Interior Design 101: Modsy’s Guide to Scale and Proportion

Welcome to our Interior Design Basics series, where we break down—you guessed it—the basic principles of interior design! The Basics are the building blocks of interior design that, though we don’t always talk about them, are what help a room feel more balanced, put together, and considered. Today, we’re talking all about scale and proportion and how you can use this design principle to create visual balance within your space.

Scale and proportion are some of the basic interior design elements that help your room look balanced. And a visually balanced space makes a room feel more intentional, harmonious and inviting. Together, scale and proportion help make sure the size of the furniture and objects in your space fit together and within the architecture of the space itself.

guide to scale and proportion

What Is Scale and Proportion?

But, first things first: what exactly are scale and proportion? Though similar—and terms that are often used interchangeably—they actually have slightly different meanings and implications within your space.

Scale refers to the size of an object or piece of furniture within the dimensions and architecture of a space.

Proportion is used when describing the size and shape of an object in relation to another in the space.

image of lamp on marble side table showing it\'s too big

Why Are They Important in Interior Design?

Scale and proportion are critical in achieving a livable and thoughtful composition in a space. It’s important to think about scale and proportion of furniture when you’re buying pieces to go together in one room. If you pick pieces of furniture that are too big for the dimensions of your space, you’ll end up with a room that feels cramped and crowded. If you go for pieces that are too small, the room will feel cavernous and out-of-balance.

Thinking about scale helps determine what size of sofa fits into your living room or what mattress size you should opt for in your bedroom. And, when you think of how individual pieces of furniture and decor fit together, scale helps determine the right size of nightstand to place next to your bed, or if an accent table is the right size and height for your sofa. Ultimately, scale and proportion help to create a successful and balanced composition in a space. Without proper scale and proportion, a space can feel “off” or visually imbalanced.

Check Out 6 Ways Scale and Proportion Can Be Put to Work in Interior Design

Want to know more about how scale and proportion play out in real rooms and look at particular places around your home to be especially mindful of in regard to scale and proportion? We’ve rounded up some of the top offenders, along with simple ways to fix scale and proportion mistakes!

set of abstract artwork above white sofa

The Art Above Your Sofa

Your sofa is generally going to be the focal point of your living room. And your eyes will naturally be drawn up to the wall space above your sofa—which is why it’s so important to get the scale and proportion right for the art that hangs above your sofa.

guide to scale and proportion

The Problem: Artwork That’s Too Small

This vertical piece is too small for the space, and makes the room feel smaller. It also lacks flow. Because of the shape and size, our eyes are drawn straight to the art, rather than it being integrated in the design as a whole.

open living room with sofa, two chairs and two stools around a round wooden coffee table

How to Fix It

Here, the art helps to “level” the design and visually top off the sofa. Its horizontal format helps to guide the eye across the room and its visual weight feels balanced above the sofa. A good rule of thumb for hanging wall art? Have your artwork be about two-thirds the width of your sofa. (The same goes for hanging art over other pieces of furniture, too!)

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guide to scale and proportion

Your Side Tables and Lamps

Almost all homes have side tables and lamps. And, since these pieces of furniture and decor are super functional pieces, you need to make sure they work in your space. One of the major considerations for functionality with these two pieces? Scale and proportion. If a lamp is too large, it could literally topple over your side table. You certainly don’t want that to happen! And if it’s too small, it will simply look awkward and feel puny in the space it’s taking up.

guide to scale and proportion

The Problem: A Lamp Too Large and a Table Too Small

Here, the table is too small and the lamp too large—causing the pair to feel “top-heavy” and the right side of the room to feel too crowded.

living room with blue sofa and white pin-striped chairs

How to Fix It

This lamp sits comfortably on the small side table next to the sofa. It is neither too big nor too small for the table it sits on, and it can be comfortably accessed while sitting on the sofa and leaves enough surface space for the table to still be functional.

Need more help with choosing the right lighting for your space? Check out our full lighting guide!

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leather sofa in front of grey wall

Your Coffee Table and Sofa

When it comes to finding the right coffee table for your living room, you want to make sure it’s in proportion with the size of your sofa but also that it’s the right scale for your overall seating arrangement. After all, you don’t just want it to look good, but you want it to be a functional piece of furniture in your space.

guide to scale and proportion

The Problem: The Wrong Size Coffee Table

This coffee table is too small for the space. It doesn’t feel substantial enough for the large-scale furniture that surrounds it. To make it look centered in the space, it also sits too far away from the seating options. Imagine sitting in this armchair and trying to set your cup of coffee down on the table. You’d really have to reach! So, in addition to looking out of proportion, it’s simply not practical!

guide to scale and proportion

How to Fix It

This coffee table sits at a comfortable height and distance from both the sectional and the chair. It allows for flow throughout the space, while being substantial enough to visually balance a larger sofa. It’s perfectly nestled into the space in front of the sofa/between the chaise and is also within reach of the armchair.

Learn more about choosing the right size and shape of coffee table for your space with our guide on how to pick a coffee table shape to go with your sofa.

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blue sofa corner and red pillow

The Pillows on Your Sofa

When it comes to picking out and arranging pillows on your sofa, there are many approaches you can take—as our guide on how to arrange throw pillows proves. But one goal you always want to keep in mind, regardless of your approach, is a balanced and proportionate arrangement.

neutral and bright living room with sofa and white accent chair

The Problem: Too Few Throw Pillows

This one pillow is not only too small for the sofa on its own, but it looks lonely sitting on the sofa by itself. The pillow is dwarfed by the sofa, causing the space to feel sparse and unfinished.

guide to scale and proportion

How to Fix It

Here we have a nice “bookending” of pillows on either end of the sofa. By including pillows of varying sizes and shapes, you achieve more visual balance and help visually fill out the sofa (without it looking crowded). They are arranged in a cluster of three—which is a good number to group not only pillows but also other decorative objects.

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display of red vintage style rug

Your Rugs and the Size of Your Room

Rugs are a way to ground your space and make a furniture arrangement feel more intentional. In a living room, rugs are crucial for zoning your seating area. A rug helps define the space within a room—and because of that, landing on the right size of rug for your space is crucial. Too big and the space will feel swallowed up by the rug. Too small and the space will feel ungrounded.

guide to scale and proportion

The Problem: A Rug That’s Too Small

This rug is too small for both the space and the furniture it’s paired with. Due to it being too small or “not to scale” with the room, it doesn’t define the space or ground the room like a rug should. Because of that, the space immediately feels too small and crowded—with the furniture feeling like it’s untethered and just floating within the room rather than grounded in an intentional seating arrangement. This often happens when a person first moves into a new space. They may have a rug that worked in their old place, but with a new room that has different dimensions, you may need a larger rug to create a seating arrangement that fits with the scale of the room.

summery living room with beach art over fireplace and bright blue sofa

How to Fix It

If you love the rug you have but it’s too small for your space, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can simply layer a larger rug underneath it! Layered rugs add a nice depth to the space but also act as a “grounding” zone—which creates a space for the legs of all the base furniture to comfortably sit. Layered with a larger, neutral rug, the original rug now feels “to scale” with the room and proportional to the pieces of furniture that sit on top of it. Don’t like the layered look? Check out our guide on how to find the right rug size for your living space! Bonus: We also have a guide to finding the right rug size for your bedroom!

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guide to scale and proportion

Your Bed and Nightstands

While choosing a nightstand that goes with the design style of your bedroom is certainly important, even more important is how the piece you choose functions. After all, a nightstand is all about having a functional surface for useful objects and bedside organization. And if you choose a nightstand that’s too small, you may not be able to easily reach things like your alarm clock or glass of water. Too large, and you may end up hitting your shins on it every time you roll out of bed!

guide to scale and proportion

The Problem: A Nightstand That’s Too Small

This nightstand is too short for the bed frame, and its size makes the sides of the bed feel like an afterthought. Because of the height, reaching for a book or phone set on top of this table while lying in bed would prove to be quite uncomfortable—which means this table lacks practicality as well!

contemporary bedroom with black and grey rug and black sconces on the bed sides

How to Fix It

These nightstands are at a comfortable height in relation to the bed frame, and you can easily access the objects on the nightstand. In terms of size, the nightstands feel substantial in the space but aren’t too bulky or visually heavy. If you need a little more guidance, check out our guide to finding the perfect nightstand for your space.

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