Design, Interior Design
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What is negative space? Lesson 1.

Aula Coffee Table Made.com

I’ve mentioned this a few times over on Instagram of late, and I thought it was about time I explained what i’m actually going on about. Negative space isn’t a space that’s got “bad vibes, man”. Negative space is a good thing and every room needs it in order to function, to offer visual balance and to zone spaces.

1930's living room

Eclectic Living Room Project

The chimney breast was left clear, offering the room some negative space to balance out the alcoves, both of which were filled with furniture, mirrors, books and accessories.

Positive space = the space that’s taken up with actual “stuff”; furniture, lighting, artwork, accessories….

Negative space = the “empty” space around and in between everything else, more often than not highlighting and showcasing everything next to it.

Larry Eeles

“The use of equal negative space, as a balance to positive space, in a composition is considered by many as good design. This basic, but often overlooked, principle of design gives the eye a “place to rest,” increasing the appeal of a composition through subtle means.” Wikipedia

Ok, I think you guys have got it now. Let’s take a look at how it works in practice. We’ll start with this chair:

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Morning!! A load of you fell for the grass green, velvet Frame armchairs from @madedotcom. And rightly so, because they are just a little bit special. You've got to have the right space for them though. A lot of "negative space". I'll be writing a blog post soon explaining what the hell I'm going on about there. It's a good one to keep in mind when choosing things for your pad!! . . . #interiors #interiors123 #interiors4all #interiordecor #interior #atmine #realhomes #styleitdark #darkinteriors #paintitblack #midcentury #armchair #glam #velvet #periodproperties #edwardian #bedroom #makingspaces #designupnorth #baywindow #floorboards #interiordesign #interiorstyling #bedroom #urbanjungle #junaglow #jungalowstyle #floorlamp

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Frame Armchair from Made.com in the Upper Brook St Project

As the name suggests, the chair “frame” works beautifully because of the space around and inside the brass frame. The space and light that passes through allows you to see the shape, design and structure of the frame, highlighting the soft, clean lines of the velvet seat. I purposefully didn’t add cushions or throws to these chairs. It would have ruined the shape and line. And that’s what you’re paying for here. The line.

Imagine i’d added a basket down by the side of the chair and wanged a cushion on.

Armchair mock up

Now, some of you might prefer that, but to me, it’s ruined the design of the chair. The delicacy and simplicity of the frame. A piece like this needs “negative space” around it in order to work. It wouldn’t work in my house as my room’s proportions are way too small. I don’t have the space to pull a chair away from a wall, into the room and leave space all around it. But for this period property, it was perfect.

Top Tip 1 – Choose furniture that’s right for your home and room’s proportions. Don’t choose a piece based on how it looks online or on a shop floor. Visually place that piece in your room. Where is it going to go? What view will you have of it? Will you get to see the design you’re paying for?

Onto another example:

White landing staircase

Open Plan Landing

See that big white wall? The one that runs all the way up our new staircase with TONS of negative space? Well i’ve been waiting to hang a piece of art on that wall for months. The reason i’ve not done so yet is, we still haven’t got our new handrail fitted. I know. It’s taken a long time, but hopefully this time next week it will be in. And hopefully in another month or so, we’ll have our new carpets fitted too. I would have loved to have kept the whole staircase and landing open, but as we have a four year old to keep alive and still need to get our build past building regs, a handrail is a must.

This is the plan. Cue, crude mock up:

handrail mock up

As you can see, the strips of plywood take away a lot of that negative space. In fact, so much so, I probably won’t be wanting anything on that back wall at all. A piece of artwork would get completely lost whilst completely ruining the look of the vertical spindles in the process.

Let’s test the theory:

Handrail Artwork Mock up

For me, that’s too busy. The artwork fighting with the handrail and vice versa. One’s gotsta give and with the handrail being an absolute must, the artwork shall be sacrificed. By having both, there’s an overload of positive space.

Top Tip 2. DO NOT choose artwork or accessories until the very end of a project. Wait until everything is in the space, stand back and see where you need to break up the negative space. The number of times I get asked at the beginning of a project, what piece of art will hang here? **waves at wall** is bonkers. My answer? I dunno know yet. I need to see the room come together.   Maybe none. Let’s see…

Negative space isn’t something only used in minimal design, although there is generally lots more negative space used in minimalism. Less is more and all that jazz. Negative space is required in maximalist design concepts too and I have a perfect example of how it’s so important.

The Drawing Room Project

The coffee table from the final reveal post wasn’t really supposed to be in there. But we ran out of budget. So we stuck with what they had originally and it looked ok. But for me, the top was too heavy, visually. The solid surface really wasn’t doing it for me.

A few months after I completed this project, the homeowners finally got their hands on the coffee table that was always meant to be in this room.

Aula Brass Table

Aula Brass & Glass Table from Made.com

The Aula with its glass top was the perfect piece for a number of reasons. Firstly, the glass reflected the light from the pendant light above.

Aula Coffee Table Made.com

Secondly, the glass allowed the light to pass through, offering the illusion of negative space which gave the room a greater sense of expanse and light. Visually, the Alua table took up less space, despite being larger than the original solid top table.

Top Tip 3. Choose your materials wisely. Solid, boxy furniture can be great for anchoring  and punctuating spaces, where as lightweight frames and transparent surfaces can often make a room feel larger and lighter. If you are leaning towards furniture that allows light to pass, make sure what you can see on the other side is worthy of being seen.

And that, is the end of Lesson 1 for today everyone. I hope it’s helped explain some of the finer details of design. This is all stuff I learnt years ago throughout my dance training. I specialised in choreography where spatial layout, balance, weight, light and shade, were all integral parts of composition. Everything completely transferable to interior design.

Farrow & Ball Peignoir Worsted

I’ll be writing up a second post very soon. Lesson 2 will focus on Negative Space in Maximalist Design. There seems to be a burgeoning trend where negative space is becoming a long and distant memory. And i’m not 100% sure about. So I will be taking a closer look at Maximalism, who does it well and why it’s still crucial to consider the element of space.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this one peeps. I’m sure for some of you this is old hat, but for some, maybe you’ve learned a little something? As ever, i’d love to hear your thoughts on this grey and drizzly Bank Holiday Monday.

11 Comments

  1. Such an interesting post and something I know I probably struggle with! I always want to fill every single space – the joys of maximalism! – but I totally understand the need to have somewhere for the eye to rest. I can’t wait until your Part 2 🙂 Very interesting! xx

    • Karen Knox says

      It is quite interesting analysing why something does and doesn’t work isn’t it! Still learning myself… I’m sure you’ll recognise some pics in Part 2 😉 x

  2. Lesley_b57 says

    A good read and something I concur with absolutely, I don’t really understand the need to fill the whole wall with art or every surface with stuff. For me I like individual pieces to stand out, of course we are all different and it takes a certain skill or eye to see what works. Interesting piece, thanks

    • Karen Knox says

      Glad you found it interesting Lesley. Thank you. And I know what you mean. I will be exploring the whole “more is more” look when I write up Lesson 2.

  3. Donna Ford says

    I think you’ve verbalised what I’ve been feeling for a while. Great post and totally agree that it draws directly on choreography and the layout of the space and what is pleasing to the eye. I’m in no way a minimalist as I find it too dull but agree that with maximalism negative space has great use. Thank you!

    • Karen Knox says

      Very welcome Donna. It’s good to be reminded of the basic principles as they really do apply to any style of design.

  4. Gilly says

    Really good post Karen, and a refreshing take on the whole use of space. I’ve been looking at so many interiors lately where every surface and wall is crammed with stuff and it just doesn’t appeal to me. Was beginning to think it was just me! Thanks for this x

    • Karen Knox says

      No, no it’s not just you. Fear not. More to come in Part 2 (when I get time to write it, that is…) x

  5. A brilliant post. I’ve just done the living room as you may have seen on IG and my blog with Prism wallpaper and it’s really busy so my walls will be less so. Originally I’d planned a gallery but now the paper is up and everything is in I’m going to pop one or two things up only and not gonas busy with it as I’d planned. Your post has just reiterated my thinking and I know that’s the right thing for my room. Cheers!

  6. Jon Wood says

    Really an interesting post, Karen! I liked your thoughts. Neither I nor my wife likes to fill the whole wall with different stuff and arts. Simplicity looks best with few elegant piece of work. Hope to read more posts soon.

  7. Just an amazing post! I really liked all your thoughts, Karen! Everything is just filled will art pieces and stuff in my house, I’m really inspired to clear that and do something similar as you said. Thank you 🙂

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