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Anatomy of a Console Table

Generally speaking, there are precious few "rules" when it comes to decorating. After all, taste isn't really a matter of following a prescribed list of "do's" and "don'ts", but instead a more elusive art form: it is emotional rather than logical. There's an often repeated mantra that good taste can't be taught -- and perhaps that is in fact the case. However,I firmly believe that if we take the time to train our eyes, we can learn short cuts and handy tricks that can at the very least help us approximate good taste, even if it isn't innate.

One area of decorating that appears to have surprising uniformity is styling a console table. A console table is the true workhorse of occasional tables -- it works equally well behind a sofa as it does in foyer -- and it's also an amazing opportunity to practice styling on a small scale. For many designers, the task can even be broken down into a rather simple arithmetic formula. Take for example Sara Gilbane's alcove (shown above). The classical elegance of the console table is anchors the statement-making gilt mirror. A pair of tall vases flank either end of the table and help bridge the space between the mirror and table top. Smaller-scaled picture frames and a decorative bowl fill in the center of the table and create further symmetry. This symmetrical arrangement is then echoed on the lower shelf with two small plants flanking the inlaid box.

Following this symmetrical formula is a simple and guaranteed way to achieve a visually pleasing arrangement. A few more examples from some of my favorite designers to illustrate some of the many variations on this theme:

Hillary Thomas Designs

John Willey Interior Design

Meg Braff

Ashley Whittaker

Miles Redd

If you have a longer wall to fill, follow the lead of Miles Redd (above) and Sally Steponkus (below) and try flanking the console table with a pair of smaller chairs. When company comes, you'll have the extra seating, but otherwise the chairs will be out of the way for day-to-day activities.

Sally Steponkus

If you're ready to move on to the next level, try breaking up the symmetry a bit, which can create a far more interesting (and less "decorated") look. The key to your success though will be to maintain the balance. Here, Kristen Hutchins uses only one table lamp (a good choice as the console table is on the small side), but balances it with a small floral arrangement at the other end.

Here, the very symmetrical arrangement of mirrors above the console is loosened up by the more haphazardly arranged orange boxes below. If the boxes had been stacked more tidily, the overall effect would have been far too geometric, which would have felt too studied and not in keeping with the more organic qualities of the decorative objects on the table itself.

Ruthie Sommers

If you're trying to break up the symmetry a bit, I'd suggest keeping at least one element symmetrical, as Ruthie Sommers did here with the pair of sconces flanking the mirror. This is a simple trick to bring balance back to an asymmetrical space. [Random aside: Did you notice the adorable dog lounging on the stairs in the mirror's reflection?]

Lindsey Coral Harper

Sometimes a simpler, less cluttered arrangement is best, particularly in a small entryway or hallway. Here, Lindsey puts the emphasis on the vertical space of the room rather than the horizontal by using highly reflective elements (the metallic wall paint, the gilt mirror, the glittering wall sconces). The effect is further realized by placing the mirror and sconces higher up on the wall. A word to the wise though: when hanging wall art, mirrors, sconces, etc. it's best to keep them below the height of the door or window frame.

Time for the masters' class! In this vignette by Tim Clark, nothing is symmetrical and yet the arrangement is still highly successful. The red rattan chair is balanced by the palm in the red pot and the height of the pot is similar to the height of the floor lamp behind the chair. The green stools echo the color and shape of the small vases on the opposite side of the console table. As each side speaks to the other, the eye moves back and forth across the vignette.

Amanda Nisbet

A final point to consider is that sometimes fewer, larger pieces are far more effective than a bunch of small tchotchkes. In this vignette by Amanda Nisbet, the scale of the mirror, lamp and bust create a lot of drama without creating a lot of visual clutter. The neutral palette also ensures that these disparate pieces work harmoniously together.

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