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End tables, to match or not to match, that is the question....

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There is a very well-known design publication that has the word "Beautiful" in its name that seems to annually traipse out an "expert" who lists her "rules" for interior designers. Invariably, one of her "rules" is that end tables should NEVER, under any circumstances match!

She goes on to state flat-out that no self-respecting interior designers anywhere would EVER use matching end tables. Poppycock! Ridiculous! This is the worst type of advice for novice interior designers to listen to because it forces you to abandon your own creative ideas and narrows your ability to make the best decisions for yourself, your taste and your particular situation.

There are so many problems with their presumption that end tables should NEVER match that I don't even know where to begin.

First of all, there is no such thing as design "rules":

Design is an art form. Art forms are governed not by "rules" but by "principles". A principle says, "This works". A principle does not tell you that something will NEVER work. Science is governed by rules; such as with a physical law (rule) that says that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. When they do, things like car collisions occur.

If your end tables match, no huge physical impacts or damage or injuries will occur, I give you my word.

Interior designers are artists!

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What that publication is truly saying is that you should not use symmetry in your interior design. Nonsense! If the publication I mentioned earlier had been around when the Greeks designed the Parthenon, we might not have this iconic and endlessly beautiful and symmetrical building today.


Interior designers should be very wary of anyone who tells you that you MUST do something in particular with your room design if the person giving the advice has never met you, has never received an e-mail from you outlining your specific issue, has never seen your house, or your room, and has no idea of your personality or what you are trying to accomplish.

A simple answer:

If you seek a simple answer, here it is: It is your house, if you want your end tables to match, they should match, if you don't want your end tables to match, they shouldn't! Simple huh?

But I realize that it isn't simple at all, or people wouldn't be asking such questions and publications wouldn't be selling such articles, the subject here that I am writing about exists because it is NOT a simple answer.

Not to fear, there are basic design guidelines, "principles" to lead interior designers to a pleasing and beautiful outcome whether you choose to match your end tables or not match your end tables, or nightstands, lamps, or countless other design elements that you may be pondering whether should "match".

Step one:

The first thing I would say is to have just one particular design issue in mind when you think about this advice. So even though you may need advice on whether or not you should use matching nightstands in the master bedroom, matching chairs on either side of your entry door or matching end tables on either end of your sofa, to use this advice to your best advantage I want you to think of only ONE of these design problems.

Once you solve that one, then you can choose ONE more and go back through again, and so on. But in my experience interior designers can too easily become confused if they try to solve many design problems at once.

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So let's say that one design issue you are trying to solve is whether or not you should use matching end tables on either side of your sofa. The same principles apply whether the issue is lamps, or nightstands, or chairs, but let's use the sofa and end tables problem here in this example. And let's further say in this example that the room where this sofa resides is the living room.

Ok, well since I haven't seen your living room, you will have to look at it and answer some basic questions for yourself before you can solve your design problem. The first is have you decided where you want the sofa? If you haven't, then skip this article for now and see my article entitled, "Space and traffic planning for furniture placement".

If you have decided where you want the sofa in question, then read on.

A question of balance:

The principle of design at work here is "balance". All good interior designers know that any good composition should be "balanced". Balance can be achieved through several means but for our discussion here we will rely only on "symmetrical balance" and "asymmetrical balance".

Symmetrical balance is when a composition, or part of a composition, in this case, an interior space is exactly the same on either side of a central axis.

Asymmetrical balance is when a composition, or part of a composition, in this case, an interior space is NOT exactly the same on either side of a central axis and yet still is pleasing to the viewer because it feels "balanced".

From where will the sofa be "viewed"?

I know that it can be viewed from various points in the room. But it probably will be viewed more from one or two points than from others. So choose one point from which to view your sofa. If possible this point should be directly centered on the exact middle point of the sofa considering its length. And view it from as far away as the average person will see it. All I mean is that if there are chairs 8 feet in front of the sofa and people will be sitting there looking at the sofa, then 8 feet is the point you should choose as your viewing point because that is where your guests will view the sofa from.

So now consider whether or not the wall directly behind the sofa is symmetrical. And if not, how asymmetrical is it? Interior designers are well aware that not all sofas are placed against walls and that some are placed freely in the center of rooms. If this is the case, then instead of determining if the wall directly behind the sofa is symmetrical, try to determine if the "backdrop" to the sofa is symmetrical.

What is a backdrop?

A backdrop for our purposes is the point in space, behind the sofa, where the average viewer of the sofa will stop being concerned or stop "viewing". The most obvious example of this is a wall that ends the room that contains the sofa and is let's say 10 feet farther back behind the sofa.

Your sofa wall or sofa backdrop is symmetrical if:

Here I am only asking about the wall or the backdrop itself, the architecture, if you will, when the room is completely empty except for the sofa.

  • Your wall is completely symmetrical if for example there is one perfectly centered window in the wall directly behind the sofa. Don't guess. Measure it.
  • Your backdrop is symmetrical if let's say there is one doorway into the room behind the sofa and is perfectly centered directly behind the sofa with equal sections of wall on either side of the central axis of the sofa. Again, we are not guessing, as interior designers, we measure things.
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Your sofa wall or sofa backdrop is asymmetrical if:

Again, I am only asking about the architecture, if you will, when the room is empty except for the sofa.

  • Your wall or backdrop is asymmetrical if there is one window not centered behind the sofa or two windows not centered behind the sofa evenly, and again, as interior designers, we measure things, we do not guess
  • Your wall or backdrop is asymmetrical if there is a doorway or any other permanent architectural aspect of the room on only one side of the sofa or to one side more than the other

So what does all this mean to me?

You may be asking, "So what?" "What does all this mean to me?" Good question! And only you can answer it.

What interior designers need to do is determine what indeed this all means to them? By that I mean, empty the sofa wall or backdrop of EVERYTHING except the sofa. Sit quietly and for a long time in the point from which the sofa will most often be "viewed" and study the sofa in relation to the wall or backdrop behind it.

How much does it bug you that the wall or backdrop is asymmetrical?

  • How nervous do you feel? Do you feel compelled somehow to "fix" it?
  • Does the asymmetry excite you? Make you excited that you can be creative and not "boxed in" by symmetry?

There is no right or wrong answer. As interior designers, this is just you getting to know yourself.

How peaceful do you feel when you view your symmetrical wall or backdrop?

  • How at ease are you with the symmetry? Does all feel "right with the world?"
  • Have you already fallen asleep because the symmetry bored you into a nap?

Again, there is no right or wrong answer. As interior designers, we need to get to know ourselves and our homes to decide what is best for our particular situation.

Bored by symmetry?

If a family member had to wake you from viewing the symmetry of your setting, you may want to "mix it up a little" with end tables and lamps that are not matching.

Excited by your asymmetrical backdrop?

Lucky you! Since you're living with it, make the most of it! Let those creative juices flow and choose non-matching end tables and balance things out artfully with "heavier" or larger pieces of art on the larger wall side of the sofa and smaller or "lighter" pieces of art on the side with the smaller wall section.

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Is asymmetry driving you crazy?

If your asymmetrical wall or backdrop made you start calling realtors to sell the house, calm down! Good interior designers just buy matching end tables and lamps and then "balance" the remaining asymmetry by placing larger or "heavier" pieces of art on the side where there is more space, in effect, "fooling" the eye!

If there is a very large difference in space on one side, then rather than matching end tables, interior designers may wish instead to try a larger and darker colored end table on one side that seems "heavier" or more dramatic thus by its charisma it garners more attention and therefore seems to take up more space. Try also a very large plant on one side that will simply take the extra space away.

Symmetry in your home has made you feel that the universe is balanced and life is fair!

For interior designers like you, choose matching end tables, lamps, and artwork that is the same size and visual weight. Accessorize each end table with either identical accessories are ones so close in size and visual weight that no one will notice they aren't identical.

This may seem for some to be too easy, and thus a "copout", but symmetrical design can be just as much of a challenge as asymmetrical design, especially if you wish to use antiques. If you are using antiques, then remember that you will have to find two of everything, two lamps, two end tables, matching vases, etc.

That's all there is to it! Just your opinion!

But if you still feel overwhelmed and feel you need a professional interior designer to help you find what is best for you, I can help further! If you are in St. Louis, contact me at [email protected]