There's two types of nothing: a nothing that's there and a nothing that's not there. In this particular form, I define nothing as an otherwise undifferentiated feature. Nothing is literally the spaces in the design. Some nothings are small, like a hole, while others are large, like a doorway or an arch. Some nothings are empty, like a window, while others are filled, like a wall.
Nothing is not random. Nothing is balanced against something, and something against nothing. The nothing directly contributes to the overall rhythm of the object and of the composition.
Too little nothing, and the Art Deco composition feels sparse, tacked on, empty, cold.
Too much nothing, and the Art Deco composition feels busy, aggressive, chaotic.
When the degree of nothing balances well against the something, then the feel of Art Deco is settled, solid, and beautiful, comfortable in itself.
If there are too many negative spaces, all split apart, the results can feel chaotically busy, but if the negative spaces are too large, they feel empty rather than decorated. The emptiness overwhelms the style.
So, what's the correct amount of negative space in a work? I don't know the answer to that question. My guess is that there should be more negative space than positive space in a 60/30 split. (That's an opinion, not a rule, and I reserve to the right to admit that I'm wrong.) A building with many windows will clearly interact differently with the rules than a corridor or an entry hall. What feels busy in a narrow space would feel sparse in a large space.
Positive space should create patterns. Negative space should create patterns as well. You eye should naturally assemble the negative space into shapes. These shapes keep the patterns from overwhelming your senses. In and among all those lines is an order that continuously emerges from the constituent parts.
In short, the blanks are just as important as the lines. If you have an Art Deco piece where the blanks make no sense, then you have an piece that makes no sense.
For this particular entry, I'm not satisfied with my thinking. I need to research negative space some more and think about it.
Return to: Art Deco 101
Douglas Milewski is a fantasy writer who liked drafting class too much. In his recent artistic struggles to produce art deco for his own covers, he found no internet sites dedicated to the technical underpinnings of the art. Seeing a niche that needed filling, he has documented his hard learned experiences. He doesn't claim that he's right, and would very much appreciate it if someone more competent would save him from his own folly.