The Art of Layering

published Jun 1, 2010
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Somewhere in between random grouping and borderline clutter lies the art form of layering. It’s the decor equivalent to tousled hair: seemingly effortless. While the beauty of layering is in the unique combination of objects— making it impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all formula— there are a few tips that may help you master the look:

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Start big. Seek out the placement for the object that is overall the largest (width and height), and once it has a place move on in descending order until the bulk of large objects are in place. This doesn’t necessarily mean the tallest objects. Long and lean things can often fit into the front of a layered arrangements, take the lamp on the side table in Nathan Turner’s LA apartment (picture 2).

Use a variety of widths and heights. Probably a bit too obvious to include, but an essential point. Too many bulky objects look, well, bulky. But a few bulky objects paired with one or two spindly ones makes for an interesting variety.

Vary the method of display. Like objects look more interesting when they are displayed using different techniques: hang some, prop others, stack a few.

When in doubt, throw in a plant. The organic, unique for of something living always adds a fresh element to a layered arrangement that’s nearly impossible to achieve with a man-made object. For example, look at the plants in pictures 2, 5, and 9. It’s the perfect way to shake up an arrangement that’s looking a little too contrived.

Go for balance, not symmetry. Being overly symmetrical is the downfall of many layering hopefuls. It’s difficult to get a layered arrangement right when too many objects of identical dimensions are being used, and it’s nearly impossible when these objects are arranged as mirror images. If you are using multiple object of similar dimensions, look for ways to shake up the placement. Take the hanging frames in picture 3, which are arranged in touching stair steps rather than the usual separated side-by-side placement.

Group like objects in close proximity. This seems a bit counter-intuitive if you are following the balance rule, but it’s often the step that adds just the right dose of unexpected…by being a little expected in a seemingly haphazard arrangement. Have I thoroughly confused you yet? What I mean is that in layered arrangements we expect things to look a bit random, so when we see two like things grouped together it draws our attention. It also creates a strong focal point. Take the two architects compasses in picture 4 or the letter H in picture 6; both examples show that repeating forms grouped together have a high impact.

Throw it off. This is usually done by adding an unexpected form to a group of similarly-shaped objects, such as the urn in picture 5, styled by DC’s talented Paul Corrie or the vases in picture 9, which a little interest to the group of silhouettes.

Add some shine. Whether it be in the form of a glass vase, (pictures 3, 7, and 8) metal (the lamp in picture 2), or a mirror (picture 9), shiny surfaces break up a dense arrangement, and keep it from feeling too heavy.

Go clear. Adding a translucent element, such as the candle sticks and lamp base in Thomas O’Brien’s arrangement (picture 8) adds interest and variety without weight.

Take a picture, then re-arrange. This is a good next to last step. I’m not really sure why this process works for so many people (including myself), but it does. Maybe it’s that seeing an arrangement on a screen, one step removed, allows you to be more objective. Whatever the reason, I’m usually a better critic of my own placement of objects when I’m studying them in a picture.