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Beyond Design Basics:
Design Consistency

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

It’s tough not to stop dead in your tracks as a designer when you see something in perfect harmony.   It is a rare delight to see a design that has a central theme, thought-provoking elements, and is precisely balanced.  These are the designs for which awards are made.

The opposite of this lovely harmony would be something severely incongruent.  Like off-key music notes, design concepts stick out like a sore thumb.  Because perfectly harmonious and severely incongruent designs are two extremes, it’s uncommon that we see either.  Most often we see a lot of stuff in the middle. 

After teaching college-level design studio classes for senior students, it is apparent to me that one of the most difficult things to grasp is “design consistency”.  By the time the students reached their final year, some of the basic design principles that they had learned earlier, seemed to have faded like a distant horizon.  This is critical because basic design principles are building blocks for cohesive design.  It is not an easy thing to sit down and decide “what is my design concept?”  But that is precisely what will make your design a harmonious one.  Your design concept is that upon which all decisions about a design should be based.  It should be the theme, the thread that weaves through all your design components, the common ground.  Like a good book, it is the story of your design.  It is your inspiration.

Before you begin to think that the only way consistency can occur is to have seven pieces of matching furniture in the dining room, let me assure you that this is most definitely not the case.  Consistency does not mean that all styles should “match”.  Resist that temptation to buy a matched set of anything if those are the only pieces that will be in the room.  While it may be considered an “easy way out”, it will also be an uninspiring, boring space.  Even a space where yawning is desirable (like a bedroom), soothing need not be boring.

What are we looking for to create a harmonious design?  Consider the saying that “God is in the details” - usually attributed to architect, Le Corbusier.  How I interpret the saying is your design has excellent potential, if you can distinguish its details.

If your design’s details are so important, what are we looking for?  There is a rule of thumb in the design industry that if you mix styles, then you should not mix adjacent “periods”.  For instance, mixing Art Deco and Art Nouveau are like mixing oil and water.  Why?  The Details.  Art Deco tends to be rectilinear and boxy; Art Nouveau is curvaceous and organic.  The design detailing is very different.  Does this mean we can never mix straight things with wavy things?  Of course not.  But when we mix things we need to also be aware of the proportion and scale of the items.  For instance, a plaid can be mixed with a paisley, if their pattern scale is not the same.  But if we mix them and their colors are also different, then we have a ‘design disconnect’.  There needs to be some basis of similarity to successfully combine objects.

Let’s apply this information to the process of a kitchen remodel.  The kitchen is related to the other parts of the house, the landscape and surrounding homes.  The house is a 1970’s ranch on a typical city lot.  The dining room, patio, and entry are within view of the kitchen.  There is a view of the garden through the window.  We like the style of the house and the surrounding rooms, and don’t want to change those areas.  Because of the visual adjacencies, we need to consider the styles, colors, etc. in each of those rooms – including the garden view.    If there is a piece of garden art in direct view of the kitchen, then that should also have some bearing on the kitchen design.  If we need privacy from neighbors, then this affects the window covering.  All of these things have a direct effect on establishing our design concept. 

Let’s say our concept is that the kitchen needs to fit the style of the 70’s house, and borrow earth-tone colors from visually adjacent spaces.  What happens if we decide we want to display the spoon collection that Aunt Susie left us in this new kitchen?  The spoons are contained in a white Victorian-style display box.  This is where your concept helps make decisions.  Is that display box compatible with a 70’s ranch kitchen?  Not in my opinion.  Victorian design is curvaceous and very ornate.  A 70’s ranch style house is usually simple, and has more rectangular components than curved ones.  Keep the spoons, sell the display box, and design a new way to display the spoons that fits with the new cabinetry.  Be especially cautious of how you include sentimental items in your design. 

For the sake of discussion, beyond the kitchen you have a Japanese-style garden surrounding your 70’s ranch.  These two styles are often very compatible because the details, form, and line are very similar.  However for your birthday you receive, from a friend with an English cottage-style garden, a cute little gnome who has traveled the world.   Retaining consistency of your design does not mean re-designing your entire Japanese garden around a gnome.   Keep the friend (with the caveat that she should make a donation to your favorite charity as future birthday gifts), and donate the gnome to a charity auction.  If you must keep the gnome, surround it with a tall hedge, and visit it occasionally.

As you might have guessed, design consistency often involves hard decisions.  What you get in return, however, is a harmonious environment.  When your environment is harmonious, chances are you will feel more comfortable, less tense, and better able to make decisions about other things other than design. 

Design Consistency-1The bamboo fence is consistent with the Asian architecture.



Design Consistency-2 Repeated curves reinforce the casual ambience of this Provencal garden.

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Design Consistency-3This carved and painted donkey not only picks out the color of the flowers, its simplicity is reflective of the surrounding garden.