One of the key principles of interior design is rhythm, and it can be seen and heard throughout nature and the built environment through repetition, alternation and progression. These methods are applied to interior spaces by the repetitive use of decorative elements to bring order, interest and focus, which help lead the eye through a space.
By repeating elements such as colour, lines, shapes, texture, pattern and light in an organised and regular way one can give the design a clear sense of cohesiveness and stability.
Alternation in interior design is achieved by alternating two or more elements in a regular pattern, which will always repeat in the same order whether that is ABCABC or ABBABB. In comparison, repetition is a single element repeated in the pattern ABABAB.
While alternation is similar to repetition, it’s slightly more complex and both methods create greater visual interest in a design through variation and contrast, while unity is achieved by the repetition of the pattern.
Nature uses alternation abundantly, among other types of rhythm, and that’s why we like it. Humans have long been known to be pleased with unified scenes, such as tree bark, ocean waves and sand dunes, to name a few.
Several studies in psychology have identified that the human brain processes information by breaking it down into the simplest recognisable pattern. Applying this to interior design suggests that the quicker the information is simplified and a pattern is identified, the more likely we find it aesthetically pleasing.
How to Use Alternation in Interior Design
Through alternation, we create a pattern that can be recognised. The eye naturally seeks out rhythm and patterns – when we find it, the line of sight flows effortlessly around the room. An alternating rhythm in interior design can be simple or complex but is a great way to break up the monotony of a regular rhythm or straightforward repetition.
This principle doesn’t have to be obvious, and the steady rhythm by repetition in interior design aims to lead the eye around the room seamlessly and to keep the space interesting.
In this guide, we’ll look more closely at the method of alternation and how to use it in the best possible way to transform a space.
Alternation Through Arrangement
One can see how the arrangement of candles, china and glassware on this Linha “Dining” table follows the rule of alternation | Designed by Marcio Kogan / studio mk27 for © Minotti London
Achieving alternation in a space doesn’t have to involve a full redesign. It can be achieved simply by arranging a vignette in a repeating sequence. For example, a long table with objects placed along the centre in this order: two candles, a vase of flowers, two candles, a vase of flowers – and so on.
Formal dining tables are a great visual example of alternation, with the repetition of place settings. Each setting will repeat the same sequence, usually including at least three glasses, one placemat, a selection of cutlery and a napkin.
Alternation Through Pattern & Colour
On this Connery Sofa, one may notice the beige cushions alternate in texture as well as colour and work to complement the sofa while guiding the eye through the space | Designed by Rodolfo Dordoni for © Minotti London
As well as table settings, alternation can often be found in designs of fabrics. Elements may include flowers, fish, birds, animals or geometric shapes are laid out in an intricate example of rhythm. When looking closely the arrangement may appear random, but if one steps back one will see that the sequence is repeated.
Therefore soft furnishings such as cushions, upholstery and window dressings are a simple yet effective way to achieve alternation in interior design.
Patterns that are similar, though not identical, will add visual variety to a space whilst maintaining rhythm and harmony. For example, one can display a range of alternating but similar cushions on a sofa to help define the rhythm of a living space.
Alternation in Fixtures
While the walls offer a natural alternation from brick to brick, every surface from the floor, ceilings and windows work to create a greater sense of alternation | Designed by Marcio Kogan / studio mk27 for © Minotti London
Alternation doesn’t need to be as obvious as the pattern on a curtain – it can be surprising where one will notice subtle sequences of repetition when they know how to look.
A straightforward example of alternating rhythm in play is the black and white squares of a chessboard, a design that is often found on the wall and floor tiling. This simple repetitive sequence of alternating colours creates movement and energy, which is probably why it’s so popular in interior design.
Using alternating rhythm in the fundamental elements of a design can create depth in a room and draw the eye where one wishes to lead it. This could be as subtle as the lines of wooden floorboards which work to draw the gaze towards a view.
The alternating pattern of brickwork, wood panelling and parquet flooring has the ability to take a plain, two-dimensional surface and give it an almost three-dimensional presence.
Alternation brings a certain energy, simply through repetition. One brick or floor tile on its own would seem insignificant, but when repeated over and over in a sequence it creates movement and takes one on a journey.
Conclusion: Alternating Rhythm in Interior Design
In this guide, we’ve discussed the concept of alternation as a method of creating rhythm in interior design. From architectural features to ornaments, alternating rhythm in interior design can be introduced in a wide variety of forms:
- Arrangement: simply considering the sequence in which objets d’art and accessories are laid out
- Pattern: by introducing patterns in soft furnishings such as curtains, blinds, upholstery and cushions, we can add variety and harmony to a space
- Fixtures: the subtle patterns within the flooring, tiling, brickwork is an understated but effective way to introduce alternation to a design
Regardless of whether one is striving for a traditional or modern space, there are always ways to incorporate alternation into an interior, whatever the style or theme may be. It’s something we might not even realise is happening, but it’s a key element of design that works to make a room feel cohesive and complete.