Texture is the surface quality of an object, resulting from its three-dimensional structure, and is often used to describe the relative smoothness or roughness of a surface.
Texture may be perceived by either touch or sight. The sense of touch allows you to feel tactile texture, which is always real – e.g. tree bark, glass, rock. Through the eyes you perceive visual texture, which can be real – e.g. tree bark – or illusory – e.g. line drawings. All tactile textures provide visual texture, too.
Touch and sight are closely connected. When you see a piece of polished metal, for example, you respond to its tactile quality – you know it’s smooth without actually touching it. This happens because when you see something that looks smooth, your mind recalls all the times in the past when you have touched smooth objects, and in a small way you relive those experiences.
For this reason, texture affects not just the way an interior feels, but also the way it looks. In general, rough textures look warm and natural, while smooth textures appear cold and formal.
Texture has visual weight, too. Smooth, reflective surfaces tend to appear lighter than rough, matt surfaces. Polished marble cladding will appear lighter than timber panelling, despite the reverse being true.
Coarse textures can also make an object appear closer, and reduce its scale. So, for example, while timber panelling could balance the appearance of a large room and make it feel cosier, panelling a small room would make it look smaller, or even oppressive.
Texture also affects colour: smooth, glossy surfaces look cooler than rough, opaque surfaces, so you could warm up a blue wall by applying texture to it, or cool down a red cabinet by applying a glossy varnish over it.
Scale, viewing distance and light all influence the way you perceive texture. The finer the scale of a textural pattern, the smoother it will seem. Even a coarse texture, when seen from a great distance, could appear relatively smooth.
Light affect texture, and is affected by it. Directional lighting enhances texture, producing shadows and brightness variations; soft, diffused lighting, on the contrary, minimise contrast and shadows, making textures difficult to read.
Smooth, shiny surfaces reflect light, appear in focus, and draw the eye. Matt and medium-rough surfaces absorb light and diffuse it unevenly, so they seem duller than similarly coloured smooth surfaces. Very rough surfaces illuminated directly cast distinct shadow patterns of light and dark.
Contrast also affect the strength or subtlety of texture. If you see a particular texture against a smooth, uniform background, you’ll perceive it as more obvious than the same texture juxtaposed with a similar one. If you place the same particular texture against a coarse, uneven background, you’ll see the texture as finer, and reduced in scale.
Finally, texture affects the maintenance of an interior. Smooth surfaces may show dirt and scuff, but they are usually easy to clean, while rough surfaces may conceal dirt but are much more difficult to clean.
Texture can be used effectively to add interest and character to a room. However, since texture tends to visually fill the space, in small interiors you’re better off using subtle texture, and in small quantities.
Texture is particularly effective in monochromatic interiors; use it to add depth and create a visually engaging room.
A bold use of texture can be stunning in contemporary interiors, where, for example, you can find rough unfinished brick next to stainless steel, glass, or polished concrete. Combinations of contrasting textures can create variety, but you usually need large spaces to make the scheme work.
To retain harmony, try to use textures that share one common trait – e.g. a degree of light reflectance, or the same visual weight.
Texture and pattern are very closely related. Pattern is the decorative design or ornamentation of a surface, usually obtained by repeating a design motif. When you see pattern from a great distance, the motifs become so small that you no longer see them as single elements, but perceive them as texture.
Pattern can be structural or applied. Structural pattern is inherent in the construction or assembling of a surface, while applied pattern is only decorative, and it’s added after the surface is complete.
Patterns have been part of human life since its beginning. Present everywhere, from dwellings, to fabric and even skin (think of tattoos), patterns play an important role in everyday life and have cultural, religious, and philosophical significance. The natural world and everyday common objects are often the inspiration for cultural decorative patterns.
Although an effective tool for interior design, pattern tend to fill the space – like texture – so don’t overdo it: competing patterns don’t make the space more interesting, only busy and cluttered.
If, like me, you like simplicity, use pattern as an accent. Jazz up calming interiors with accessories: a few scattered cushions and throws in striking patterns can lift a room without making it chaotic.
If you’re crazy about patterns, there are a few tips that can help you keep the interior harmonious and balanced:
- Vary the scale of the pattern according to the size of your room. If your room is small, you’re better off sticking to small scale patterns, but bear in mind that these will tend to be perceived as texture, or even solid, in large interiors. Large-scale patterns can be striking in a very big room, but you’ll find medium-scale patterns easier to place, and live with.
- Unify the patterns in a room choosing a colour common to all of them, or choose the same pattern in different scales, or different colours.
- Distribute pattern around the whole room – not just in one corner – to balance the effect. If, however, you want to draw attention to one particular area of the room, concentrate pattern there to create a focal point.
- Limit the number of patterns to just a few, unless they’re muted and subtle, to avoid the room looking chaotic.
- Find one pattern that you love, and build the whole room around it – for example, start with a stencilled oriental pattern, then choose fabrics and rugs in similar patterns.
In the next post of the Design Basics series I’ll talk about light and how it can be used in interior design.
Subscribe to Positively Beauty here and receive your free updates.