The Psychology of Home Design; Emotions Affect Color, Furnishings

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The psychological underpinnings of a home often are obscure even to its owners. But some interior designers like to know clients well enough to create environments that can teach the clients about themselves while satisfying their desire for comfortable and likable surroundings.

Designers who rely wholly or in part on emotional responses gleaned from interviews and conversation can choose colors and furnishings wisely enough to spare a client later grief and undue expense.

Some designers use questionnaires to determine a client's taste and get clues to personality traits. Others rely on more intuitive means, coupled with previous training in the behavioral sciences.

Karen Luria, whose Alexandria firm, tellingly enough, is called Karen Luria Interior Identity, says she "tries to get into a client's head," to know all she can about a person who hires her - even his or her favorite side of the bed for sleeping. She rejects written inquiries on grounds that clients "have enough paperwork in their lives and find it annoying."

In addition to asking about practical matters such as the colors someone likes or dislikes, "I watch facial expressions and body language. I listen carefully. I try to triangulate," says Ms. Luria, who brings a doctorate in social psychology to her specialty in high-end residential and hospitality design. In her opinion, "a lot of Zen stuff and feng shui" are not compatible with good design.

A current project involves the complete renovation of a 2,500-foot-square apartment in the Park Somerset complex in Chevy Chase, Md. As often happens in designer-client relations, she took the client to the Washington Design Center early on as part of a general education process. By mutual agreement, Ms. Luria chose for the living room a one-of-a-kind Tibetan carpet in earth tones that she knew the client favored. The carpet then provided the template for future decor.

Toby Israel, of the design firm Toby Israel Consulting in Princeton, N.J., claims to take a deeper dive into clients' heads than most. The author of a 2003 book, "Someplace Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places," she says she initiated the school of design psychology in a speech before the American Psychological Association in 1999. Holder of a doctorate in environmental psychology, she uses definitive exercises to develop what she calls "environmental biographies - a very personal past history of place" and come up with "the best design based on their highest positive associations with the past."

One of her tools is a sheet of paper containing blanks where a person notes memories and past associations of all the homes in which relatives have lived. This brings to the surface favorite colors, textures, furniture and objects from childhood that can contribute to the creation of an adult comfort zone. For example, in redesigning her own kitchen, Ms. Israel says she included a tree trunk - replicated as a seat with a futon on top - representing the woods where she played as a child.

Sometimes clients "don't want to remember the past," notes H. Dawn Patrick-Wout, whose Beltsville design firm is called, simply, About Interiors. "We may have to create a completely different aesthetic. …