Ah, the holidays. Time off from work, festive decorations, parties, gifts, an excuse to wear sequins – what’s not to love?
Well, since I asked, what about gift-gathering, budget blowing, card writing, binge baking, crazy wrapping and overeating? How about the worries that your son’s girlfriend will come to Christmas Eve mass in a leather mini skirt and black bodice, that the puppy will water the Christmas tree and that Aunt Sally will be drunk and snoring by noon.
Sure, there’s magic in the air, but there’s also tension.
But let’s stop and reframe. Whenever I feel high blood pressure at this time of year, I apply this important design principle. Tension is at the heart of both great design and memorable occasions. Imagine how boring a movie, music track, novel or even sporting event would be without the tension to pique our interest.
Tension is the secret sauce, twisting, spicing, bending, zing.
“No one wants to be predictable,” Los Angeles-based interior designer Joy Ramirez said when I called her to discuss my theory. “The tension is what surprises you a bit and makes you ask why?”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “If everyone just behaved themselves, the holidays would be very boring.”
“When approaching a new design, we always talk in terms of visual tension,” said Donald Strom, director of product design at Michael Graves Design Group, in Princeton, NJ, who describes tension in design as a push and pull between opposing forces. “When done right, it adds energy to the overall design.”
“The tension in interior design is what makes you enter a room and want to pay more attention,” Ramirez said. “It is the interaction of opposites. It is the curve where you would expect a line.”
While we all strive for a Hallmark holiday, where dinner is magazine-perfect and all the Christmas lights are on, that’s not only unrealistic, it’s also monotonous. I told Ramirez about the year I made two pumpkin pies and forgot to add sugar, the year the Christmas tree fell and caught fire while stockings were hung over the fireplace.
“Moments like this make occasions unforgettable.”
I feel better, right?
In the meantime, here are a few ways designers say you can add tension—the good kind—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 of the rooms are boxes. Then people put sofas, tables, desks, and rectangular works of art, making it look solid. Square rooms need curves—a round mirror, an oval table, a ball-shaped chandelier—to smooth their edges while creating tension.” Similarly, when creating a nightstand on a rectangular or square surface, use round or oval objects; if the table is round, add it with square objects or rectangular.
Be out of balance on purpose. Asymmetry can add positive tension and make a room more interesting. For example, when the mantle displays a candlestick on one side and the other on the other, the eye appears a little longer. Because our brains seek balance, when we realize that something is off, we pay more attention.
create a ripple. A straight line that goes on forever isn’t that interesting, Strom said. But creating a turbulence with a zigzag, ripple, or curve, and that changes the way the eye travels through the model. “The more movements, the more exciting it is.” Just don’t overdo it.
pair of opposites. The juxtaposition of light and dark, high and low, masculine and feminine, smooth and rough, all add tension to the design through contrast. When opposites attract each other, the features of each are increased.
Do the unexpected. Stress also occurs when you don’t do what is expected, Ramirez said. “Forget how it should be.” Decorate a white tree with all the black ornaments or put an upside down tree. This break with tradition becomes unforgettable. It may keep dogs away.