Design For Happiness

Find your happy place with the right design, whether it's a roomful of grandma's hand-me-downs or a minimal retreat.

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Hide CaptionShow CaptionIt all boils down to how you want to feel when you walk into your home or a particular room. It’s often far more visceral than reasoned — and always personal.
Now, more than ever, home base needs to be a retreat that wraps us up and makes us feel good again. The truth is, the spaces we live in can make us happy — or miserable. In his book, The Architecture of Happiness, philosopher/author Alain de Botton’s list of what makes "happy" architecture applies to interior design as well: order, balance, effortless elegance. But the biggest key to design that lifts your spirits is, he says, self-knowledge. What is it about a room that invites you in and makes you instantly feel at home? What makes you happy?

Of course there are volumes on the psychology of true happiness, but to help you find your happy place I've come up with a sneaky little quiz. Answer these three questions and you just might be closer to creating a room that makes your heart sing.

Happiness is a personal, idiosyncratic experience that gets at the heart of who you are and what you love, says designer Jayne Pelosi of Renaissance Interior Design ( "For some, happiness is being surrounded by artifacts and trinkets from your past that evoke powerful memories," she says. "For others, it is the sheer simplicity of putting just what is absolutely necessary in a room, such as a comfortable seat, a good reading light and a surface to lay your tea cup."

Most of us may admire Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware rooms but we wouldn’t want to live there because the rooms are one note and impersonal. Instead we find we’re happier in a room that reflects who we are. As designer Jonathan Adler has been quoted as saying, "your home should be like a good dose of Zoloft."

Knowing what sort of environment will hit you like a good antidepressant can be difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to list the things you don’t like and go from there. I don’t like matchy-matchy, for example. And the color mauve in any iteration from rose to burgundy is going to make me miserable. So will shiny brass. I don’t like chairs that aren’t big enough for my butt. I’m not going to be comfortable with anything that’s made of real animal hair. Well, that’s a start.

I also get great insight into the kind of environments that will please me by perusing’s Designers’ Portfolio, a 1,300-room collection. Often I’m drawn again and again to rooms by a particular designer. Shelly Riehl David, for instance, just puts things together in a way that makes me feel good and want to move right in. Her sophisticated rooms, like her design pictured above, truly make me happy. What I’ve learned from making my "dislike" list and looking at inspiration rooms is that my happy rooms need to be bright without being too perky, should combine wonderful textures and artwork, and be a bit quirky and eclectic.

I’ve never been very bound by convention, but it’s good to know that this eclectic look is very popular with big-name designers, as well. The focus in interior design is on creating harmony from whatever disparate items you love, from the family heirloom deer head or Murano chandelier to the latest delicate Brunschwig & Fils fabric. If it makes you happy, it’s right on. As Winifred Gallagher, the author of House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live, says, "The living room should show your family and friends who you are and what you care about." The lesson: For true happiness skip the photo-op look in your home and let it be an expression of yourself.

Photograph by Roy Quesada.