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Published May/June 2010
Minta Bell of Minta Bell Design Group has more than 30 years under her belt of creating comfortable, sophisticated spaces in a style that can be described as both classic and modern. She walks us through how she approaches a room’s basic layout, using a 15-by-25 living room with a stone wall and raised hearth fireplace in a mid-century modern home as an example.
What’s the first thing you do when a client commissions you to help design a space?
The first questions that I ask are, “What are you going to do in the room, and who is going to be in this room? Are you going to invite people in? Are you going to mainly sit in this room to listen to music? Are you going to watch television?” All those questions come first, and that’s how I determine how the seating is going to be. [In this case], they wanted to be able to invite people in, to entertain.
This room has a large stone wall with a fireplace on one side. That seems like an obvious focal point, so how did you come up with the seating arrangement that you did?
I started with working around the fireplace and then I quickly discovered that [in doing that] you lose all this floor space. This seating grouping is based on how it lays out on paper. Most of the time, if you can get a good graphic design on paper, it actually works in use. So the concentration of the seating is in this area [near the doors] but in order to balance it, these [striped] chairs are a little far away. But if you actually sit in the room, it works. The size of this rug – it’s asymmetrically placed in the room in order to draw the heavier seating group back into the room and to include these chairs. It’s a graphic design.
So you have to just try things?
Try it. That’s what I do is try it. It’s so easy to move furniture [on paper] without breaking your back.
So you figure out how they are going to use the room, then you make a scale drawing of the space. How do you decide what kind of furniture to use?
I think that scale is the most important factor when it comes to doing layouts. Often I see clients who have gone to buy furniture on their own and then finally thrown up their hands and come to us. I’ve discovered that they have gone to places like big furniture stores. And when they look at furniture in the furniture store that’s large, they bring it home and it doesn’t fit. That’s the most common mistake that I see. It’s more than just the dimension of the room; it’s the scale of the room. The height of the room is important, just the same as the width and the length. Often, a large-scale, fat-armed sofa might fit in the room. You might have the floor space for it, but it may look really dumb in there, if it’s a fairly small, low-ceilinged room. That’s why I think it’s hard to talk about scale. Just because you can cram something in, doesn’t mean it goes in there.
So once you come up with a good layout, what’s the next step?
The next thing, based on balance in a room, is color. How you place the color in a room is going to affect the overall balance. So if you look at this photograph, you see, in order to help balance this weight [of the heavy stone wall], we’ve got this sofa. The weight of this wall is not only balanced by the concentration of the seating in this area, but the weight of this color, the visual weight of this red. CHM