Designing By The Numbers

January 27, 2010

Sometimes we find ourselves in spaces that just don’t feel right.  Though we can’t  put our finger on it, we feel uncomfortable – sometimes to the point that we don’t linger, but rather leave the area as soon as we can.  If that space happens to be in our home, it’s common to not use that room.  Or if it is in our office, we’ll end up wandering during the day or taking our work to the conference room or other space.

Issues with temperature, lighting, use of color, etc.  can all be pinpointed to an extent.  The most illusive cause of unknown discomfort, and probably the most common, is that the design of the room disregards the mathematical laws of nature… I speak of the Fibonacci numbers.

Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci (AKA: Leonardo of Pisa) lived from 1170 to 1250 and many think him one of the greatest mathematical geniuses.  One of the best modern sources of information about Fibonacci is by A. F. Horadam, “Eight hundred years young,” The Australian Mathematics Teacher 31 (1975) pgs 123-134.

Recognizing that arithmetic with Hindu-Arabic numerals is simpler and more efficient than with Roman numerals, Fibonacci traveled throughout the Mediterranean world to study under the leading Arab mathematicians of the time. Leonardo returned from his travels around 1200. In 1202, at age 32, he published what he had learned in Liber Abaci (Book of Abacus or Book of Calculation), and thereby introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe. (Wikipedia)

Also in the Liber Abaci is one of his other great contributions to the world, what we refer to as the Fibonacci numbers.  While he did not discover this number pattern (the formula was being used in India as early as the 6th century), Fibonacci did introduce this sequence to the western world.

In the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, starting with 0 and 1.  As such the sequence begins 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, and goes on.  The ratio that begins to emerge is referred to as the “Golden Ratio” (approximately 1.6180339887498948…).  This ratio has history that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

This ratio is seen in all things of nature… shells, trees, our bodies.  Artists of the Renaissance period used the formula within their paintings.  Early last century, physicists found that the formula applied to crystal formation.  Some financial experts currently use the ratio to forecast stock expectations.

Architects and designers use the Fibonacci Number system to create spaces of harmonious proportions.  Famous Swiss Architect Le Corbusier used the system almost exclusively in designing buildings, furniture and spaces.

The portions provided by the Fibonacci Numbers and Golden Ratio give us a sense of balance when designing rooms.  Whether we are looking to remodel or decorate, by incorporating these proportions into our “bag” of design theories, we can calculate appropriate room dimensions, fireplace placement, couch height, etc., which will feel appropriate to the other relationships in a room, including human scale.

Furniture can always be moved or replace to remedy an awkward space.  But if you happen to occupy a building that is structurally awkward, reaching a solution may be more difficult.  Remodeling, sometimes, is the only option – however, not before exploring creative cosmetic changes.  Windows that are out of proportion can be fixed with custom sized molding or curtains.  Ceilings can be brought down, if above 8′ AFF (above fixed floor).  Bookshelves can bring walls in.  If you have an awkward space and need suggestions, or if you have examples of disproportional spaces you have salvaged – please share them with us.

Written for Imperial Kitchens and Baths, Inc. by designer Stephanie Bullwinkel, CBD.