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Creating Spiritual Spaces in Your Home

For L.A.-based interior designer James Swan, creating spaces that soothe is as natural as breathing. Get his design tips for adding reflection and renewal back into your home.

Spring used to be a time of reflection and renewal. When did it become a time of frenzied activity, from hectic soccer schedules and Little League to frantic spring cleaning, yard work and gardening? At the brink of exhaustion is when you most need a space in your home that demands nothing of you and restores your spirit.

For L.A.-based interior designer James Swan, creating spaces that soothe is as natural as, well, breathing. "I don't specifically think about spirituality in relation to each decision made on a project," Swan says, who studied theology and music as an undergraduate at Southwestern University. "But it's such a part of who I am that it finds its way into every decision I make."

While Swan often works on enormous projects (recent gigs include a 10,000 square foot Italian Revival residence in Newport Beach, Calif., and a 20,000 square foot English country house in Holmby Hills), his own second home in Boston is small (850 square feet), simple and very serene. Swan is committed to creating a sense of wholeness and completion in the spaces he designs. In his personal life, that commitment extends to volunteering his time and money with several organizations, including KidSmart, an art education foundation for inner city youth; PAWS/LA, which provides pet care services for the disabled; and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

Here, the designer gives tips for creating spiritual spaces in your own home:

Notice what is important to you.
Over the years Swan has noticed that when he asks clients about their preferences, they often default to what they think the right answer should be: "The greatest challenge we all face in our culture is how to separate ourselves from what our society tells us we should want and the things we really yearn for." He spends a lot of time with clients, observing how they occupy themselves and what kind of things they gravitate toward, whether it's a quiet nook for reading, a big table space for spreading out work or simply the constant presence of music throughout the house. Swan says he gives attention to those details in order to create "something that often people aren't even aware that they crave."

A classic daybed by JSC anchors the guest bedroom of a Mediterranean inspired home in Newport Beach. Design by James Swan.

Find ways to replicate experiences that make you happy.
In his Boston home, Swan covered the small garden outside the living room with white pea gravel, because he loves the sound it makes when he walks on it. He challenges his clients to be "hypersensitive to things that make them smile," especially when they're traveling or experiencing new environments. "Maybe it's something as simple as the scent from a candle in the bathroom of a hotel suite," he says. "You get a whiff of tuberose and smile and feel better than you did a moment ago." If you jot down those moments for even a few days, you'll learn a lot about the things that make you feel good. "That level of awareness of our environment is something I challenge myself to do every single day," Swan says.

Pay attention to basic comfort.
"It stuns me that when I walk into the most well-executed homes, simple elements of comfort go unaddressed," Swan says. If you have a reading chair or a favorite end of the sofa, for instance, do you have a table next to it for your glasses or cup of coffee? Is there adequate lighting in your favorite reading spot or at your desk? "If you don't have those things then every time you sit down you're sort of stymied, and soon you train yourself not to sit there anymore."

Be true to yourself.
"At the end of the day the most successful rooms are the rooms that most closely reflect the people who occupy them," Swan says, who believes he's "failed" if someone walks into a space and comments, "Oh, James Swan did this room." Living in a space that is someone else's idea of comfortable or beautiful is stressful, he points out. "Tension happens when there's a disconnect between truth and the experience. If your truth is layers and details and you're living in a Spartan box, there's a disconnect there... and people will pick up on that."

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