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Understanding Design Basics:
Rhythm and Repetition

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

While thinking of rhythm and repetition, I recalled the times I’ve sat on a train.  That clacky-clacky-clack is the persistent background noise to every thought and conversation on the train.  So too, do rhythm and repetition serve as background to the design of our environments.  Without the rhythm of repetition we would have one of this, then one of that, with no cohesiveness to the overall design. 

Rhythm implies that there is a regular beat, pulse or cadence occurring.  It’s what we tap our toes to when we listen to music.  It’s the beams in the beamed ceiling or shelving spaced at regular intervals.  Repetition connotes that something recurs or replicates, without implying that there is any regularity to it.  A hand-rail down a stair may have a rhythmic balustrade, while irregularly-spaced newel posts represent repetition.

Why are rhythm and repetition so important to design? An overly busy space or room is an uncomfortable place to be.  It would feel higgledy-piggledy to have every element be different.  Visual chaos can make us feel disoriented and disorganized.  In fact, in can be so uncomfortable psychologically, that we may want to leave the space without ever knowing exactly why.  The best designs are made cohesive by virtue of rhythm and repetition.  Perhaps there are similar shapes that are repeated in different materials or there is a repetitive color or a rhythmic background that joins dissimilar elements, like wallpaper, or a solid hedge if we are outdoors.

To give you an example I analyzed my own living/dining room so see what it is in that space that has rhythm.  Here’s what I found: 1) there is a black guard rail around the stair that has regularly space rails; 2) a black and white fabric on pillows and dining chairs has a grid with regularly spaced little squares, similar to square cut-outs in a wall; 3) One of the area rugs has a tiny, but regularly spaced black and white herringbone pattern all over it; 4) the large window has four regularly spaced sections in it; 5) the track lighting, that I would love to change to cable lighting, has equally spaced pendant supports set between the regularly spaced beams of a beamed ceiling; 6) a display of Chinese teapots at recurrent intervals.  All of these things support the melody of the room.

Searching the room for repetition I found the following: 1) varying amounts of the color black are repeated in lamps, chairs, table, area rugs, armoire, hardware, guard rail, picture frames, pillows, and our tuxedo, black and white cat laying asleep on the sofa (no, we didn’t get him to match the room); 2) similar quarter-circle shapes resonate in a wall sculpture, shelving unit and supports under the glass coffee table; 3) the colors aubergine, terra cotta and ochre are repeated in an area rug, lounge chair and sofa, pillows and artwork; 4) skinny Italian lamps echo the thin track lighting; 5) two dissimilar windows each have the same window treatment while the fabric used for the windows’ upholstered valances recurs in a table skirt.

The same principles apply in a garden setting.  Rhythm might be expressed by a fence, a hedge, or a regularly spaced plant, while repetition is seen against the rhythm in flower color, leaf color, and plant shapes.

Can there be too much of a good thing?  When do similar shapes and sizes, repeated colors, etc. cause an otherwise cohesive design to collapse?  The answer is when it overpowers everything else.  Remember focal points from a previous article?  If you can’t see the focal points for the rhythm, you know you’ve gone too far.  As I sit here writing this article, there is an overwhelming vibration of my house caused by powerful earth-moving equipment on the adjacent property.  It is disturbing, to say the least.  But it is a great example of a background rhythm gone awry.  It distracts ones attention, which is what rhythm and repetition should not do.  It’s the supporting cast.  After saying that, it doesn’t mean that one won’t see some repetition or rhythm in a focal point.  That can happen.  Take the cat for instance.  His irregular shape is unrelated to most of the rest of the room, causing him to be something of a focal point on the sofa even though his repetitive coloration blends him into the background.  Now if I could just get him to blend in with the back garden enough to be a mole hunter, the rhythm of mole tunnels and repetitive mole holes in my lawn would disappear.

UDB-Rhythm and RepetitionThe repetition and rhythm of boxwood unifies this garden scheme.

 

 

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