June 17, 2024


Amazing design, nonpareil

House lights too dinky? Home designers offer tips on scale


I knew when we bought our house that the outdoor carriage lamps flanking the garage would need to go. Like so many cheap light fixtures that builders hastily slap on homes, these were too small. To use one of my mother’s memorable expressions, “They look like two fleas on a boiled ham.”

As much as the lights bugged me, other home matters took priority — until one of the lights went out. As my husband mulled the hassles this would entail, from taking apart the 20-year-old fixture and wrangling with weathered, rusty screws, cobwebs and moth remains to finding and matching replacement bulbs, I made my move.

“You know, rather than change the light bulb, we could change the fixtures,” I said. “I’ll find some that are the right size, and we can have the electrician install them and put in LED lightbulbs that should never need changing.”

My husband, a trained negotiator, didn’t even venture an argument. In relationships and home improvements, timing is everything.

Properly proportioned entry and garage lights matter. When they’re too small, the whole house looks off. Scale ─ or the proportion of a furnishing or fixture relative to a home’s architecture or other furnishings ─ is one of the trickiest design concepts to get right and even harder to explain. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

An outdoor light fixture should be one-third to one-fourth the size of the door it’s next to. Our garage door is 96 inches high. The new fixtures are 32 inches tall and more than twice as big as the old ones. They look right.

“Smart move on the outdoor lights,” confirmed Mark Brunetz, a Los Angeles-based interior designer. “Much better.”

“The old ones looked like pinheads,” agreed interior designer Christopher Grubb, who owns Arch-Interiors Design Group in Beverly Hills.

I had emailed them before and after pictures of my outdoor lights to launch a discussion about scale — not just for lights but indoor furnishings, too.

“Many home decorators don’t know the importance of scale,” said Grubb. “They pick sizes willy-nilly, and it shows. But there are ways to get it right.”

I asked Brunetz and Grubb to share the benefit of their experience by finishing these sentences:

I wince when I walk in a home and see …

Brunetz: “… an abundance of under-scaled or small furnishings, because the homeowner thinks since the room is small, it requires small items. Small items in a small room make the room look smaller.”

Grubb: “… art that is poorly placed. The ideal height to hang art is 57 inches from the floor to the center of the art. That’s the height galleries and museums use. Besides furnishings and fixtures that are too small, another peeve is when people buy sofas or televisions that overfill the living area. Those two items, when they’re the wrong size, will throw the whole room off.”

When trying to get the scale right, a good rule of thumb is …

Brunetz: “… to think in thirds. Divide everything — available wall space or a piece of furniture — by three. Then decide whether you want what you put with it to occupy one-third, two-thirds or all three-thirds of the length. (Avoid halves.) For example, put a four-foot coffee table with a six-foot sofa.”

Grubb: “… to map it out with tape. Even though I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I will still lay down blue painter’s tape on a wall or floor to check scale for furnishings. I don’t guess. With the tape down, you can see if you need a bigger end table, or if the room will be too tight to walk through, or if the TV is too big for the wall.”

Most people go wrong with scale when they …

Brunetz: “… don’t consider what has already been established in the space. For example, look at ceiling height, the size of windows and doors or the width of the fireplace mantel. Let these cues guide you. In a bedroom, for instance, don’t put a tall bed in a room with eight-foot ceilings.”


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