October 2015


Author: Kent Thune | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography

When you are designing a space in your home, how often do you think about the space around things? When a room is empty, the natural human inclination for us is to fill the space. But filling the space with too many objects can ironically distract attention away from the very objects you wanted to display. This captures the essence and power of something the art and design world calls negative space.

Not everyone realizes this, but the amount of negative space often determines why we like or dislike something that we see or hear. Most of us don’t like things that are busy, noisy or crowded. Instead, we prefer things that are broken down into sections, because it is easier for our brains to process the information into separate chunks.

If you think about it, you can see that all art forms can be accentuated by negative space. In writing, it can be the white space around the words or paragraphs; in music, negative space is the powerful pauses between the notes and chords; in public speaking, it’s slower delivery of words and phrases; in graphic design, it’s the space around the object that creates or enhances the desired imagery.

Have you ever seen someone create the shape of a heart with their hands? The hands form the outline but the open space between is the heart. That open space is negative space.

And with home interior design, it’s the space between objects in a room that makes the objects (and therefore the room) more pleasing to the eye. Although most of us spend time focusing on the objects themselves, which the art and design world calls positive space, we don’t often realize that the space around them is part of what makes them noticeable (or not). Put simply, the objects in a room can be lost in clutter, but they can be given more attention with the right amount of space around them. So the power of negative space can be simplified in the idea that less is often more.

For a visual in your mind regarding negative space in a home and the shapes it creates, imagine you had a drawing or a photograph of a particular view of the things in your space. Now imagine cutting out these things with scissors. What shapes are left behind? The objects cut out represent positive space and the shapes remaining represent the negative space.

Interior designer Abby Koplovitz shares on her website, On Interior Design, a few simple questions that shed light on the subject: “If you haven’t thought of negative space before, look around your home. What is the space between objects and furniture like? What is the space around your art work like? Do you have sets of art hung together? How much blank space is there? What if you shifted it a bit? Would it be more dynamic?”
For example, when planning a new space in a home, many homeowners will only consider what furniture, colors and accessories they’re going to use to fill the space. However, what is left out of the design is just as important. The negative space—the open areas between the furniture, architecture and accessories—needs just as much consideration as the objects themselves.

Therefore, in art and design, negative space can be simply referred to as the space not taken up by an object. In your home, negative space could be considered the blank spots where there’s no art, no furniture, and no stuff. And to reiterate, the space where there are things in your home can be just as impactful as the space where there isn’t anything.

So an object you want others to appreciate shouldn’t have too many distractions around it. When a design doesn’t have enough negative space, the design or a particular object, even though it may be simple, will look crowded and complicated. Giving objects plenty of negative space gives them much more definition. When executed well, negative space can bring much-needed simplicity and calmness to certain rooms, while making the objects within it pop.

Just because there’s room for 20 of your favorite things on a table top doesn’t mean you should fill the entire surface with them. Too many items filling one area can distort the lines created by the negative space between the objects. Instead you can keep your decorative odds and ends from looking cluttered by arranging them in groups.

And trying to fill every wall and every corner of a home with stuff, so spaces within it don’t feel “empty” is a common design mistake. The optimal goal of designing a room is not necessarily to have more negative space than positive, but to make it feel balanced—to have the optimal amount of furniture, art and accessories that make it feel full and exciting but not so full that it feels overwhelming or crowded. So there’s a balance of negative and positive space to be struck.

Think about how the furniture and their shapes work with each other. For example, a curved coffee table can complement the harsh lines of the square and angular shapes of other furniture in a room. And don’t look for places where you can add extra things; look for spots that seem like they’d be just fine if you moved or removed something. And after identifying and eliminating things to create some negative space, don’t give it just a few minutes to see if you like it. Live with it for a while. After you’ve lived with the negative space for a few days, if it isn’t bringing you a sense of relief, comfort or excitement, but rather makes you feel like something is missing, go ahead and fill the space.

An interior designer might say that negative space should look intentional and lived in, but not accidental or abandoned. At first, removing things from rooms in your home can seem like a subtraction, but you may find that the negative space is an addition.

Other than being a fan of negative space in all art forms, Kent Thune is a money manager and the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is also a freelance writer and is currently working on a book to be published in 2016. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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