The Psychology of Pattern: Balance And Scale

In our lesson on patterns, we explore how our brain responds to patterns and how we can use this psychology insight to completely transform the spaces we inhabit.

The ability to use and combine patterns in an interior space in an impactful way is one of the ways that take someone from being an interior designer to what I would call an interior artist. Besides their aesthetic intrigue, patterns, especially in the form of wallpaper, can actually come in quite handy when you are dealing with badly proportioned rooms as they have the ability to disguise (or embrace and feature) all awkward corners— just like Pierre Yovanovitch's pattern painted on the ceiling beams. Patterns can also take the eye away from corners and flatten the space (see the bathroom wallpapered from ceiling to floor in Pierre Frey), making it appear more comfortable or create the illusion of a different architectural reality alltogether (as exemplified by Stephen Schobel's bathroom that seems to have a cone-like ceiling, when in reality this is only an illusion created by the pattern).

Design by Pierre Yovanovitch
Design by Stephen Schobel
Wallpaper by Pierre Frey
Design by Beata Heuman

Some Background on Pattern

Pattern Trends

Most houses in Britain were designed with patterns in mind, especially those that were built during the Victorian era. At that time patterns were a matter of social status. As patterns are not essential for life or comfort, it was a sign that you had more than enough money to allow yourself the luxury of surrounding yourself in superfluous beauty. The more patterns were found in your house, the richer you were believed to be. While it is true that pattern trends come in cycles, I personally think that as with fashion, everything is permissible today.

Design by Corey Damen Jenkins and Associates

Understanding The Room

Despite being at risk of sounding repetitive (as all my lessons essentially start with this step), I cannot stress this point enough. When it comes to pattern, the aspects of the room you want to pay the most attention to are the light and brightness of the room, the height of the room, and any other architectural features, especially if they constitute a central focal point, such as a fireplace for example. I've chosen two examples to illustrate this:

Café Palladio designed by Marie Anne Oudejans
Design by Steven Sclaroff, Photography by Francois Dischinger

On the left, Marie Anne Ouejans put special emphasis on the curved ceiling by incorporating curve into the pattern she applied at Caffé Palladio in Jaipur. On the right, Steven Claroff chose vertically striped wallpaper to emphasize the height of the narrow powder room.

Psychology Insight: Pattern Draws Our Attention

A patterned area will always act as an eye magnet or focal point, drawing your mind to explore it and pay special attention to it. Scientific studies have found that we need a certain level of visual stimulation at an early age as our understanding of patterns is the basis for the development of our visual system. By monitoring the brain waves of babies, the responses to various patterns were measured. The results showed that babies show more interest in busy patterns indicating that a degree of pattern on wallpaper could be beneficial for the development of the brain. Adult brains similarly show more stimulation of our neurons as a response to busier and brighter patterns that arouse our visual system, whereas plain colours cause less response. The happy medium depends on each individual’s personal preferences and should be adapted to the purpose of the room.

Lesson 1

Scale & Balance

Getting the pattern right starts with understanding the size of the pattern and the size of the wall that the pattern is supposed to dress. If you manage to get the scale of the pattern to the size of the wall right, wallpaper has the ability to work magic by disguising evasively tricky proportions and making a low ceiling or short wall disappear.

Is My Pattern Too Large?

For example, if your room has an average ceiling height of 2.4m, a pattern that comes in 60 by 60 cm squares will make the room look like it is only four blocks high. Similarly, a flower in every corner of the grid with the same dimensions would only invite us to try to count the flowers, which can be a quite stressful experience. Luke Edward Hall's choice of wallpaper for the foyer of Hotel Deux Gare disguises the short walls (left), while Studio Peake's use of Ottoline De Vries's wallpaper (the same designer we used for our kitchen makeover at the refugee house) embraces the small area being wallpapered (right).

    Hotel Deux Gare designed by Luke Edward Hall
    Wallpaper by Ottoline Devries, Design by Studio Peake

Is My Pattern Too Strong?

A pattern that is too strong will close down the space. For instance, a very dominant feature in the pattern that repeats every 70cm, will have a similar effect as a pattern that is too large as there will be only 3-4 repetitions of the feature along the height of the room, making the ceiling appear lower than it is. However, the same pattern could look really great in a large room because it would then highlight the height of the room.

    Wallpaper by Drop It Modern

How To Combine Patterns

I've been told the key is to adopt an informal attitude, easier said than done. I try to adhere to three guiding principles.

  • The patterns I choose should have one element that binds them all together. This could be one colour that is found in all the different pattern styles.

  • There could be a family resemblance, meaning that all the patterns have some sort of relationship to each other. This could be geography and culture, for example.

  • Pay attention to scale: if you are using different patterns, make sure they come in different scales.

  • Design by Salvesen Graham
    Design by Laura Gonzalez

Lesson 2

Types Of Patterns

If you are unsure of what type of pattern works best in your space, you could opt to do some research on the period in which your home was built and use a pattern that is inspired by this period. Here are just some examples of traditional pattern types. Many of the modern ones can be loosely categorised among these as well.

Florid Patterns

Stem from the Baroque period and are defined by an elaborately intricate, repeated and ornate style.

Geometric Patterns

  • Is formed by geometric shapes that are usually repeated in a grid.

  • This type of pattern was used by the late Georgians to draw attention to the rhythm and symmetry of their architecture.

  • Stripes are a commonly used geometric pattern. Kelly Wearstler (left) has gone for a fairly thick horizontal stripe, which works because the height of the hallway allows for many repetitions and therefore emphasizes not only the height but also draws the eye forward, making the space seem longer than it is while putting the focus on the room beyond the hallway.

    Design by Kelly Wearstler
    Design by Gavin Houghton
  • Psychology Insight

    Muller-Lyer Illusion

    Vertical lines make a space feel higher because our eyes are drawn up the line. Though the Muller-Lyer Illusion shows two lines of equal length, one has been drawn with an arrowhead, while the other one has been drawn with inverted lines on the longer line. The line with the inverted lines looks longer. This can be explained by the eye movement, which stops at the arrowhead. When the lines are inverted the eyes can keep traveling.

  • It also featured strongly during the Memphis era, which has seen a resurgence in the past few years.

    Design by Milanese Collective Paradisi Artificiali
  • Tiles are especially potent in creating impactful geometric patterns.

    Tile Design by Cristina Celestino for Fornace Brioni
    La Sastreria designed by Mas Que Spacio


The pattern is arranged as things grow in nature.

    Design by Tom Ferguson
    Design by Adam Bray, Photography by Ben Edwards (via House & Garden)

Want some help incorporating patterns into your home? I'm happy to help you implement these tricks, so don't hesitate to get in touch!

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The Psychology Of Space: Perception


The Psychology Of Space: Proportion


The Psychology Of Colour: Considering Light

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