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What Is Negative Space in Home Décor and How to Use It

By Leslie Ginnes June 02, 2023 Lifestyle

Do you love changing up your home’s décor? Do you get happy thinking about design but want a tip or two to elevate your game?

Even if you yawn at the idea of redoing your space because your skill set and joy lie elsewhere, this information could help you with all the holiday décor that comes around each year, each birthday party you have committed to decorating.

As Simple as Answering a Question

I was recently asked the question: What is the most essential piece of home décor?

At first, I thought this was a trick question. My reflexive reaction was, how could there be one essential universal décor item since aesthetics and design challenges are as varied as those seeking décor solutions?

But since it was a genuine question sincerely posed, I wanted to noodle on it.

It was both a Duh! and Wow moment when I realized there is a universal décor element essential to the success of all design, it’s free, and everyone has access to it.

I had been thinking about this question the wrong way. I went with trunks and armoires, candlesticks, bookends, lighting, and lamps. Paint.

I was thinking about what could be placed when I wondered, should I be thinking about something already there but not yet seen?

Moreover, what makes a collection of items into a lovely vignette, and by contrast, what makes it not work?

The first ah-ha was: What is not put in a space is as powerful as what is.

Negative Space Has Power

This absence is called negative space. Negative space is a universal and essential piece of design. This décor element is as impactful as any object you might place in your space.

Negative space is needed to allow us to see what is evolving and the ability to sense the feelings we are working towards evincing, regardless of the overall style.

It is not only for one style. It is for all. We can be mid-century devotees, have a passion for contemporary rustic cabins, love the formality and elegance of a time gone by, or be entirely eclectic in nature and circumstance; negative space is a design piece that is part and parcel of each successful grouping, vignette and design. It allows us to see what we are placing with clarity.

Working in Groupings

In my style, I gravitate to grouping objects, which also include an individual stand-alone piece. It is the proximity and companionship to the other elements that make the stand-alone part of a grouping.

Each grouping of décor needs to function in concert with all others while retaining its singular contribution. The empty space within and surrounding each object and the collective vignettes requires the same design attention as each separate object.

That I didn’t realize negative space was far more than a concept baffles me. Every day is a school day.

room decor

Where Do I Start?

I found breaking down a room into areas helpful. The little chart I made will aid this idea. I think of each area as a chapter in a book. Continuity and connectivity of story and characters can be as thin as a golden thread. Still, that thread weaves throughout the novel, binding it together, making it one book. For us, this is a design story being told visually.

Negative space makes ‘seeing’ easier; there is no competition for eye time. We can observe what is in a grouping without working at it. Each grouping partners with its negative space before the eye travels and rests upon a subsequent décor placement. The thread or through line is that it must be in every area.

Negative space is the visual equivalent of a deep breath. It calms the senses as breath calms our bodies. The visual impact of negative space between objects is visceral. It is not thinking about what we see but about what we feel that makes it so powerful and effective.

I find negative space in paintings and the framing of photographic images compelling. It forces the eye to see what the artist wants you to see. It is oddly amusing. Once you have seen what the focus of the piece is, the absence of anything else becomes observable too.

Many refreshing gigs I have done begin with getting rid of stuff. (I hear the groans of the pain accompanying the word downsize.)

But I am not promoting living in the ubiquitous concept of a modern art loft, painted enamel white with one red chair. Minimalism emerges from a very complex paradigm, but that is not décor.

How Do I Begin?

The best way to begin the process of refreshing a space is to identify what and where is the anchor piece for the entire room.

Starting the refreshing from that place gives the design an identifiable origin – the opening chapter of our design book. It sets the scene.

We build our décor through compilations, the layering of texture and color, tone and mood – the room’s purpose. We work our chapters, one area at a time. We take the thread that begins at the anchoring spot, weave it, and knot it into the next area we want to work on.

It is normal to put up, take down, and put up again or take the thing into another room. We will inevitably change our minds six ways to Sunday to find the balance we seek – a dialogue between the elements that feel right.

Playing with shape, size, texture, and color, I want it to be fun, not stressful. It is an opportunity to experiment. It is an opportunity to name what works for you, what doesn’t, and why. We learn a lot about ourselves in the process.

The Anchor Area

Below is a photo of the anchor area of my small living room. This photo is to illustrate the concept I’m explaining. Each item or overall vignette may not appeal to you, which is okay. But the overall visual is worth a thousand words.

anchor area

The anchor piece often dictates what you can and cannot do. When I moved in, I already knew the fireplace would-be boss. Then I could figure out what furniture fit where, looked best, and felt right, which took four days of pushing, pulling, and swearing.

I had big house furniture going into a small apartment – existential struggle. These were pieces I did not want to give up. It then took many hours dispersed over many days to tweak the smaller pieces into their place.

The satisfying layout of a room is much more challenging to create for smaller spaces than larger rooms with only window sills and a doorway to consider. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The painting is a favorite. It is not nearly as cherry red as in the photo; it is a more rusted red or red-brown. Anyway, the size and color allowed it not to disappear on the tall wall, yet it still allowed enough room to frame it with negative space.

I chose to hang this piece low, just above the mantel because the brown at the bottom of the painting and the brown of the mantel work very well together. It is also the width of the fireplace, unifying the visual and making it a great backdrop. All this came with holding the painting up and dropping it down, holding it up and dropping it down, and then yelling, THERE! We love happy accidents.

Wrought iron, whether as an object or sculpture, is a favorite medium. The wrought iron objects on this mantel are placed in groupings with plenty of negative space between them for me to see each one but feel they are part of a whole vignette.

They are black and thus connect easily to the fireplace; they are similar to each other but are of different heights and depths, which creates a little interest.

When we can see a repetition of color and materials, we see groupings.

I still tweak the spacing. I don’t think I will ever stop. This is the sandbox I love to play in.

The adjacent area I considered was the TV. It is large. You cannot escape it. So it is fortunate that it is a black rectangle and echo of the fireplace. The rustic cabinet upon which it sits adds a rough texture to the sleek TV glass, and it is in the same color family as the mantel and in the painting.

Before placing the table with plants in its spot, I tried many other items but they failed to connect two spaces in a small space and not have it feel crowded. Basically, there was no negative space.

When I had finally maneuvered the furniture into a layout I liked, the small table fell quickly into place. It is a transition piece of wood and black metal, and it is small enough to leave negative space around it. I also introduced a new character – gold – into the design story. Like the lamp behind it, the gold is there but subdued. There is enough space to see it, but it is subtle and gives me the ability to use my favorite golden velvet pillows on the couch later and have it come together.

Things to Consider When Decorating

So here are some things to consider if you have a space you feel needs a change.

  • What is the anchor in the room (generally the most significant piece of architectural presence that cannot be moved)? If, like me, you have oversized pieces from a home being placed in a small apartment, the flow becomes even more essential. The number of bruises received from not paying attention to that is embarrassing.
  • What is in the room that you love, even if it’s only 10” wide, and why do you love it? Or is there something in another room that you love, and it is hidden away? It is great to use something intended for one room and use it somewhere different.
  • What feelings does the room evoke? Chaos or calm, crowded or boring, embracing or neutral? What is it now and do you want to alter that feeling?
  • What do you want to feel when you walk into that room? (When a design works for me, I feel it deep inside my belly.)

Choose to use with intention, design with the wonder of creating and take advantage of the ineffable emptiness, the power of negative space.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about what you want to do, look at photos and bounce around ideas with you.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you attempted decorating a room, but wondered where to start? Have you considered negative space in your home? What are your anchor pieces that you build your décor around?

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Changing the anchor piece and it’s contents has allowed me to achieve the whimsy that I desired. Thanks, Leslie!

The Author

Leslie Ginnes’ goal is to freely share the expertise and care given to her, which nurtures her creativity. She is 65, looking back and looking forward and wondering how we can lift what is too heavy to carry. Finally, accepting everything will change, and it does in a split second.

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