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Your Happy Habitat

Author has some tips on how to decorate and furnish your home to make it just feel good.

Think about it: How does your house make you feel? We’re not talking "proud of my granite countertops" here; instead, think about the emotions you experience when you walk through the door. Happy? Calm? Tired? Overwhelmed?

The answer to that question could also be the answer to decorating dilemmas for most homeowners, says Winifred Gallagher, author of House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live (HarperCollins, 2006). "For many people there’s a big gap between our obsession with home and furnishings, and the much more basic concept of thinking about what you and your family need from your house," says Gallagher. "It boils down to: ‘Is this space, this closet, this window, this patio, improving my life or not?’" In her own living room, for example, Gallagher has a group of four Morris chairs set in conversational circle. One day she pulled one of the chairs away from the social group and set it next to a sunny window in another part of the room. She spends time now using that space to read or to enjoy the view. "My living room is working for me in a way it didn’t before," she says. "I’m getting more for my money."

Often a "psychological renovation" will go much further than an expensive remodel in really affecting the way you feel about living in your home, Gallagher says. And a psychological renovation is much easier, not to mention much less expensive, than a physical one. Here, some of Gallagher’s ideas for re-thinking key rooms in your home:

The entry: This is the space that should welcome you after a hard day. "Your entry should say, ‘You’ve left the wild and woolly world behind and you’re entering a refuge,’" says Gallagher. All too often, though, we enter our homes from the garage into a laundry room, or through a back door cluttered with shoes, sports equipment and the week’s recycling. If you typically enter your house from the garage, organize the garage so you’re not walking through an obstacle course to get to the door. If your garage has a window, add a plant to the space. For any entry, even a small one, put a table against a wall with a mirror or plant, "something that says, you’re in a special place. Now things are going to look up."

The living room: Ever since the American home grew from a one-room cabin to two rooms, one of those rooms has invariably been set aside for "good." And too many of us are still striving to make our living rooms look like a photo op from a shelter magazine instead of an expression of ourselves, Gallagher says. The living room should "show your family and friends who you are and what you care about." With that in mind,

  1. Make it personal. Instead of going to Pottery Barn and buying a vase because it’s in good taste and a certain color, poke through your closets and drawers and see what treasures you might unearth – mementos from a family trip, a gift from great-aunt Nellie. Gallagher’s mantel displays an assortment of Native American pottery collected on frequent visits to Santa Fe to visit her husband’s family. Her coffee table holds a few art books, and a "crazy" family album that daughter Molly put together as a Christmas present one year. "Guests love it! It’s personal."
  2. Manage the TV. "Put it down low and off to one side. Do not let it take over the room so your living room resembles a movie theater."
  3. Move furniture away from the walls. "People have a tendency to line up furniture around the walls and leave a big jungle clearing in the middle." Instead, think about creating arrangements that encourage people to sit around and talk. Gallagher changed her own living room to arrange the chairs in a circle, which encourages people to make eye contact and really engage with each other.

The kitchen. While many kitchens now are multi-thousand dollar showplaces that function as the centerpiece of the home, the kitchen used to be considered a smelly room fit only for servants. "The kitchen parallels women’s history," says Gallagher. "When women had low or no status, the kitchen had no status. Now women have high status and so does the kitchen, but the paradox is that the woman whose paycheck is helping to pay for her $125,000 kitchen doesn’t have time to cook." Rather than judging whether big, showy kitchens are good or bad, Gallagher says, you really need to look at whether or not your kitchen serves your life.

  1. Sit down and figure out how often you actually cook, eat together as a family, or entertain friends for dinner. Do you use your kitchen enough to spend a small fortune remodeling it? "Some people realize, ‘Gee, I’d get more enjoyment out of a spa bath, or maybe I’d rather travel.’"
  2. Don’t make all your decisions based on money. Many people remodel kitchens because they think it’s the best way to get a higher price for their home at resale, Gallagher says. Often, however, buyers will want to redo the kitchen anyway, because it’s a few years old or doesn’t suit their tastes. "If you want to live in your home as if you’re just managing an asset, you’ll make different decisions than if you want to live in your home as an experience in the here and now."

Kathy McCleary is a frequent contributor to

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