Clean Lines: Design Lingo De-Mystified

transitional classic living room vignette

Clean lines? What the heck does that even mean?

Clean lines. You hear designers say this all the time. It’s like we have our own language to Designers use some pretty goofy terms to describe the work they do. It all just seems so pretentious at times.

Really? Are there unclean lines? Do they have mold, mildew, or soap scum? Do they need dusting or bleach? An exorcism?

I mean, what are we talking about here?

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Line: The Design Element

Lines are a fairly simple design element. Basically, there are curvilinear lines and rectilinear lines and those line shapes can be arranged in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal patterns. Lines can be used to define a space, create pattern, and create emotion.

For example, horizontal lines create the feeling of stability. Think about a room with heavy millwork: a chair rail, wainscoting, crown molding, and tall baseboards. The feeling created by all of those horizontal lines is one of stateliness, timelessness, and in some cases, masculinity, giving the space an overall feeling of stability.

transitional classic bathroom with clean lines.
With little ornamentation and a lot of rectilinear lines, this bathroom has the “clean line” look without being cold or sparse.

Vertical lines tend to give a sense of elongation and give the feeling of power. Think about the lines created by the columns in Greek and Roman architecture or in the Neo-Classical architecture prevalent in some of our most famous government buildings. There is a reason that verticality is used – the architects and designers wanted to convey power.

Diagonal lines, whether used alone or as a pattern, tend to convey dynamic energy and a sense of direction. Think about a herringbone pattern or diamond patterns. They convey a sense of movement and life. However, even when used in a structural element, like a staircase, diagonal lines are dynamic, directional, and can give clues for wayfinding.

Clean Lines, Rectilinear, Curvilinear… Decoding the Lingo

What exactly is the difference between curvilinear and rectilinear? And where do clean lines fit in?

Curvilinear Line

Curvilinear lines are simply lines that have a curved shape. We see a lot of curvilinear lines in traditional furniture and ornamental decor. A great example of the historical use of curvilinear line are in the Baroque and the Art Nouveau periods.

Curvilinear lines are associated with femininity, creativity, and opulence. During the Baroque period there was an excessive use of curvilinear lines and decoration as a means to express wealth. During the Art Nouveau period, curvilinear lines were mostly used as an homage to mother nature, as the artisans of the period wanted interiors and architecture that better connected to the natural world.

a pair of louis XV chairs are a great example of ornamental curvilinear lines
This pair of 19th Century Louis XV chairs are a great example of highly decorative and ornamental curvilinear lines.

Rectilinear Line

Rectilinear lines are straight lines like you would see in a rectangle. These are the types of lines we most associate with “clean lines” because they are unbroken and straight. They tend to convey masculinity and power.

Clean Lines

Clean lines are simply put, lines that are unbroken and uninterrupted. We tend to associate clean lines with modern architectural and design periods and contemporary decorating styles. What typically comes to mind for most people are rectilinear lines. However, curvilinear lines can also be “clean” when they are pared down, unadorned, and unbroken.

A few great examples of architectural style periods where curvilinear lines are used in a “clean” way are Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern, and Post-Modernism. This is where we see the streamlined use arcs and curves in furniture and architecture.

How to Use This Element in Your Home

And now for the meat and potatoes of the post… How do you use the element of line in your home?

As I mentioned above, you can use horizontal lines in the millwork and trim work in your home to convey a sense of stability and stateliness. Horizontal lines, like the ones created by crown molding, base boards, and chair rails give your eye a place to rest, which will in turn create a sense of comfort and relaxation.

Be careful in home with 8′ ceilings using horizontal lines! Those lines can also create the feeling of being short and squat. Baseboards that are too tall and crown molding that is too thick will start to shorten your walls. If you like the look of moldings and you have 8′ ceilings, consider painting the trim and walls a similar color. When there is too much contrast between moldings and wall, that shortening effect is accentuated.

If you want a more feminine look in your home, consider using furniture with curvilinear lines. However, if you want to have more of a transitional or contemporary look to your home, you may want to limit the amount and type of curves. Try balancing a track arm sofa with a Regency style chair, like in the shoppable board below.

Next week I’ll be talking about the element of pattern! It’s more than just fabric and wallpaper, so don’t miss it!

If you want to create a classic and cohesive style in your home, download a FREE copy of my Cohesive Style Guide. You will receive the mini-magazine and a series of emails that will help you take a deeper dive into your personal style and teach you how to create a cohesive concept using that style!

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