Tangible Intangibles


Often we look at the outer shells of our spaces as places to just arrive into and escape the outside world for awhile. We stash our stuff, eat , sleep and do all the mundane utilitarian things we are bound to do. We can of course condense our life down to a TV, refrigerator, bathroom and bed. Simplifying our lives does have merit. But I believe most of us have an innate desire to enrich our environments with design elements that make us feel unique, that tell a story about who we are up to now and who we strive to be.

Beautiful Entry in New Luxury Home

Design elements work by engaging our senses of color, texture, sounds, smells. They can be subtle inferences or they can loudly announce our stand in this world. The entry in our home makes the first indication of what we are about. It is the transition into our world and makes a statement to outsiders that they are welcome to explore our fiefdom, or intruding into a distressed environment. Color can point the way to come on in as it transitions us into more spaces that flow in an interesting coordinated way or have similar pops. The textures can say this is a friendly place with touchable surfaces that draw you in – or too shiny and precious, off limits to fingerprints and possible scratches. Clutter is also “texture” because it makes a statement . It says “I assume you don’t mind stepping over the detritus of our life and I don’t care if you care…” or “We are stuck in a sea of overlapping disorder and no knowledge of what to do.”

Messy clothes scattered in the basket on a sofa

The entry begins a procession into our domain and transitions us into where we relax, entertain, cook, and dine. Each space relates (or doesn’t) and speaks because of color, texture, proportions, smells and accessories. It says, “ Come and visit – we’ve prepared a comfy seating area for you. “ Or it says “Come and sit on the plastic covered couch – you can’t hurt it (or relax)”. Does the large screen tv have place of honor over the fireplace invading the home’s ambiance with its noise and vibration? It once was the fireplace that gave it’s warmth and light drawing people together in conversation


Does the perfectly set table for eight with its shiny mahogany surface and precious accessories say “Look what I have accumulated, please be careful.” Or does an night of dining together echo back to giving to the guests to enjoy and relax. Have you ever noticed when entertaining at home, no matter how inviting the spaces outside the kitchen, people invariably want to gather as close to the cook as possible. We all relate to the sights and smells of food being prepared for us. This indicates the heart of the home – warmth and celebration in progress.

Fully satisfiied. Old parents preparing a meal while their daughter and her husband visiting them

Décor comes down to subconscious messages we are sending through our senses and feelings. How we keep our spaces is the first part of our conversation with each other. It can set the message about the size someone’s ego, the delight they have in being a creative person, or how hard it is for another to free themselves from their anal compulsions with all their little accessories lined up to perfection and instead just open up to possibilities. Whether we realize it or not the shells of where we live are filled with ourselves no matter our lifestyle or address.


are you a victim of constancy?


The brain

On a daily basis, we don’t give our brains the respect they deserve.  Just take a look at your computer history for the day, let alone the week.  We have asked our brain to go to a zillion sites, read our never ending e-mail, sort and recall.  That alone is commendable!  But do we appreciate that in order to not overwhelm this vital organ, it has devised myriad  programs over time to short cut what our five senses come dragging home continually?  We have two sides of our brain that have to interact in order to perceive all the information coming from our environments.  The visual-perceptual mode in the right hemisphere is dominated by the verbal-analytic left side of the brain.  The left side of the brain is constantly solving the “what is?”, “how to?”, “where is?” of everyday life while the right side helps by quietly sorting out whether a “formula” for that question has been dealt with before and carefully filed. The more often an object or situation is addressed/performed, the better our brain is at coasting on automatic. In a nutshell, this is part of what we call constancy.  We see, we perceive what it is we’re looking at and in a blink of an eye, we understand what to do with what we see.  The world would grind to a halt if every time we looked at an object or heard a sound or smelled a scent, we had to analyze each and every characteristic as something new.

This principle of brain self programming has one downside though.  While it is scanning and sorting at the speed of brain, it is “nichefying” or putting information into categories based on the individual’s background.  As children we are taught grass is green, trees have brown trunks, the sky is blue, I am white, you are black – and then guided consistently in what is true according to parents, teachers and our cultures.  When we become adults it is very difficult to go beyond those guidelines and see that grass is also tan, leaves can be purplish brown, I have undertones of peach and cream, you have coffee and cream with a trace of green.

childrens drawing

Those of us in the creative trades at some point have to learn to see again – really see and release the constancy we’ve held so close.  We know an orange is orange but we fail to see the changes in its color as the cooler, pale yellow light of morning shifts to to a brighter yellow then orange and finally turns to a blue cast in late afternoon. In setting up a still life subject an artist trains his eye to distinguish the highlighted almost white top of an orange versus the shadowed brownish orange at its base.



Claude Monet who painted in France at the turn of the last century became obsessed in about 1877 with the effects of the shifting colors of the day. Not having a time lapse app on an IPhone6 handy or even a trusted Nikon, he would leave home just before dawn carrying 10 or so canvasses and his painting supplies.  He would post himself at a chosen site and sit and paint the same scene repeatedly every hour or so on a  different canvas.  He would return working in succession the following day and the next recording the variations of hues and how they affected the objects of the landscape. Painting other scenes in the same way, he studied fog, steam, and rain and their influence on color.  It was a valuable contribution to art and astonishing to see at that point in history.  Monet was not only handing down a treasure trove of his creativity through the ages, he was constantly refining his ability to see without the chains of color constancy inhibiting him.

The result of studying the science of color only deepens a designer’s or artist’s talent and ability to perceive.  Source colors (or undertones) become apparent and we suddenly understand why the majority of paints sold are white!  We learn to understand that while only one color of paint is used throughout a house, the client will swear the designer used different colors in the various rooms.  The effects of simultaneous contrast ( the changing perception of one color being affected by another adjacent hue), deciphering the value, intensity and balance of the colors you are working with are necessary to thoroughly understand the power of color and harness it as one of your best tools. There are so many resources to learn about color.  A few books I have found invaluable in exploring color in mind expanding ways are:   Color  A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors by Betty Edwards, Bright Earth Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball; Colors in Context by Naomi Kuno/ Color Intelligence Institute; The Secret Language of Color by Joann and Arielle Eckstut; Color in Interior Design by John Pile.


“Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet”. – Paul Cezanne


can you get from green to orange?



Color is an intrinsic part of our life.  The only time we aren’t involved with color is when we are in the dark with all lights out.  But then our dreams kick in and – Bam! There we are dreaming in color.  But color is mysterious too.  We are taught as kids that red and blue make purple, yellow and green make yellow/green, blue and yellow make green.  All nice in theory, but sometimes it just isn’t true.  Case in point:

chicago river greenHappy Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago.  Quite a feat to turn an entire river green.  Some say it takes the help of leprechauns, but insiders know it is done by six members of the local Plumbers Union.  Over the last 55 years they have perfected a formula for 25 pounds of orange powdered vegetable based dye to be poured into the river.  This amount turns the river green for one day only to coincide with the St. Patrick’s Day parade the Saturday before.  There may be protestors who think this can’t be good for the river. That’s only because they can see the effects of 25 pounds of powder.  What they don’t see is the billion gallons of partially treated waste poured into the river every day.  But to get back to our color mystery.  The powder is Orange!  How does it make green?  That really is a chemical mystery.  Other river cities have tried to color their rivers to no avail.  During the days of Mayor Richard Daley in the 60’s, it was part of his mission to clean up the frightfully polluted river.  They used an oil based fluorescein to detect from where polluting leaks were flowing.  The Chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Stephen Bailey – a member of the Journeyman’s Plumber Union and friend of the mayor – thought if they could streak the river green, could they color the whole thing?  His optimism (and lack of chemical understanding) led him to pronounce,

“The Chicago River will dye the Illinois, which will dye theMississippi, which will dye the Gulf of Mexico, which will send green dye up the gulf stream across the North Atlantic into theIrish Sea, a sea of green surrounding the land will appear as a greeting to all Irishmen of the Emerald Isle from the men of Erin in Chicago land, USA.”

1966 saw compliance with more ecological methods when the parade committee began using a less volatile vegetable based powdered dye.  The exact formula is as closely guarded as the location of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow along with all the other mysteries about color.





girls with binoculars

~~How do we learn to see

We arrive at the world of design because we somehow have proven to ourselves we have a better process of visualizing spaces than the average person on the street. We delight in the properties of color, shape, placement, texture etc etc. But, knowing we have an innate ability, training that ability can involve a lifetime of learning to see in a new and encompassing way in which we can hone our talents.


Much like a fashion designer needs to learn to understand parts and pieces of clothing design, the mechanics and methods of sewing them altogether, the interior designer needs to get an understanding of the infinite detailing of the furnishings they put forth to their clients. You need to see the inner workings of upholstery, draperies, various weaves and finishes of fabrics, how one sheen of paint plays with light versus another. You have to touch and feel and become intimate with detailing – not just see a finished product on a computer screen and put your blessing on it.

chair parts


You know when you play Scrabble and the board turns so you are viewing all the words upside down – and you suddenly see a phenomenal opening for your letters? You didn’t see them right in front of you, but you did upside down. Not that you have to stand on your head in a client’s house. We read from left to right, so try looking a spaces in front of you from right to left. Details may open to you that you didn’t see before.

upside down bedroom


Learn to trust your feelings of proportion and balance, light and flow. Trust in your gut feeling when you walk into a room and it’s uncomfortable for some reason. Note the feeling, examine the source. Are there strange angles, chairs too large, color that seems oppressive, traffic way blocked? You will train yourself to be more objective and sensitive than your client.



Impossible you think? Some of the greatest photographic artist of the past dealt in only black and white and the grays in between. Visualizing a room in only blacks and whites helps you see movement and balance. You can see the weight of the various pieces in the room and where accents are needed to pop light or where too much light needs to be tempered. If you have any photo editing software, take a picture of the space and desaturate it (put it into black and white). See if your eye picks up anything new and illuminating. You can also view a room through a red plastic viewer (Ruby Red Beholder – purchase here at http://www.amazon.com/That-Patchwork-Place-Ruby-Beholder/dp/B003KXKI6U)



What is the subject of your space? A brilliant, floral, couch? Fabulous walls upholstered in leather or velvet? A large work of art? What pieces support your subject and how? Do they offer contrast? Do they play up to strength and compliment it? Or are there too many characters each demanding attention and creating confusion? Does the space give clues about the main subject and why it’s there, who put it there? Perhaps there are hints of history or clues with the art, pops of color to keep the eye moving, textures that bring out its masculinity or femininity. Have fun in this exercise and imagine what it is like to do this as a living as a set designer.

set design

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