have the electrician install them, and, while he’s at it put in LED lightbulbs that should never need changing.”
My husband, a trained negotiator, didn’t even venture an argument. “Let me know how much,” he said. Which meant yes.
In relationships and home improvements, timing is everything.
Though a minor move, and not a change many homeowners think to make, properly proportioned entry and garage lights matter. When they’re too small, the whole house looks off. The importance of scale goes beyond light fixtures.
Scale ─ or the proportion of a furnishing or fixture relative to a home’s architecture or other furnishings ─ is one of the trickiest design concepts to get right, and even harder to explain. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
While some people have a natural knack, as if the ability to know what size something should be got handed out in the gene-pool line alongside musical ability and extra taste buds, most of us need to work at it, or follow some proven guidelines.
For instance, an outdoor light fixture should be one-third to one-fourth the size of the door it’s next to. Our garage door is eight-feet tall (96 inches). The new fixtures are 32-inches tall, or one-third the door height, and more than twice as big as the old ones. They look right.
“Smart move on the outdoor lights,” confirmed Mark Brunetz, an interior designer who owns a design firm in Los Angeles. “Much better.”
“The old ones looked like pinheads,” agreed Christopher Grubb, interior designer, and owner of Arch-Interiors Design Group in Beverly Hills.
I had emailed both of them before and after pictures of my outdoor lights to engage them in a discussion about scale. “Many home decorators don’t know the importance of scale,” said Grubb. “They pick sizes willy-nilly, and it shows. But there are ways to get it right.”
To help us get scale right more often, I asked Brunetz and Grubb to share the benefit of their experience by finishing these sentences:
I wince when I walk in a home and see …
Brunetz … an abundance of under-scaled or small furnishings because the homeowner thinks since the room is small, it requires small items. Small items in a small room make the room look smaller.
Grubb … art that is poorly placed. The ideal height to hang art is 57 inches from the floor to the center of the art. That’s the height galleries and museums use. Besides furnishings and fixtures that are too small, another peeve is when people buy sofas or televisions that overfill the living area. Those two items, when they’re the wrong size, will throw the whole room off.
When trying to get the scale right, a good rule of thumb is …
Brunetz … to think in thirds. Divide everything, from available wall space or a piece of furniture by three. Then decide whether you want what you put with it to occupy one-third, two-thirds, or all three-thirds, of the length. (Avoid halves.) For example, put a four-foot coffee table with a six-foot sofa.
Grubb … to map it out with tape. Even though I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I will still lay down blue painter’s tape on a wall or floor to check scale for furnishings. I don’t guess. With the tape down, you can see if you need a bigger end table, or if the room will be too tight to walk through, or if the TV is too big for the wall.
Where most people go wrong with scale is when they …
Brunetz … don’t consider what has already been established in the space. For example, look at ceiling height, the size of windows and doors, or the width of the fireplace mantel. Let these cues guide you. In a bedroom, for instance, don’t put a tall bed in a room with eight-foot ceilings.
Grubb … judge size by how furniture looks in a showroom, where it’s not in context. Size is relative. You have to measure and buy pieces that fit your space, not what you hope will fit, or what looked good in the store’s vignette. Once you know the right size for a piece you’re looking for, don’t try to convince yourself that eight inches bigger or smaller will be fine. It won’t be.
CAPTION: Upscale ─ Top (Before) – Under-scaled carriage lamps look out of proportion on this home’s exterior. Below (After) – New lamps shown here are about one third the height of the door, a size outdoor lighting experts recommend. Photos courtesy of Marni Jameson.