Sycamore Round and Square 2.jpg

Curved furniture and fixtures soften the corners and straight lines of this room designed by Jhoiey Ramirez.

Aah, the holidays.

Time off work, family functions, festive decorations, fancy food, parties, presents ... what’s not to love? Well, since you asked, gift gathering, budget blowing, card writing, binge baking, light untangling. And how about the worries that your son’s girlfriend will come to Christmas Eve services wearing a black bustier and leather mini skirt, that the puppy will water the Christmas tree, again, and that Aunt Sally will be drunk and snoring by noon.

Sure, there’s magic in the air, but there’s also t-e-n-s-i-o-n.

Whenever I feel my stress meter rising this time of year, I apply an important design maxim. Tension lies at the core of great design and memorable occasions. Imagine how boring a movie, novel or sporting event would be without tension.

Tension is the secret sauce of holidays, and even of an interesting life. It’s the twist, the spice, the zing.

“No one wants predictable,” interior designer Jhoiey Ramirez said when I called to discuss my threadbare theory. “Tension is what catches you slightly off-guard and makes you ask why?

“Tension in interior design is what makes you walk into a room and want to pay a little more attention. It’s the interplay of opposites.”

Although we strive for a Hallmark holiday, where the dinner is perfect and the Christmas lights work, that is not only unrealistic but also humdrum.

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So this holiday season, when stressors start to pile up, remember that a little tension might be just what your home needs.

While I probably don’t need to tell you how to add tension to your holidays, here are some ways designers say you can add good tension to your home décor:

• Throw in a curve. Adding curves to a room is an easy and often overlooked way to create visual tension, Ramirez said. “Most rooms are boxes, then people put in rectangular sofas, tables, desks and artwork, which feel static. Square rooms need curves — a round mirror, an oval table, a sphere-shape chandelier — to soften their edges while creating tension.” Similarly, when creating a tablescape on a rectangular or square surface, use round or oval objects; if the table is round, accessorize with square or rectangular objects.

• Be off-balance on purpose. Asymmetry can add positive tension and make a room more interesting. For instance, when a mantle displays two candlesticks on one side and one on the other, the eye looks longer. Because our brains seek balance, when we perceive something is off, we pay more attention.

• Create a ripple. A straight line that goes forever is not that interesting, said Donald Strum, principal of product design for Michael Graves Design Group. But create a disruption with a zig, ripple or curve, and that changes the way the eye travels across the form. “The more moves, the more exciting it is.” But don’t overdo it.

• Pair opposites. The juxtapositions of light and dark, high and low, masculine and feminine, smooth and rough add tension in design through contrast. When opposites pull at each other, the features of each are heightened.

• Do the unexpected. Tension also happens when you don’t do what’s expected, Ramirez said. “Forget how it should be.” Decorate a white tree with all black ornaments, or put up an upside-down tree. That break with tradition becomes memorable and might keep the dogs away.

Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including “Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One.” Reach her at

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