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Angling for an untraditional look

It's difficult to arrange furniture symmetrically when a room's focal point or architecture is not also properly balanced. Too often, a designer refuses to go with the flow of such a space, and will instead try to force the furniture into a standard layout. As a result, the room usually takes on an even more awkward appearance.

A better approach in such situations may be to arrange the main pieces on a diagonal. By this I mean that groupings of tables and chairs should be placed at a 45-degree angle to the walls. They will then be free-standing, as opposed to parallel or perpendicular to the walls.

At first, such a layout might look a bit strange or seem wasteful of space. Many of us assume that furniture has to be placed squarely against a wall, perhaps because we feel more secure when a bed or a sofa abuts something solid. In many cases, however, a free-standing, diagonal configuration will prove to be an attractive and efficient alternative to a strictly symmetrical placement. Traffic patterns and conversation are often made more difficult in an oddly proportioned room where the furniture has been lined up in a predictable pattern.

In older, renovated houses with chopped-up rooms, it's not unusual to see windows that are no longer in balance with the space. Other kinds of odd architectural intrusions are also frequently found in interiors that originally were much larger. Camouflage, always one of the most useful techniques in a designer's repertoire, becomes essential in these situations.

This is precisely how designer Margot Gunther solved the problem presented by the unshapely room shown in the photo. She angled the bed to the corner, and then clustered a few more pieces around it. In this way, the furniture grouping becomes independent of the windows and fireplace, which are out of balance with the room's dimensions.

An asymmetrical arrangement like this needs to be reinforced by other patterns in the room. Here, for example, an area rug with its stripes perpendicular to the corner was placed on top of a bordered carpet.

Pleasures of diversity

Question: I generally like the pared-down look of contemporary furniture, but I'm also fond of detailing and decoration. Are my preferences irreconcilable? Or is it possible to find furnishings that combine these two types of design?

Answer: It is indeed possible _ now more than ever.

Many contemporary pieces are still devoid of decoration and have little in the way of detailing as well. (Incidentally, "decoration" has become a bad word to those who admire contemporary design, so it's now generally referred to as "ornamentation.") But you'll be pleased to learn that there is plenty of detail and ornamentation in the interior designs of the '90s. It often manifests itself in the patterns found on floors and walls as well as on furniture.

Take a look at the photo, which shows a small chest of drawers from Baker Furniture's "Pfister" collection. In many respects, this two-drawer piece is typical of contemporary design. It presents a simple silhouette, and has an undisguised structure that reveals where the legs are joined to the body and where the surface is fitted to the frame.

But you'll notice, too, that both the front and top of the chest are ornamented with a marquetry pattern in prima vera, rosewood and walnut veneers. A piece like this, with its subtle details and elegant yet simple hardware, is not unusual in today's high-styled interiors.

Contemporary furnishings and interiors are finding favor with many people who previously would have insisted on their preference for traditionally decorative styling. At the same time, some disillusioned fans of minimalist design are admitting that a slick polished surface is no more user-friendly than the straight-back, carved settees of their grandma's era.

On all sides, therefore, the realization is growing that it's perfectly appropriate for a contemporary piece to feature ornamentation, and that it's okay to combine fashionable furniture and Victorian heirlooms in a single setting.

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