I knew that when we bought the happier yellow house, the exterior lamps from the carriages flanking the garage would be gone, and the sooner the better. Like so many cheap light fixtures that builders hastily install on homes, these were too small. To use one of my mother’s memorable expressions, “They look like two chips on a boiled ham.”
However, as much as they bugged me, other issues took priority. So we were living with the little exterior car lights, until one day recently a light bulb went out, or more accurately, went out. I seized the moment.
“Honey,” I said to my husband. “One of the exterior lights in the garage is off.”
DC usually handles housekeeping matters without complaint, but I knew what he was thinking. His lips formed a tight seam as he pondered the hassle it would entail: he would have to get the ladder, dismantle the 20-year-old light fixture (arguing with rusty screws, cobwebs and moth remains), fish out the dead find a spare bulb that matches the fixture and matches the wattage and color temperature of the other bulbs, and hopes he can put the fixture back in place.
As he headed for the ladder, I made my gesture. “You know, rather than changing the light bulb, we could change the light fixtures,” I said. “We wanted to upgrade those cheap, undersized fixtures anyway.” (We have?). “I’ll find the right size ones, and we can have the electrician install them and, while he’s there, install LED bulbs which should never need changing.”
My husband, a trained negotiator, didn’t even dare to argue. “Tell me how much,” he said. Which meant yes.
In relationships and home renovations, timing is everything.
While this is a minor move, and not something many homeowners think they’ll make, properly proportioned driveway and garage lights are important. When they are too small, the whole house looks absent. The importance of scale goes beyond light fixtures.
Scale – or the proportion of a piece of furniture or light fixture to a home’s architecture or other furnishings – is one of the hardest design concepts to master, and even more so. difficult to explain. But once you see it, you can’t see it.
While some people have natural talent, as if the ability to know what size something should be distributed in the line of the gene pool alongside musical ability and extra taste buds, most of us have to work at it or follow proven guidelines.
For example, an outdoor light should be between one-third and one-quarter the size of the doorway it sits next to. Our garage door is 8 feet (96 inches). The new fixtures are 32 inches tall, one-third the height of the doorway, and more than twice as tall as the old ones. They look good.
“Move smart on exterior 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 the Arch-Interiors Design group in Beverly Hills.
I had emailed them before and after pictures of my outdoor lights to engage them in a discussion about scale. “Many interior designers don’t know the importance of scale,” Grubb said. “They pick sizes willy-nilly, and it shows. But there are ways to do it right.
To help us find the right scale more often, I asked Brunetz and Grubb to share the benefit of their experience completing these sentences:
I wince when I walk into a house and see…
Brunetz … an abundance of undersized or small furniture because the owner thinks that since the room is small, it requires small items. Small objects in a small room make the room appear smaller.
Grubb…misplaced art. The ideal height to hang the art is 57 inches from the floor to the center of the art. This is the height that galleries and museums use. Besides furniture and accessories that are too small, another pet peeve is when people buy sofas or televisions that fill the living room too much. These two objects, if they are not the right size, will cause the whole room to be lost.
When trying to get the scale right, a good rule of thumb is…
Brunetz … thinking in thirds. Divide everything from available wall space or a piece of furniture by three. Then decide if you want what you put in it to take up one-third, two-thirds, or three-thirds of the length. (Avoid halves.) For example, put a 4-foot coffee table with a 6-foot sofa.
Grubb… to map it out with duct tape. Even though I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’ll still put blue painter’s tape on a wall or floor to check the scale of furniture. I don’t suppose. With the tape down, you can see if you need a bigger side table, or if the room will be too narrow 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 space. For example, look at the height of the ceiling, the size of the windows and doors or the width of the fireplace mantel. Let these clues guide you. In a bedroom, for example, don’t put a large bed in a room with 8-foot ceilings.
Grubb…judge size by how the furniture looks in a showroom, where it’s not in context. Size is relative. You should measure and buy pieces that fit your space, not what you hope will fit or what looked good in the store thumbnail. Once you know the right size for a piece you’re looking for, don’t try to convince yourself that 8 inches more or less will be fine. This will not be the case.
Marni Jameson is the author of six books on home and lifestyle. Contact her at marnijameson.com.