What is Visual Tension in Interiors? Why It’s Vital!

Hi Guys,

Thank you so much for your lovely comments on the last post, where I introduced OKA to the blog and shared room ideas and a color palette inspired by their home furnishings.


Lisa had a terrific question about visual tension in interiors.


Hi Laurel,
Another great post! I am intrigued by the term “tension” you used to describe what was lacking in a room design. What creates this, and what should we do to create it?
Take care, and I can’t wait for your next post!


What’s funny is that since I looked up the word “tension” in the blog comments, I saw that in the January 12th post, I also used that term.


So, what do I mean when I say visual tension in interiors?


Are the throw pillows giving each other dirty looks and about to start a pillow fight?

Well, it depends on how much sleep I’ve had.

I could write a sentence explaining what it is, but I think it is better to show you what it looks like when a room has zero visual tension. Below are two examples. Please don’t pin them on Pinterest.


Kelly Clarkson. I thought she was a singer. Never mind.


Bland boring living room

It’s not that there’s anything hideous about it; it’s just not very uplifting and a total snoozefest. I know some of you are going to say you like this. You’re going to say that you find it soothing. Yes, for a bedroom! And parts of it are fine for a living room. However, altogether, it is rather one-note. It’s a flabby muscle, not a toned one.


So, visual tension in interiors is everything these two rooms are not.


It has nothing to do with the pale colors, either. Here’s a job I did several years ago with similar colors.


living room layout-Laurel Bern Interiors Bronxville Living room-painting

Uh oh… Slipper chairs. lol, The room is made by the client’s beautiful art. And antiques you can’t see.

Another way to say good visual tension in interiors is stimulating and inspiring.  It encompasses all of the elements I talk about frequently. But, I don’t mind repeating myself.

Good visual tension begins with the room’s architecture, lighting, furnishings, color, pattern, texture, style, and a balance of yin and yang.


In rooms lacking visual tension, there is a sameness to all of the furnishings and often a lot of repetition. It’s monotonous.


Rooms that lack tension lack creativity and imagination. They are rote, predictable, and uninspiring.

Of course, there are a zillion ways to create visual interest in interiors. And, what is inspiring for one person isn’t for another.


Visual tension doesn’t mean having a lot of stuff.


No, you can have a beautiful, minimalist space with minimal furnishing and still have beautiful visual tension.

So, let’s begin with this image I found on Visual Comfort.


Leslie Cotter Interiors @lcinteriors on Instagram - Rosehill chandelier - Visual Comfort

Visual Comfort Rosehill Large Chandelier – Design by Leslie Cotter Interiors

Please go to @lcinteriors on Instagram to see the before image. The transformation she did is incredible! This is the entry into this beautiful old home.


Incidentally, the brand Visual Comfort has merged with Circa Lighting.


At first glance, you might go, “Where’s the tension?”

Well, first of all, we are experiencing this space as a two-dimensional image. We are not IN the room. So, we have to pretend to be sitting or standing in this space.

Would you say this room is overall traditional or modern?


While this is an old home and many of the traditional features, have been left as is, taken as a whole, the feeling of the space is contemporary.


There is a wonderful balance of color (floor and chairs), plenty of white, and accents of gold/brass and black. The furniture is contemporary but based on classic designs.

So, overall the home is modern, but the 20% traditional is what gives it interest.

Conversely, there’s a fantastic home in December’s issue of House Beautiful. I will present one small image, but please check out the rest of this fabulous home on HB’s website.


Lucy Doswell-Read McKendree-living room vignette via House Beautiful

Photo vignette by Read Mckendree.

Interior design by Lucy Doswell


Why only one small image, Laurel?


Copyright is why. It’s a very real problem.

However, regarding this beautiful room. It, too, has visual tension and a hefty dose of it. However, it is not random. There is still a balance of textures, colors, patterns, and shapes. I love them both. Which space do you prefer?


Now, I’m going to move on to another comment by a kind reader, Dee, from Canada but currently living in Scotland.


Above is the original image. However, I did not post the original image. I JUST realized that. The color of the drapes bothered me so much that I toned them down a tad when I spliced the two images together. (see below)


oka sectional living room ochre lamp - color palette

However, the color still bothered me, so I changed the window treatment entirely.


Home Furnishings & Palette of Benjamin Moore Colors Inspired by OKA

Dee didn’t like that I changed the blue drapes. I did say in the post that it’s an English thing, this creation of unusual. We’ve seen it in Ben Pentreath’s home and work and in many other designers from the UK. His work is always beautiful, and his color schemes make sense to me.


I explained that it wasn’t the clashing colors that bothers me.

It’s how the dark gray pillows clash with the heavily saturated indigo that the silk drapes are.

As is, the very saturated indigo doesn’t work for me. So, the first thing I did was select curtains in the colors that I prefer. I used either the pillow I added to the board (see above) or the other pillow I shared in Wednesday’s post.


better dark blue drapes
First, I tried to make the drapes a better dark blue. While better, I’m not wowed by this version, either.


Teal Curtains visual tension in interiors

This one is interesting, but I think the turquoise pillows on the sofa look washed out. However, I think the color of the drapes is stunning with the mustard lamp base and Chinoiserie chest. I would also love to see a rust pillow and a deeper blue.


dark olive drapes - visual tension in interiors
This deep olive is the best one for me, so far. I don’t feel it’s fighting anything else, and it looks great with the lamp and Chinoiserie chest.


light olive/chartreuse drapes - visual tension in interiors

I’ve written about chartreuse here. I like this combination the best! This interior has enough visual tension to create the kind of interest I’m talking about. I love the analogous situation with the lamp and drapes; plus, I think this universal color, chartreuse goes with everything.


copper drapes - visual tension in interiors

Oh, I love this one too. The copper/rust drapes are the complement to the turquoise. Of course, they look great with the pillows.


Well, Laurel, what about the rust with the other pillow?


Please, no; that combination makes me nauseous. ;]


Then, as a challenge, I tried to make the indigo drapes work.


Here’s what I learned working with these drapes.

They are almost purple. They have so much red in them. It’s not my favorite color. I like it, but only in tiny doses.

Before I get into my choices, here is some technical information for those who don’t know. If you do know because you read this post about the 15 hideous mistakes one can make with fabric, then great.

1. The drapes look to be made of silk. Silk should never go in a south-facing window and, in all cases, must be lined and interlined.
2. I would never do blue drapes in any material unless those windows have some HEAVY-DUTY UV protection. The reason is that blue is a “fugitive” color. That’s not my word; it’s the word I learned in design school. Does that mean that blue runs away from the law?

Close. It means it runs away from itself and turns into something you won’t want to have unless you like a sort of pinkish, grayish mauve color. Yes, that is what can happen to a vibrant blue when it interacts with the sun.


Okay, I played around with numerous pillow combinations on Picmonkey.


What do you think? Too much, perhaps? ;]


Okay, below are the four runners-up.


Jewel-toned pillows - indigo drapes

I numbered them in case you’d like to comment on any of them. These are a stretch for me. However, I think with the indigo curtains, these colors work better.


Below are my two favorites that provided the right kind of visual interest without going overboard.


visual tension in interiors indigo drapes - floral chartreuse - gold
Above, in second place, is this lovely grouping. Most of the pillows will be in a shopping widget underneath if you’re interested in the source. That is, except for the solid pillows. In the interest of time, I made those up. :]


visual tension in interiors indigo drapes - indigo floral chartreuse - gold
And above is my favorite vignette. I think the lighter approach is better with the sectional. Although the blues aren’t exactly the same in the curtains and blue pillow, they are close enough that the eye will try to make them match. That IS a perfect example of visual tension. Most people take great pains to get everything to match exactly, and that is a mistake.


Unless you’re matching a seam in a window treatment or wall covering, it is better for the colors, or at least some of them, to be slightly off.

At the very least, color matching amongst fabrics, is not something to get overly worried about.

That doesn’t mean you don’t need to get a cutting for approval. I highly recommend that you do. It’s also your insurance policy against the unthinkable mistake of the wrong fabric getting shipped and turned into an error that could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in do-over charges. Yes, it’s happened; not to me, but that, too, is in the fabric mistakes post.


Below are the pillows from above, except for most of the solids and the leopard.


I hope this exercise made the term visual tension in interiors more explicit. Of course, there is much more to it than coordinating window treatments and throw pillows. However, the accessories are what often make the room come to life.


PS: Please check out the newly updated HOT SALES!


48 Responses

  1. As always, I learn from your observations and cogent explanations. What a powerful statement on your expertise that the first two images are painful to me while the third room, yours, is such a great beauty.

    I must be the only person here who both liked the original blue drapes and the array of birds, for various reasons. But the room definitely needed your pillows and is now much improved.

  2. Reply to Christine S about not being able to get memo samples of Schumacher fabric in Canada. I’m in Canada and as an interior designer I’m able to order samples. You are best to consult someone in the Trade to access memos and purchase yardage.

  3. You’re awesome Laurel! The final winner picture looks so much better. I remember years ago when I couldn’t quite figure out why I wasn’t thrilled with my living room. I finally realized what was wrong and made some adjustments. It wasn’t a lack of contrast but overly matchy and stiff. Boring.
    Visual tension is a great way to put it. 🙂

  4. Laurel I hope you still see comments even if it’s late after post. I read & reread your posts and learn so much! This post on room visual tension was like eating a salted caramel chocolate! Loved every bit of it.

  5. I love, love, love the Doswell vignette (and all the pictures in the HB article)! That to me is a room with just the right combination of energizing and cozy. The entryway is beautiful to look at, but doesn’t feel like a place to live in. But then I also love Ben Pentreath, even when his whole house was covered in the new William Morris colourways he designed.

  6. Hi Laurel, What a great article! Now I understand what visual tension is thanks to this article as well as your kind reader’s comments! I have been racking my brains out to try and figure out what is just not exiting me in my living room. I too have draperies that I cannot afford to change. They are hyacinth coloured silk-like drapes and I am thinking that maybe if I can incorporate a little bit of that colour in one pillow, it might do the trick. Problem is, not may fabrics to chose from with this colour plus teal, blue, red and plum in my colourful art that I love above my grey sofa. I am looking at Schumacher’s Chiangmai dragon in ebony or Bermuda blossom (I love this print) in cocoa. Not a big fan of brown, but the colours in the print are beautiful. Would love to see this print on my Hepplewhite dining room chairs (I have a l shaped living -dining), to add some fun and break that formal look.Next hurdle is that I live in Canada and cannot have samples shipped here. Does any one have any suggestions?

  7. This was really interesting to see how the various pillows, in conjunction with the drapes, spruces up a room! When I first saw the comment about adding tension to a room, my immediate thought was having one piece of furniture that would stand out and make a statement (color / style / size??). This post helped quite a bit – pillows, we can do! I tend to lean with GL’s comments about the room itself with the myriad of little prints on the dull background. If I were in that room, I’d be getting fidgety, and now I know why. You often show such beautiful artwork in your posts, and I think if it were my room, I’d put one of your beautiful large art pieces where those birds are and the art would tie-in with that stunning pillow in your second-to-last photo (or the two gorgeous red ones in the photo above it). This was a great post and so interesting to see how pillows, or drapes, etc can transform a room!

  8. I choose Number 5. It’s all about the accessories.

    And I love this information on visual tension. Thanks!

  9. I can look at a photo of a room and although I may find it to be beautiful — I do not yearn to be there. It isn’t a space that I long to live in. It doesn’t make me swoon. Out of every space you have ever presented — the Ralph Lauren Milano showroom, the rooms by Steve Cordony, and Daryl Carter make my knees weak. In the case of Steve Cordony and Daryl Carter — they manage to bring all of the brilliance and tension without the use of any color to speak of. I find that gift to be compelling and so very unique. In fact, I’ve yet to see a room either have designed that I wouldn’t want to live in.

    1. Hi Lori,

      So true about Steve and Darryl. They’re in a class all by themselves. And yes, both show visual tension while using very little color. For them, it’s all about the dynamics of light and dark, texture, style for days, and perfect proportions, and balance. They make it look easy.

      I chose this one as a challenge because of the color. I’m trying to move out of my own comfort zone, but I find myself going back to what I know and have always loved.

  10. I lean maximalist, but I feel that a single piece of art or larger images would help the balance here. The birds are smaller than the flowers and it looks busy. Love the riot of color! Glad to know that creating tension doesn’t have to mean unsymmetrical. Is that a word? .

    1. True, DE. I was focusing on the window treatments and how they clashed with the pillows. And, for this post, showed a process for getting that part right. I ignored the birds. haha

  11. I came across Cathy Kincaid’s “The Well Adorned Home”, it has a great discussion on creating tension in decorating schemes and lots of lovely photos. Highly recommended.

    1. Hi Rosemary,

      Cathy’s awesome! She did a gorgeous job of redesigning the Beacon Hill Bookstore. I visited it right after it opened but didn’t do a post about it yet.

  12. What a fun and beautiful post, Laurel! I love that Doswell room; it’s so fun and interesting, but I can see how it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea :] I agree with GL that the artwork you originally put in the OKA room really elevated that space. Oh, and I love the cream drapes with the green trim you chose also. And I agree with others that the bird artwork needs better matting and framing to make more of a statement if they were to stay in this room. Out of the options with the blue drapes, I like #5 (2nd to last option). I think the pillow on the left has the perfect amount of red to jazz things up and to relate to the reddish tones in the bird art.

  13. I obviously have no experience in this area. I’m having a hard time trying to come up with “tension”for my living room. I’m selecting things I like & think they work together. I realize at the end of the day having a space I like is all that matters. But deep down I would like to think it’s well designed.
    What I might decide is tension someone else might think is weird. And that would make me feel bad. I guess that’s why you hire a professional.

  14. I really like your favorite. The patterned pillow is beautiful and works well with the blue drapes, and I love how the color of the lamp is echoed in the mustard pillow (French’s mustard, right??). From the first pic of the room I thought changing out the pillows would be the answer. So much less expensive than switching the drapes!

  15. Your blog is always so thought provoking! I found today’s topic of visual tension particularly interesting. Try as I might, I can’t find any visual tension in the picture of the entry with the two green armchairs unless one counts the contrast between the high intensity white walls and the medium intensity of the floor, armchairs and panel pocket doors or the blockage of the full arch by chair arms that extend beyond it, cleverly disguised by pulling out the doors on either side of the arch. As much as I love symmetry in classical architecture, to me the rigid symmetry in the entry creates more stasis than tension. Thank you for a blog that always makes me stop and think. Your blogs are always worth reading!

  16. My interior designer used to say that every room needs something black and an animal print- they create tension!

  17. Wonderful post. I love the way you combine complementary pillows instead of them all done in pairs. So instructive to see different approaches to the same room and what an informed hand can do. This was a master class post and I imagine the same principles apply to choosing and combining art in a room.

  18. Laurel, Thank you again for another color filled post. My favorite #5. Not numbered,but with the floral, chartreuse and yellow print pillows. I really liked the pink in the floral nodding to the pink flamingo print. IMO it was always about the pillows. The original blues just were not working. The other thing that doesnt work for me is the pictue frames. White walls, frames, mostly white prints. Either gold or black would lift the eye up and tie in with the tables. If space allows, go a little bigger with the frames, black frame and gold mats. Thank you Dee for inviting us and our opinions in your home.

  19. I love these new posts that are about “making it work”. Having the different examples make it easy to see the difference. I liked the blue drapes (but thought the problem was the boring pillows), but seeing how the chartreuse drapes were a much better choice because they pulled your eye around the room to include the gold tables was very interesting -and I don’t even like chartreuse!

    It is so easy, (as a non-professional) to purchase something that is not quite right…and then getting paralyzed because you don’t know how to make it look better. Or being paralyzed because you know that you are going to have to live with what you choose-even if you are not crazy about how it looks in the room. The blue drapes are a perfect example–an expensive purchase that doesn’t look “right”….but now you own them and the question is what can you do to make them work.

  20. I like #4 the best! For me, bringing out the reds from the framed pictures makes the room . All of your combinations are so interesting-who knew dark blue drapes would be so challenging to work with?!

  21. Thank you laurel for making me open my eyes to the good and not so good ways of interior decorating,
    For whatever this is worth, I think it should be runners-up and not runner-ups. Kind of like spoonsful and not spoonfuls, although hardly anyone uses these words with the “s” in the middle.

  22. Interesting. I won’t comment on the first part, I don’t like either of the rooms, and I’m not even sure they’re successful on their own terms. The second part, with the dark blue curtains, gives a chance for several approaches. I took a screen shot of your original image and manipulated the colours. Toning down the curtains (using the sepia slider) had the effect of making the cushions a greener shade of turquoise, which is what happens in your second image, so it doesn’t help the curtains to fit in. The various combinations of different curtains and cushions certainly produce different and improved looks, and any preferred option is down to individual taste, I think. But there’s also the problem of the very bland bird prints, the entirely silver mirror (no contrasting frame) and the expanse of pale floor plus glass and pale wood table plus glass and metal or bamboo side table. What really bugs me is that there’s no weight to the room, nothing to ground it. The possibilities for permutations are endless. I notice that when you originally changed the curtains you also changed the artwork, which helps things along enormously. In short, I think the room needs more than fabric changes to get it really right.
    Technical comment: no need for sunlight to make blue fade. It also depends on the quality of the fabric. I’m on my second large quilt in a bedroom which faces north-east and never gets any direct sunlight. In both cases the quilt was made in Europe but with cotton from India, and not enough mordant was used to make the dye remain true. Same problem with a terracotta red armchair upholstered with a Manuel Canovas fabric (hardly cheap), cotton made in India, now badly faded — but in this case it’s exactly what I wanted to happen! My advice is always to check where a plain-coloured fabric is produced.

  23. For my taste the pillows are a bit too large and there are too many of them. I’m probably wrong about the scale of the pillows, but I feel they overwhelm the sectional and depending on the seating depth, I think most people would have to move them aside or set them on the floor to sit comfortably.

    1. Hi Christine,

      You are right, they are a tad too large, but I needed to cover up the existing pillows in my virtual representation
      and angle them accordingly so now they do appear to be more further forward than they would be in real life. The point
      here is to look at the colors, and how they all fit together.

      Scale is definitely important, so great call.

  24. This may help you during this very cold spell.
    Copied from SoPo Cottage’s Facebook post; Another PSA as we all try to get through this Arctic blast. If you’re shocked at how much cold air is coming in around your windows, grab a box of Caulking Cord. It’s cheap ($5-7 depending on brand) and super easy to install. Just peel off ropes in whatever thickness you need to seal the gap and press in place. Your 6 year old can do it – their PlayDoh skills will come in handy! 😁 and it peels right off in the spring. I bet I’ve used miles of this stuff in our old houses over the years!! It’s amazing!
    Mortite weatherstrip and caulking cord is what she used.
    SoPo Cottage does beautiful restorations of homes in Maine.

  25. Wow, I am always impressed by the amount of care and detail you provide in your posts/newsletters. The illustrations are so helpful and your knowledge of design, architecture, and art is very impressive. It’s almost like taking a mini class. In this particular post I loved the combinations you played with and the comments on pros and cons of each. Thank you!

  26. This is a really helpful and interesting post; thank you, Laurel! I think that different people need/prefer different amounts of tension; the Doswell room would drive me to drink (and not in a good way.) I think I like the chartreuse room the best, which surprises me because I usually do not like yellow-greens. I like the one colorful pillow amongst the solid color pillows best because it is the most restful. (My usual state is a pitch below hysterical so I like all the calm I can get.)

    Keep up the magnificent work!

  27. Fabulous post about tension. I now fully understand what it is, and how to achieve it. Loved seeing all the various possibilities of pillows and curtains. My favorite is version #4. Didn’t love the red pillow in #1 and #3, nor the light green pillow in #2.

  28. I’ve been reading your blog for about 6 years and this is one of my all-time favorite posts. You articulate so well what I respond to, and why the objectively lovely houses of a few friends make me so restless. You even tell me why my widowed mother’s blue and white apartment, full of my parents’ art and family pieces, somehow feel so bland. It was my father’s books and oddball estate sale discoveries that gave their house “visual tension,” and a sense of life and a sense of humor.

  29. Laurel:

    Thank you for another great post. This kind of post is my favorite, where you show different options and how to correct a room that is not working. Personally my favorite rendition of the room is the room where you changed the curtains to cream with green on the bottom. But I love looking at all the different ways you can style it for different tastes.

  30. I have an Ororo battery-powered (rechargeable battery) vest that has saved my bacon this year. My professor husband sits at his desk all day with an electric leg mitten that keeps him warm. There is hope for your comfort!

  31. Lots of good information. Love seeing how the various pillow mixes can elevate the look and the feel of the room. I always say that pillows are the heavy lifters in decorating. They can’t save every room but often can make a huge difference. Beloved family heirlooms are the best too, to create an interesting space. If no family heirlooms, consignment stores, resale stores or even the goodwill are great place to look. I am so uninterested in a room that looks perfect and brand new which is part of the reason Kelly Clarkson’s room is so uninteresting. It looks like a matched set that purchased in one afternoon…Well, she is a spokesperson for Mayfair 🙂

  32. Love your work and look forward to your posts. Two pieces of advice: an electric blanket and an ororo (or other brand heated vest. You will live in your home in comfort!

  33. I think the best way to add personality to a room is with family heirlooms, affordabe antiques and lots of thrift store finds. You end up with a decor that no one else has. Love the post.

  34. I think that your second favorite one is my most favorite. I really love how you compare and contrast so that we can really learn what we are looking at. Thank you for not making assumptions that we are seeing the same thing that you are seeing, and spelling it out for us. I have been able to use a lot of your design rules from the e-books I purchased from you, and am loving my living room these days. It finally feels like me. And trying to explain to friends how things should not match perfectly is a little easier when they can see my own rooms now. To me, when things are all matchy and symmetrical, they just fall flat and the room is pretty but boring.

  35. I love this post Laurel! My favorite design rules I learned from reading your blog over the years: A warm room craves a bit of cool, a cool room craves a bit of warmth, and CHILL (when trying to mix patterns). Thank you for sharing your gift! What I’ve learned from you has made me love my home!

  36. I love your final vignette. This is very pleasing to my eye. She can still use her existing drapes but your choice of pillows draws the room together – without being matchy-matchy. It feels alive. You have even drawn out the color at the edge of her throw. The trend right now seems to be so bland. There is no pop of color in the rooms featured on Houzz and other sites. They look washed out and sterile. A room needs a bit of a surprise, a pop of color you aren’t expecting – or as you say tension – to make it interesting and inviting. A room that feels alive is where I want to spend time. Bravo on another great post!

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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