The starting point for a harmonious home has to be the building itself — and the spaces or rooms within it. Each room is a basic shell, which you can plan, design, decorate, and furnish to suit your needs. Your home is the place in which you live, work, relax, eat, store possessions, and socialize; the way you plan your space will reflect all these activities. But a really healthy and harmonious home should also be a happy one, where family members can relax and enjoy their surroundings and not be afraid of making a mess!
Balance and harmony are essential both to health and good interior design, and are often the result of combining the practical and the aesthetic. Your space has to be designed to work for those who will use it. But it also needs to be a pleasant, healthy, and attractive environment, one that enhances physical and spiritual well-being. Think, too, about change over time. Plan wisely and use your space creatively. Your home is not static; during the course of its lifetime it will have to adapt to changing needs as the family grows up, or family members become elderly.
Within the house, you need to consider the purpose and function of each room, choosing flooring, wall decoration, fabrics, and furniture as appropriate. Rooms that have to withstand the rough-and-tumble of family life will need easy-to-clean elements and hard-wearing floors. Keep fragile fabrics and delicate hand-printed wallpaper for less active, more restful areas.
Safety and hygiene are also important points to consider, particularly in bathrooms and kitchens. Don’t forget halls and stairs in your planning either — these are the entrances into your home. They need to be warm and welcoming, hinting of good things to come in the rooms beyond.
After working out the practicalities, you can think about color for mood and atmosphere, form to create interest and movement, pattern to set style, and texture to add an extra visual and tactile dimension.
Using space harmoniously also means considering the basic design style of your property. You should plan and decorate with sympathy for the original architectural intention, restoring and renovating any interesting original features. Emphasize attractive details such as lovely fireplaces, decorative rails and moldings, arches, rustic beams, original window frames and doors, and internal shutters by the clever use of color, pattern, mirrors, and lighting. Use subtle decorating techniques to “fade” unattractive features into the background.
But avoid the temptation to over improve. Modest houses and apartments look best decorated and furnished simply, both inside and out. Harmony is also about environmental sensitivity. Don’t cover or color beautiful mellow bricks, or add windows, pillars, porticoes, porches or other features that are out of keeping with your home’s facade or the facades of neighboring properties.
Before you begin to plan the spaces in your home, sit down and analyze what you have — determine the purpose and function of each room and work out exactly what you want from the space. Ask yourself how it will be used, and by how many people at a time. What do you want those rooms to be? In professional design terms, this is called “taking the brief” and often involves using a pre-prepared questionnaire to establish likes and dislikes, needs and requirements, and any restrictions that might need to be taken into account, such as budget, time scale, and the need for planning permission. You can devise a list of questions and involve the rest of the family in making decisions.
Thinking about the whole house
It’s often best to consider the whole house first. There’s no need to be conventional about allocating rooms to particular locations. Bedrooms, for example, do not necessarily have to be upstairs, or living rooms on the ground floor.
Be flexible in your thinking. Consider using downstairs rooms for dining, family rooms, and a playroom. Upstairs, the main bedroom could also be used as an adult’s living room. And if your home is becoming too small for a growing family and moving is impractical, you may think about extending and enlarging the your home, although planning an extra space needs careful thought. An attic conversion may not be wise for noisy teenagers, nor is it practical for elderly relatives. Instead, an attic conversion might be ideal for a study or office, an adult’s bedroom, or a living room — especially if there are fantastic views.
If your house has an attached garage, you could convert it into a work or hobbies room, or a play-room. It could become a practical study/office, maybe with separate access, or even a dining room, allowing you to redesign your existing living room.
Ultimately you will make the choices that are most appropriate for you — influenced often by light, space, positioning, and the feel that you get from individual rooms.
Planning rooms also needs thought and analysis. You need to consider the basic characteristics of each room — its size, shape, and orientation (the direction it faces). You also need to think about how much natural daylight it receives as well as the state of the framework and how easy it will be to make alterations.
Aim to create a comfortable “traffic flow” in each room, avoiding any awkward obstructions, providing good storage space, and creating an environment that is positive and workable according to the purpose and function of the room. When planning, think about how doors and windows open, and where to place chairs, beds, sofas, and other furniture so they do not obstruct flow through the room.
In today’s homes, with restricted space, you may need to plan some rooms to be multifunctional, or to use a Feng Shui term, split-functional. This can be harder than planning a single-purpose room. You will need to be flexible, especially when choosing furniture, storage, and surfaces in order to make sure they will suit the different activities taking place.
One room, for instance, may have to be both spare bedroom and home office. Think about a convertible sofa, which will provide both seating and sleeping facilities. You will need office storage, but also something that can incorporate clothes for an overnight guest. A desk may have to serve as a dresser as well. Floor, wall, and window treatments will have to be more practical and suitable for multipurpose use than in a conventional bedroom.
Planning space also involves thinking ahead. What begins now as a nursery may, over the years, have to evolve into a bedroom for a teenager. Your kitchen may now contain only basic items; in the future, you may be adding more equipment as your needs change.
Knocking down walls
Think carefully before knocking down interior walls and creating a vast open-plan space — this may be a wonderful design for a loft, where the essential look is of one large multipurpose area, but do consider your own lifestyle, and how much privacy you want. In an open-plan area everything will be on view.
Fitting in the furniture
You can use your floor plan to decide how to position your furniture and appliances, such as bathroom or kitchen equipment. Measure each piece of furniture carefully, whether it is already in your home or is something you are buying. Then, working to the same scale as your plan, cut out the shapes on graph paper or cardboard to make templates, and move them around on your floor plan. This type of planning is particularly useful if you are moving, but it is also a good way of planning existing space. It is much easier to work with small pieces of paper and cardboard than to heave furniture around.
Remember to allow enough room to open windows, drawers, and doors. Bear in mind the space you need for moving furniture, perhaps when making beds or cleaning, or for pushing chairs back from desks and tables. Plan to use space in such a way that people can move easily through and around the room, without being hampered by awkwardly positioned pieces of furniture. Take particular care with some multipurpose items such as convertible sofas, desks with drop-down flaps, and folding tables. Measure and template them carefully, open and closed, to see how much space they take up in both positions.
When positioning furniture, you should always aim for a feeling of harmony. Avoid “confrontational” situations when you open the door to a room. Don’t place a couch in such a way that the door bangs the arm or back; it disrupts energy and causes irritation. Feng Shui practitioners also advise against placing chair backs facing doors, as this disrupts the flow of energy into and around a room. Beds and toilets should not be visible.
Avoid placing desks and other work surfaces in dark corners facing the wall; instead place them under a window, at an angle, or facing forward into the room. In this way, you will be looking into the room, rather than literally feeling hemmed into a corner. You are aiming always for a smooth movement of energy and traffic flow through the room.
Once you are certain that everything is placed well, and that you can use the room with ease and comfort, check to make sure that lighting, plumbing, and other services fit into the room harmoniously. Then use your templates to trace the shapes and positions of your furniture onto your plan.
Planning an extra visual dimension
Designing a room is not just about fitting in furniture; it also involves considering the forms or shapes that will surround you and that can provide an extra visual dimension in their own right.
Contrasting forms — ovals, circles, and curves — combined with square and oblong forms can change one’s perception of the shape and perspective of a room. A curved seating arrangement, for instance, will bring a feeling of harmony and interest into a squatish room; an L-shaped arrangement of furniture can divide a long, thin area and create a split-purpose room. In the dining room, an oval or circular dining table will complement a long, slim sideboard or storage units. In the bedroom, a circular bed can add interest and offset the rigid lines of closets or chests. Such forms add extra visual interest to any shape of room.
You need not confine contrast to the horizontal plane; think three-dimensionally as well, varying the heights of furniture as well as their shapes. In high-ceilinged rooms you can use different items of furniture to offset the height, but in low-ceilinged rooms avoid tall pieces of furniture. In a kitchen or dining room you could combine a hutch with a simple refectory-style or circular table. In the bedroom, an unusually shaped headboard will add extra interest to a wall. You can use some interesting drapes above a bed, but avoid any sense of hemming yourself in. You can also add interest by using contrast; for example, you might place a circular or oval mirror above a square fireplace or between two tall, slim windows.
Streamlining your home
In both Feng Shui and interior design, a healthy approach to space involves avoiding clutter. We all acquire possessions; they are an integral part of our lives. But too much clutter and disorder can bring not only specific health hazards, but also tension, anxiety, and depression, a sense of not being able to cope. According to Feng Shui, excess clutter disrupts the flow of energy, causing stagnation and tiredness; sorting your possessions and clearing out clutter from time to time can have a very refreshing effect.
At the same time, however, the things we own have practical uses, and are often objects of beauty. Creating harmony therefore involves good storage, and using available space creatively. From a practical point of view, it makes sense to store items you use frequently, in the areas where you use them. China, flatware, linen, glasses, and so on need to be stored close to the table, for example, perhaps in a sideboard or cupboards. Clothes, shoes, handbags, and accessories are best stored in the bedroom, but overcoats, hefty boots, and sports equipment may be best kept close to the front or back door.
Closed storage closets and chests or drawer units often provide ideal storage solutions. You can put possessions away neatly, but also have quick access to things when you need them. Some decorative items can be displayed on open shelves as an integral part of your decorative house schemes adding color and pattern.
Some homes, however, have limited space for built-in or free-standing furniture. If this is the case, look at your home again. There may be many places where you can install suitable storage, which you have not yet considered. A window seat, for example, with a lift-up top can be used to store things like magazines, newspapers, or games. Or you can store clothes or toys in drawers under the bed.
Think about building shelves in unusual places — tailored to fit into the wall at the side of a bay window, for example, or on each side of a sash window. None of these solutions will take up much floor space, yet the overall effect will be sleek and streamlined.
Using space creatively
Most homes contain usable space if you look for it — both overhead and underfoot. It may be practical to hoard over the joists in the attic, install a glazed skylight and electricity, and use this space for storing items that are not used every day, or to make full use of a cellar. Remember, however, to check and reassess the contents regularly. But there is no reason to tuck away frequently used items. Ceiling racks, for instance, once used in kitchens to air clothes and dry herbs, can be used either for their original purpose or to hang tools, sports equipment, or towels. They can also be used for hanging baskets or attractive pots and pans adding a decorative, as well as purely practical, touch. You might also consider mounting the traditional wooden plate draining rack on the wall for storing plates, cups, and saucers.
There is often usable space above a door or window for installing a cupboard, or you may be able to add extra shelves inside existing wall cabinets for storing infrequently used items such as Christmas decorations, picnic baskets, and so on. And if there are moldings in your house, you could install a wider shelf above them to display or store attractive china and porcelain. Another popular and traditional method of storage is the Shaker-style peg rack — a wall-mounted rail with projecting pegs that hold a variety of objects — clothes, fabric bags filled with items, even dining chairs!
A cheap and easy way of removing clutter from rooms is to screw simple hooks to the edge of kitchen shelves, or beneath them, or under wall cabinets to hold cups, pitchers, and other items with a handle. They can also be used in garden sheds, or in a child’s room for hanging toys.
Other places can be adapted for storage. The area under the stairs can be shelved and used for storing wine racks, bottles, and tools. The backs of built-in cupboard doors can be equipped with hanging hooks, racks, or plastic containers. This type of arrangement works well in the kitchen, where canned and dry goods need cool, dark storage. Make sure doors and hinges are strong enough to take the extra weight. If necessary, cut existing shelves into an elongated U-shape to accommodate storage on the back of the door. If cupboards are deep, install a light that comes on as the door is opened.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Healthy Home: A Practical and Resourceful Guide to Making Your Own Home Fit for Body, Mind and Spirit by Jill Blake (USA: Watson Guptill; Canada: Key Porter Books). The author of 26 books on homes and design, Jill Blake looks at different ways of making your home a more pleasant and relaxed place to live. She offers advice on making the best possible use of available space, light, and color to make the place you live into a home you’ll love. Available at better bookstores, or order directly from: www.amazon.com in the USA or www.indigo.ca in Canada.