Senses of Living® Décor

August 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall


If you've read my previous décor columns, you already know the winner of the battle alluded to in the title. So why am I revisiting the idea? For three reasons: 1) to remind readers of the purpose of décor by providing anecdotes in support of my Senses of Living® philosophy, and 2) to offer tangible examples of what you can easily do to follow the Senses of Living® décor concept, and 3) to introduce the concept of proportion of color in interior décor. Please, read on.

I clearly believe that décor should be the backdrop of our lives, not the focus. This is counter to what you will encounter in most decorating books, on most decorating shows, and from most décor consultants. This approach is about establishing your own identity, and using your décor to enhance that identity, rather than allowing décor to take on an identity of its own.

How do we accomplish enhancing individuality rather than dominating or overwhelming individuality? Essentially, the most important thing to do is to think intentionally about the use of a room. Is the room used for multiple purposes, or is it a single purpose room? Is it used for solo inhabitation, or for enhancing relationships? Is it part of the main pedestrian "track," or is it off in a low-traffic area?

In general, I like to use neutrals as the backdrop for any room. By "neutrals," I mean tans, beiges, taupes, whites, off-whites, creams, pale yellows, and that ilk. I know designers who would read this and say, "Oh my! He's AFRAID of color." On the contrary, I love color, and believe in using it to make a room comfortable, rather than making the room overwhelming; in other words, I believe in using color in proportion! I have dined in too many dining rooms painted deep red to purportedly "enhance hunger"; that doesn't work, as I find myself feeling closed in (so do others). I have cooked in too many clients' kitchens painted a bright yellow, orange or robin's egg blue, this time under the guise of "adding excitement"; instead, in a room where it is important to focus on food prep, all of the bright color can be distracting (at least to me, and I think to most people if they are honest with themselves). I've been in too many living rooms that were done in a single family of colors to create an "effect"; unfortunately, the effect was one of feeling like I might disrupt the designer's "effect," and thus I felt uncomfortable.

I've also been in a lot of places that use neutrals properly, and this creates so many opportunities. I have seen neutral rooms so calm and beautiful that I never wanted to leave. I've seen neutral rooms accessorized in a way to stimulate conversation and energize me. I've seen neutral rooms that are warm and welcoming, and THAT is the perhaps the most important goal: Make your guests feel good!

I was originally going to call this column "Au Naturel," to suggest decorating "in the natural way." However, based on what I am writing, that column would have been hypocritical. I see so many designers who use the term "natural" to imply "neutral," and in the process refer to "earth tones" and "inspirations from nature." Well, as an evolutionary biologist, I know that every single color and tone can be found in nature, so these designers are actually offering meaningless advice. Or is it?

Designers would be far more accurate if they used "inspired by nature" to refer to the relative proportions of neutral tones to brilliant color. Neutrals are far more common in nature than brighter hues, and this can truly be a great guideline for interior decorating. Yes, here's the take home message: Proportion of neutrals to color is the key!

Truly, proportion is the key to all aspects of décor, but right now I'm dealing only with color. However, if I'm proposing a neutral backdrop, where does the color come in? I actually hinted at the answer above: accessorizing! Of course, I don't mean going out and buying any ol' color-laden accessories. No, to produce a life-enhancing décor, it is crucial to accessorize with your own personal treasures and prizes. Everyone has some key belongings that s/he wants to display, and if one has a neutral background, these personal belongings will coordinate with the overall room. Be warned, though: there is one more element that must be considered.

A room will really "pop" if you have a theme. A theme will guide your selection of color, and therefore, accessories. A theme can be the function of the room, or it could be something related to time period or ethnicity or architectural/décor style. Let me give you some examples. I do a lot of decorating based on ethnicity; my bedroom is painted basically a pale yellow with white accents, but most of the accessories are pan-Asian art, artifacts, wall-hangings and carpets in shades of blue with red and gold highlights, creating both a relaxing ambience when it's time to go to bed, and an energizing one when it's time to get up … in other words, it enhances my life. In one décor consultation, I was asked what to do with a guest bedroom that had Prairie Style furniture; because it was a bedroom, I didn't want to get too carried away, but I did encourage the owners to paint one wall in "redwood" or "Cherokee red," a color popular with Frank Lloyd Wright, the founder of Prairie Style; the one wall would enhance the room without dominating it. In yet another consultation, the client wanted a room in which to invite clients for reiki and other health treatments; I encouraged him to clear out all extraneous items (they were storing exercise equipment in this therapy room, and there was a particularly startling poster on the wall), and to paint the walls a deep violet to create a dark, womb-like, nurturing environment that would remove distractions and encourage the full experience of the treatment. Using function or ethnicity to guide proportion is key to producing a balanced room.

You'll note in the examples above that there are two examples where I recommended using wall colors that aren't neutrals. Please also note that these two examples, a guest bedroom that was intermittently used, and a therapy room with a single function, are both examples of the single-use rooms I mentioned above as sites where I would consider violating my neutral backdrop rule. Specifically, if you aren't seeking multifunctionality, you can pick a particular color palette that best supports a single function. In addition to the two examples given, this could also be done in a bathroom (yes, there are multiple functions, but they are all tied together). It could be a home office; again, many operations are done in a home office, but they are related to one another, so use a color that you believe enhances those operations … and only you can determine that.

There's one more concept I need to discuss in the context of neutrality: Do your own thing, and when you do it, be sure it is truly YOUR own thing, and not someone else's. Just because you saw it on a TV show doesn't make it right. Just because you saw it on the cover of, or inside, a design or architectural magazine doesn't make it right. No, if you truly like it, DO IT. Don't let anyone tell you what you should do or be!

Décor should reflect you. It should reflect your life history. It should reflect your travels. It should reflect your ancestry. It should reflect your dreams, goals and desires. Décor should do all of these things … if you want them to! Seriously, I've provided you with some guidelines … just don't use all of the guidelines in one single room … please!

Proportion is an important concept in décor that I will be revisiting in future columns. Meanwhile, let me know if I can help you with these guidelines. The goal is to create a comfortable, life-enhancing environment using décor and design. I work by offering suggestions and creating multiple options. If you need some suggestions and options, you can contact me at 773.508.9208 or email me.