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Positive and Negative Space When Designing and Decorating a Room

What you don’t put in a room has just as much effect on your surroundings as what you do include.

A short primer on positive and negative space in design and decorating a room will help you to achieve a better balance and ultimately, a more comfortable look.

Defining Positive and Negative Space

You need to think like an architect when planning a room. Design is best when it achieves balance and symmetry and that concept is something that is difficult to explain but you know it when you feel it.

One way to look at spatial planning: you see a chair and a small table next to it. The chair and table both, offer “positive space,” they take up mass.

But the area between the chair and table is also within your sight. That space can be referred to as “negative space.” It is part of the whole image, yet nothing is there but the backdrop.

When you cultivate a good balance between the two, which can be said as adding balanced positive and negative space when designing and decorating a room.

De-Clutter First

Famous designer Christopher Lowell says that de-cluttering is key to the organization because it is a plan of spatial relationship and logic. What does that mean exactly? Let’s break it down into steps; to begin:

De-Clutter Your Room

First, make a trip through the room just to throw away occupant mail, broken emery boards, piles of tissue, empty drink containers—in other words, the garbage. Break out either three large garbage bags or three boxes.

In your mind, label them: Keep, Return or Replace, and Giveaway. Now go through the room accordingly, dividing up as you go. Be ruthless.

This will probably be the most difficult thing you do if you are a pack-rat, hoarder, or someone who has stuff you feel is worth “value.”

The rule is, if you haven’t touched it in a year, it can go. You can’t see space fully until the room is free of junk.

image - De-Clutter Your Room


  • Find your focal point.
  • Reconsider your room plan.
  • Rearrange with spatial planning and balance in mind.


Generous-sized Rooms

Divide the space into zones. For example, you need at least one conversation area, one eating, dining, or work area such as a desk to read mail or a place to house books; one focal point like a fireplace, a flat-screen TV, or a piece of art.

Most large-sized rooms can accommodate two seating or conversation areas.

Small Rooms

Surprisingly you will meet the same needs as the larger room, only less furniture will be used, and major editing of objects, art, or possessions is important.

image - Small Rooms

Focal Point

What is a focal point? Actually, a focal point is a place to “orient the furniture” around.

If your fireplace is a focal point, it needs to be a gathering place and you will orient a couch, a couple of of chairs, and small tables in line of, or insight of the fireplace. Simple.

Positive Space

The goal is to: add positive and negative space when designing and decorating a room that feels pleasant.

Pay Attention to Space Opposite the Doors

When you enter a room, the area that is directly in front of you should house an object or something of interest—an eye-catching visual destination.

If there is nothing opposite, hang an extraordinary piece of art or set up a folding screen with some height. You will be adding positive space.

Don’t Be Afraid to “Float” A Seating Group In The Middle Of a Room

You simply need 4-foot of space between the sofa and the wall. Place a console, a bench, or a low bookcase behind the sofa. (Space too small behind the sofa? layer a beautiful throw over the back of the sofa draped down behind.)

Opposite the couch, place a settee or two chairs and have a landing spot for drinks or objects in the way of a small table between the two chairs.

Think About Placing a Desk and Chair Perpendicular to a Wall

Place Ottomans or Seating Cubes Beneath a Console to Give it Weight and Afford Extra Seating

If you have a tall element on one side of a sofa such as a screen, consider placing an end table on the other side, followed by a display cabinet or bookcase of equal height to the screen.

That gives the vignette symmetry—Greek for “to measure together”—or balance.

Fill too much empty space with a bench, console, lounge chair, or settee, which can visually fill an awkward or empty space.

Read Also:

Negative Space

Sometimes it’s what you don’t feature that matters. For one particular example, if there is a window that is far too small for the room, make it disappear.

Hang a rod just inches below the ceiling, extend the rod it farther out on each side, and add full drapes to create a feeling of expansiveness.

For really awkward spaces, add a chair rail to divide the wall space and station a chair with a tiny table there. You can always place a hanging shelf to the side of the chair with a beautiful plant on it that will give you a sense of balance in threes.

Three object groupings are always preferred in our minds. And the chair rail acts as an anchor, a horizon line.

If you need more negative space, remove whatever is sitting there and wallpaper the wall with grasscloth, and add a sconce or two. For large walls and big rooms, think about larger patterned wallpaper.

Sofa on a Wall

If your sofa is against a wall, hang a grouping of small photos or pictures behind the couch and make sure the arrangement takes up at least two-thirds of the space above (meaning, 2/3rds the width of the sofa).

That gives the area more weight and presence, creating a larger impact.

image - Positive and Negative Space When Designing and Decorating a Room

And, Finally

Avoid dark spots and position light or lamp in each corner of the room. Nothing is worse than a dark corner. Tight space? Use a sconce, a swing arm lamp, or a picture light over a piece of art.

Is the table too empty with negative space? Place an entire grouping of photo frames on it.

Following these ideals for positive and negative space in design will give your living space new life. Note:

If your furniture is too large to move, draw it out on paper first. But remember, sometimes either adding or editing will solve the bad room feel—you just have to experiment using these rules.

Sources and References

  • Design Rules: The Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator by Elaine Griffin
  • Christopher Lowell’s Seven Layers of Organization: Unclutter Your Home, Unclutter Your Life by Christopher Lowell

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