I Tried the “60/40 Rule” to Lay Out a Room, and I’d Absolutely Use It Again

published Jun 12, 2024
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Credit: Photo: Armando Rafael; Stylist: Margaret Ward

Decorating a room can be a daunting task, whether you’re starting from scratch or you just want to spruce up a space that’s already in progress. That’s why I love a good shortcut or design rule to follow, which is not to say that I never go rogue when pulling a room together. For me, it’s more about having just a little bit of design help  — think a principle or a place to start from that makes the process just a little bit easier.

So when I set out to design the small sunroom in my newish house, which I use as a home office, I was a bit stumped. It’s not a large area, but it’s completely open to the living room, and its three other walls are essentially covered in windows. I’d need a desk in there, but what other furniture could or should fit? Questions like this ran through my mind, and I wasn’t sure where to begin. So I decided to take it back to basics: I’d use the “60/40” rule to lay out and furnish the space, and honestly, it provided such a helpful benchmark, I’d 10/10 use it again!

Chances are you’ve heard of the “60/40 rule” by one of its other names: the golden ratio, the golden number, or the golden mean. It’s technically a mathematical sequence (~1:1.618) that occurs in nature, from proportions in humans and plants to the spirals of seashells. The ratio is said to be visually pleasing to the eye, so it’s also pursued in architecture, art, and other crafts. Turns out it’s also something that can be used for interiors, too, especially when it comes to layout. And if you’re wondering how 1:1.618 became “60/40,” well, again, even designers love a shortcut. Plus, 60/40 is much easier to visualize and remember.

So how did I put this rule into practice? The “60/40 rule” here comes down to furniture and floor space. Instead of overstuffing a room with pieces or going way too minimal, you should aim for about 60% of the room to be filled with furniture and 40% of it to be clear to give your eye a visual break from stuff. This breakdown actually helped me hone in on the right desk. I had set up the one I used in my last apartment, which was modern and fairly minimal, as it had occupied a small nook in my bedroom (see above). And it just felt, well, a little too small in the tiny sunroom, even when paired with a more substantial desk chair. The rug was a bit too small as well.

Credit: Danielle Blundell

I searched for a desk that’d be a bit bigger and offer more storage, since I knew I couldn’t really bring much else into the space, like a file cabinet for example, and still have it look balanced from the 60/40 perspective. Ultimately, I found an amazing vintage desk that was larger and just has more presence, paired it with a more delicate chair, and I’m much happier with the result. To hit the 60/40 ratio, I added in a few plants in stands and on a pedestal, as well as a side table, and I’ve called it a day in terms of furniture (though I would like a built in-bench at some point for strategic storage). And I brought in a rug that just fits a bit better in the room, too. The irregular lines of the faux hide I had in there just didn’t fill the space enough.

What’s amazing is you can use this breakdown for other surfaces, too. Not sure how big to go with your gallery wall? The “60/40 rule” can help you out. For an arrangement that looks full but not overly so, pick pieces that, when considered altogether, won’t cover more than 60% of a given wall.  

The ratio can help with the breakdown of items on tabletops and shelves, too. It can be, again, as simple as not filling more than 60% of a tabletop with items so you have what feels like appropriate breathing room. Or you can think of the 60/40 rule as a way to balance out the individual items in a tableau. In this scenario, you’d want to reserve 60% of a coffee table’s top, say, for an anchor piece like a decorative tray, and then 40% of it for a couple of smaller decorative accessories, like a small stack of books and a candle. Of course, these pieces don’t have to fill the entire 60% and 40% of the surface, respectively; it’s more about proportions here — the idea that your larger pieces should command up to two-thirds of a surface and then the smaller ones are reserved for that remaining one-third. 

So the next time you’re struggling with a decorating project — and laying out a room or surface in particular — remember the 60/40 rule. It’s a great place to start if you want to create a sense of balance in a room.