The House Whisperer’s Guide to Finding Your Design Style


The House Whisperer’s Guide to …

Finding Your Design Style

Just as every great author or moviemaker needs to know what kind of story they’re trying to tell—comedy, romance, horror, action, etc.—and a sense of how they’re going to tell it, every great architectural project begins with an intention, a theme, and a sense of style.

The stronger the sense of style the stronger the start.

Six Style Problems:

1. Very few people have a strong sense of design style.

2. Even those who can identify a design style rarely follow it without exception.

3. If you haven’t been trained in design then it’s all a foreign language and you don’t know even where to begin.

4. The one thing I can’t (won’t) do for you as your home designer is choose your style.

  • I can help you find a style.
  • I can suggest a style.
  • I can expand upon your style.
  • I can make sure you’re staying true to your style.
  • But I can’t choose it for you.

Your job is to do the hard work of knowing yourself.

Written above the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi is this ancient Greek maxim: Know Thyself.

You don’t have to know anything about design but you have to know yourself.

The first, last and most important job of the design client is to know thyself.

5. All of these are compounded if your partner’s tastes are also involved.

6. Most people find themselves near one end or the other of a style spectrum:

a. They don’t care about style, see it as superficial, vain, frivolous, and really don’t see what all the fuss is about. This group fails to understand the practical effects style has upon them.

b. They become overwhelmed with the notion of what feels like the Herculean labor of finding THE style that properly defines them and as a result become paralyzed with the fear of missing the mark. This group fails to understand what it really means to live in a dream home.

Taking the pressure off … What living in your dream home really means.

In the movie Fight Club, as Ed Norton’s character rants and mocks rampant consumerism as symbolized by the IKEA catalog he asks the question: “What coffee table defines me as a person?”

We don’t need things to go that far. That’s impossible. No coffee table defines you as a person. We’re just looking to make a good choice that resonates with you in this setting here and now. Not once and for all.

Tina and I live in a home whose interiors are various forms of early 20th century design. That was an intentional decision. We love it. It’s an extremely thoughtful home. We’ve tried to be mindful about all our choices and as a result it tells a story.

But does it tell our whole story? Of course not. Does the fact that we’ve chosen these expressions for this house mean we couldn’t live in any other style of home? Not at all. We love many styles. All it means is that this home tells as much of our story as it possibly can.

Putting the pressure on … Why is style even important?

The psychology of COLOR

Color is a main component of how we experience the world around us. Colors have a definitive effect on our moods and emotions. Though there is some debate regarding the implications of certain shades, researchers and designers agree on the basic tenants:

•Red: Power and Passion. Likely because of blood and the skin flush that occurs during exertion or arousal.

•Yellow: Sunlight. Life. Warmth. The universal color of happiness, creation, and creativity

•Orange: A blend of yellow and red. Energy (color of fire) and passion = innovation. Which is one reason why orange is the universal color for construction.

•Green: Soothing. Cool, Growth. Nature. FYI, green in a foyer or entryway eases the transition from the outdoors.

•Blue: Sky and Sea. Calm. Freshness. Depth. Blue’s mood changes depending on how much black is mixed in.

•Purple: Red and Blue = Passion and Calm. Royalty and luxury.

•Gray: Like fog or overcast skies, quiets and calms a space.

•Brown: Earthy. Relaxed. Casual.

•Black: Power from Mystery. Depth. Shows off sharp contrast.

•White: Clean. Pure. Death

The psychology of SHAPE

Like color, shapes have a definitive effect on moods and emotions.

•Squares and Rectangles: discipline, strength, courage, security, reliability

•Triangles: Energetic and dynamic. Always associated with motion and direction. An upright triangle brings feelings of balance and focus, but the reversed one looks risky and ready to fall.

•Circles, ovals, and ellipses: Timelessness - since they have no beginning or end. Sun and Earth as well as other cosmic objects. Round shapes give the feeling of magic and mystery. Also softness and comfort (feminine), since circles don’t have angles.

•Spirals: Nature—shells and flowers. Growth. Knowledge and Intelligence.

•Natural shapes: Originality. Organic. Balance. Refreshment

•Abstract shapes: uniqueness

The psychology of IDENTITY

They say “The clothes make the man,” and “dress for success.” They’re right.

The Lab Coat Experiment - Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

“Enclothed Cognition” describes how what we wear effects mental processing. The study discovered that subjects tested higher on attention to detail and precision when wearing a white lab coat when compared to street clothes. Attention dropped again when subjects were told the lab coat was a painters smock.

We begin searching for style by asking questions and following clues.

Style Quizzes are a great start - Modsy.com, Potterybarn.com, Havenly.com, Houzz.com, HGTV.com, Design Society of America, decorist.com

Collect Images - Browse magazines or the internet and collect images (Pinterest is great too, but it’s easy to suffer from Pinterest overload)

There’s a right way and a wrong way to collect images.

•The wrong way is to send all those images to your designer and say I like these.

•The right way is to try to identify what you like in each image. It may be a …

  • Color
  • •Shape
  • Texture
  • Arrangement
  • Material
  • Fixture
  • Sense or Feeling

Also include some images you don’t like and describe them as well.

You don’t have to overthink it but later we’ll start to compare your choices and see what they have in common.

“Style” is short for Lifestyle.

Look to your wardrobe - Take a good, hard look at your favorite clothing items (or the clothes you wish you owned). Pay attention to the colors, textures and attitude …sporty, elegant, conservative, modern, playful, beauty, relaxed, flirty (anticipation, expectation)

Look to the exterior of homes - When you drive around your city or town, what houses catch your eye or inspire you? Take pictures.

Look to your current decor - Make a list of furniture/art/accessories you love, and a separate list of those you wish you could replace.

Look to your dream vacation - When you think of getting away where do you dream of going? What would you be doing when you get there? Close your eyes, put yourself there and take notice of what you’re seeing.

Look to your daily life - “Style” is short for lifestyle. What does your best day look like?

In Environmental Interiors, authors Mary Jo Weale, James W. Croake, and W. Bruce Weale argue that human beings experience their environments in five ways:

  • Through the senses—sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.
  • Through time and by movement through space.
  • Through reasoning or thought, memory or imagination.
  • Through emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.
  • Through anticipation or expectation.

1. The Senses

This is probably the most obvious way that we engage with our homes. Pattern, color, lighting, and spatial arrangement appeal to the eyes; flowers and candles appeal to the nose; textures and space planning appeal to the touch; music, conversation, and quiet appeal to the ears; and foods and drinks appeal to the tongue. A comfortable home will have elements designed to please all of the senses, and as a consequence, sensory engagement is probably the primary way that we make sense of the items that we buy for our homes. Is it pretty? Does it please? Does it fit the space? Is it the right style? An environment’s experiential foundation rests on these fundamental physical and material qualities.

2. Time and Movement through Space

Whether you’re looking for modern, antique, or a mixture of the two, time is a crucial design element. Environments steeped in antiques with deep backstories and generations of love will feel quite different from those with streamlined, crisp furnishings. Often, a mixture of these two sides of the spectrum helps create a comfortable space. In Anne-Claire’s House Call antique wicker furniture, art nouveau posters, and a modern sofa all mingle in a 1960s living area to create a colorful and relaxed space.

I would say that space is even more paramount, though, in establishing the “feel” of a particular room. The floor plan relates form to function, and it has the power to give a home a sense of fluidity and freedom or a sense of being restricted and hemmed in. Each space’s needs will be different, but when thinking about space, consider movement patterns, the distance between furniture (which goes a long way toward making a space feel cozy or uninviting), and the need for negative space.

3. Mental Approaches: Reason, Memory, Imagination

Furnishings don’t exist in a vacuum, and even the smallest of objects will probably carry a mental association. For many people, memory is the most pervasive faculty when it comes to furnishing a home: grandmother’s dishes, a table from one’s parents, souvenirs from a trip, photos of important events. Our lives are awash with memories, and the home is, in many ways, a museum of comfort, where all these memories can be gathered and cherished. But reason and imagination are no less important. Reason enters the picture when you decide on layouts or organize your belongings. It ensures that the home is functional, and at the best of times, it floats invisible behind the scenes, adding a sense of comfort and fluidity to daily life. Imagination is the element that keeps you creative, nourished, stimulated, and inspired. I recently wrote a piece about bringing an element of wonder into the home, and I think that it’s a truly important part of a nurturing home.

4. Emotions

Roger and Chris called this their “Combat the Gloom” makeover, and with good reason. It’s hard not too feel energized and warmed by the hot pink that they selected, and this room is an excellent reminder that seemingly simple choices, like 3 feet of paint and a painted ceiling, can completely alter the way that you feel when you’re in a room. Color psychology exists for a reason, and it works at a such a deep level that you may not even realize its subtle power. Other elements can also alter your emotions. Low ceilings will convey a different feeling than higher ones. A room with a great deal of natural light will yield itself to different moods than one without windows. Pay attention to your architecture, as well as the different ways that you want to feel in your space, and see if you can get them to align or at least to complement each other.

5. Anticipation or Expectation

Sometimes you want things to be exactly as they seem or as they “should be.” There is comfort in having one’s expectations met. Being able to predict basic things like where the spoons will be or whether the bedroom will be restful can help a person maintain a sense of control. All too often, the world is filled with unrelenting anxiety, and keeping those confusions out of the home can ensure that your home really is your haven.

But there are other situations in which you may want to shake things up a bit. The power of subversion—even subtle subversion—is immense. Putting those spoons inside a vintage coffee canister instead of in a drawer might be the little creative jolt that you need. Or selecting a color that’s one notch beyond your comfort zone might give your home that “wow” factor that you’ve been missing. Play with patterns, mix up your furnishings, put odd items on the wall, and shuffle things around. Having a sense of adventure when it comes to your home can also give it a significantly different tenor.

All in all, it’s important to consider these elements together. They’re a total package, and it’s their multifaceted interplay that really creates the “feel” of a room. It’s often hard to describe what it’s like to “experience” a room, but it may be easier to understand when you consider its component parts.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images