Who are you?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 (renaissanceinteriordesign.com). "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 HGTV.com’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.
How do you live?The next question to ask yourself is what do you want to do in your room? The whole ambiance thing is great, but how happy can you truly be in a living room where there’s no light for reading or a bedroom where you have to squeeze by an oversized bureau to get into bed every night, even though it belonged to your Nana? "How can you really enjoy a rectangular glass dining table if your thighs hit it every time you rush through your dining room in the morning?" asks designer Pelosi. "Many of us surround ourselves with beauty while neglecting the more important aspects of furniture placement or the energy each piece carries," she says.
In Pelosi’s own home and business, she has turned to feng shui to help create spaces that lift spirits by truly working the way they’re supposed to (see The Feng Shui Way). As she learned about furniture placement and energy she was appalled to discover that she had placed an antique mahogany end table given to her by an ex-boyfriend right next to her husband’s side of the bed. The piece, while valuable, "carried the angry and resentful energy of an old difficult relationship." It’s been replaced and now the spirit of the space is much improved.
When you get a space set up so that it functions well (see The Art of Furniture Arrangement), you’re far more likely to get into that wonderful mental place called "flow," says designer Mark McCauley, ASID. He points to a University of Chicago study on "When are people happiest?" The results, he says, confirmed that people are happiest when they’re doing something and don’t notice the passage of time," he explains, whether it’s reading, writing, playing piano. "That’s flow."
In the Shelly Riehl David bedroom above, it’s all about the lamp. While the textures in the room are really pleasing, it’s the fixture with the yellow base and the inviting glow it sheds that tells me I could get into some serious snuggling and reading "flow" right here.
Photograph by Roy Quesada.
What's your color?For maximum happiness, crank up the color. That seems to be the refrain of a group of New York designers, including Alexandra Stoddard, Jamie Drake and the Diamond Baratta Design firm, who believe that a color-saturated environment can lift spirits.
This current color craze may be a reaction to years of stark modern (some say bland) design or an antidote to stressful times of war and terror. In any case, not all colors appeal to all people, of course. To find your "happy" colors, check out HGTV.com’s My Color Central, an interactive primer on color, mood and mixing hues. You might also peek into your closet. If you feel at your best when you put on that blue cashmere V-neck, try it on the walls at home, too, says designer McCauley.
On the other hand, if too much color gives you a headache (it has been proven that yellow, for instance, can be irritating), you can use it sparingly in accents and accessories — or not at all. Kristan Cunningham, who spreads color (and happiness) liberally on HGTV’s Design on a Dime, finds peace at the end of her busy days in an all-white house. "I want to come home to something relaxing," she says.
The lesson: In the end, some people find renewal in neutrals, others in the stimulating tones. It all boils down to Alain de Botton’s advice: know thyself.
Room design by Shelly Riehl David. Photograph by Roy Quesada.
Anne Krueger is HGTV.com’s design scout, always on the lookout for what’s in, what’s up and what’s out there.