November 14, 2020 6 min read

On the same trip to Italy during which we saw the Villa Rotunda, my brother and I went to see the splendid Teatro Olympico in Vicenza, designed by Palladio. It is an indoor amphitheater that houses one of the most beautiful stages and permanent sets in existence. The back section of the stage floor is canted upward, as are the streets of the backdrop and which diminish in scale towards vanishing points. Patrons sit surrounded by a demi-lune arcade that Palladio built as a recreation of the exterior of an open-air Roman amphitheater. The backdrop of the auditorium also has niches, columns, and statues painted in perspective. The effect is startling: although they are indoors, visitors are given the illusion that they are sitting in an outdoor Roman amphitheater. It was Palladio's handling of a multiplicity of architectural scales that made the greatest impression on me.

I became more keenly aware of subtle juxtapositions in structural heights when I worked among the ancient buildings of Rome a few years later. I came to realize that for both architects and interior designers, the importance of understanding and developing competence in using scale cannot be overemphasized. The most successful buildings demonstrate harmonious relationships in scale, whether externally to their surroundings, or internally to their occupants.

The lessons from Rome are seen clearly at work in my favorite Neoclassic room, the entrance hall of Syon House, near London (pictured at top). Remodeled in the early 1760s by Robert Adams, it is a re-creation of a Roman basilica -- although the clerestory windows are glazed in glass rather than in alabaster as they would have been in ancient Rome.

Adam's work in this room is a textbook on using the three different scales that are integral to both architecture and interior design: monumental, residential, and human. The room is organized in horizontal layers using these three scales. Monumental scale is evident in the huge crown molding, or frieze, that encircles the room and appears to support the coffered ceiling. A third of the way down the wall from the ceiling is a lower, less imposing, cornice, which represents the residential scale and makes this vast room more easily assimilated. Finally, the smallest of the scales is used in the doorways, which relate to human proportions. Introducing this last scale enables the occupants to "move" through the three layers without feeling overwhelmed.

Another fine example of a similar use of these three scales is William Kent's skillful scheme for Worcester Lodge at Badminton, in Gloucestershire. Kent made what could have been an overly vertical space (imagine being at the bottom of a milk carton) into a beautifully proportioned room by offsetting a huge frieze directly below the ceiling, adding a smaller-scaled cornice one-third of the way down from the ceiling, and giving the doors human dimensions.

I often look to the past, to Greek and Roman architecture and to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century work of Inigo Jones and William Kent for inspiration on reinterpreting and using the three scales. Above all, they show how good use of scale can prevent a vast space from being overpowering. When challenged with a huge room, I consciously use all three scales. My prime solution is to create "rooms within a room": in doing this, I often break up the floor area with carpets, and make use of folding screens and high-backed sofas. In creating more intimate spaces within a large room, there are three particular zones to address: the furnishings round the fireplace, those in a music or reading area, and those directly towards the view.

These techniques are demonstrated in my Connecticut drawing room. I manipulated the scale of the large space firstly by adding a huge crown molding, secondly by using folding screen that are 8 feet high, and thirdly by using sofas with 4-foot-high backs. Two sofas are close to the fireplace; opposite is a round draped table surrounded by chairs making a group that, in effect, speaks to the view, but also acts as the reading zone since I have bookcases on either side; lastly the piano creates the music area.

Insensitivity to scale is, in my opinion, what is wrong with much contemporary architecture and design. What are called "living" rooms are really more like lobbies with 14-foot-long sofas and coffee tables that have to be delivered by cranes. Understandably, people march right by them. Any sofa more than 8 feet in length prevents people from feeling at ease. The breakfast table is often where most of us like to linger longest; this is because the scale is human and therefore comfortable. If there is more than 7 feet between you and another person, you need a megaphone to converse.

Similar concepts are evident in my former New York apartment in a 1927 Romanesque-style building, once part of a five-floor penthouse belonging to the family of financier Jay Gould. During the 1930s the building was divided up and my apartment included the ballroom, a three-story-high room so enormous that it was nearly a double cube. It was a place where I could be experimental in a way that working for clients often does not allow.

To make this space feel inviting was a daunting task. The solution was to create a series of vignettes, and to use furnishings that were overscaled but appeared normal. (The chairs were so exaggerated in their size and angle of their backs that when I found them at Didier Aaron in Paris, I was convinced they must have been theatrical props whose back legs were made shorter to appear upright on the steeply raked stages on the period.) One vignette consisted of a 17-foot-long walnut Italian refectory table placed beneath a contemporary painting. The size of the painting addressed the room and made other vignettes: these included the use of a folding screen behind a high-backed central sofa to create an "inglenook" where two people could comfortably converse. Another zone in the room was the music corner featuring a concert grand piano. All these outsized elements looked perfectly at home in the colossal space.

My design for the drawing room of Las Tejas, a house in Santa Barbara, California, incorporates much that I learned from Adam's reworking of Syon House. The scale of the house links it to an opulent past -- it was originally inspired by the sixteenth-century Villa Farnese near Rome, built by the architect Giacomo da Vignola for Cardinal Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III. In remodeling it, I wanted to maintain a respect for the classical architecture and yet I did not want to create a mausoleum. I felt as though I was walking a tightrope.

I controlled the potentially overwhelming size of the drawing room with the scale of the trompe l'oeil coffering the ceiling, and with the spectacular de Medici tapestry hung at great height. Flanking the tapestry is a pair of wooden columns which represent the residential scale, and human scale is seen in the pair of high-backed sofas of which I am so fond.

The way that the floor is divided, or zoned, by using carpets to identify specific areas also helps to break down the large size of the room. The center is given to two separate seating areas. One end of the living room is devoted to music with a grand piano, and the other is a study-library. There the wall is made up of bookcases; these surround a central, pedimented doorway set into a triumphal arch, which takes up the classical theme seen in the coffered ceiling and Ionic capitals on the columns on either side of the tapestry.

It is as important to have a variety of vertical scales outside the house as well as it is to have them inside. A flat garden is a boring one. If you have tall, mature trees, you are fortunate in that monumental scale will already have been established. If not, plant the largest you can afford. The middle scale can be represented by ornamental trees, large shrubs or manmade features such as a pergola or gazebo; and the smallest might include tall flowers, such as plume poppies or delphiniums, or decorative pots and urns.

The garden in Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, is one of the grandest in England, yet it is never overpowering because at every turn elements bring the monumental scale down to a human one. The large Round Pond, for instance, is surrounded by tall clipped beech hedges, but inset into these are human-sized sculptures.

Round Garden - Robin Hill

The Round Garden at Robin Hill also uses three scales. Around the stone perimeter wall is a huge circle of monumental 80-year-old red cedar trees. When we bought the property the area inside the wall was little but a muddy puddle, and so densely shaded that only fungus would grow. We dynamited the central section in order to construct a large circular pool -- the second, middle scale. The third, human-scale, feature is the bower in a three-sided bay that interrupts the circumference wall. I floored it with stone and trained a rhododendron over it as a roof. The result is one of the loveliest spots in the whole garden; it is like a cozy inglenook in a great hall, a place in which to hide and to look out at the almost public scale of the pool.