Senses of Living® Décor

March-April 2007
© 2007 by Bret S. Beall


If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Décor should enhance lives, not endanger them. Perhaps it is because I believe that I inherited the klutz gene from my mother, and because I'm always hurting myself on poorly designed décor, that I KNOW how dangerous designers can make an environment, whether it is one's home or workplace or play space.

Just Because It's On TV Doesn't Mean It's Correct

This "dangerous design" concept was clarified for me when I was watching an early morning "handyman" type show as I was preparing to go out of town. I'd never watched this show, as I'm never up at 5:30am on a Saturday morning. But, here I was, getting ready for a road trip, watching this guy use his extensive construction knowledge to build a computer desk with "floating shelves" out of steel pipes and wood. I had three immediate reactions: 1) this is an attractive design and 2) this is a dangerous design, therefore 3) this is a BAD design. What was wrong? All of the floating shelves had pointed corners; they could easily leave a bruise (or worse) on an adult's body, and the lower shelves could easily damage a child's eyes or head. Furthermore, the base supports keeping the computer desk upright protruded out from the radius of the desk itself, which could lead to tripping and stubbed toes and other dangers. Yes, it was a VERY BAD design.

Pointed corners and sharp edges clearly characterize danger as indicated above. What else is dangerous? A misplaced center of gravity is one. The center of gravity of a piece should be toward the bottom in order to provide stability. Today, I see more and more pieces with centers of gravity placed too high for the sake of "interest," leading to instability and danger. Now, if a piece is purely decorative, like Jennifer McCurdy's spectacular porcelain creations (http://www.jennifermccurdy.com/), then the high center of gravity is not an issue, and in fact contributes to the artistry of motion, light and shadow that McCurdy creates in her work. No, I'm talking about (purportedly) functional pieces: Lamps that look and feel like they are about to tip over, or chairs that just don't seem amenable to supporting someone sitting on them, or tables with a single central support that is insufficiently weighted to keep the table stable. A good designer could turn these bad designs into something less dangerous with nary a thought, which drives home just how dangerous some designers are that they can't see such obvious solutions.

Sometimes, only part of a design is dangerous. I'm specifically talking about the fragility of a piece, or the complexity of that piece, or any other component. If a piece is fragile, it can be easily broken; fragile pieces should be reserved for display or occasional use, and should be kept out of heavy traffic areas. If fragments readily break off of a design, those fragments could be consumed by children or pets, leading to choking (or poisoning; see below). If fragments are sharp, they can create cuts and lacerations.

Let's also consider the composition of a piece. What is it made of, and what are the ramifications? Yes, I'm talking toxicity. I'm talking green design. When designs incorporate toxic elements, the dangers are limitless. Toxicity can occur on so many levels. Chemical components can break down, leading to outgassing of unpleasant, unhealthy or even carcinogenic substances; carpets, furniture and even wall materials, anything made out of synthetic materials, are candidates for toxic outgassing. Some materials are toxic to touch (certain paints and varnishes, particularly), allowing chemicals to leach directly into the skin. And then there is the possibility of pets, children or even adults accidentally consuming some of these design elements, and becoming poisoned. With the widespread availability of earth-friendly materials, there is no excuse for introducing toxic substances into any home or workspace.

The Guest/Host Relationship

For much of design history, it seems that the goal has been to impress others. I oppose that approach (it's a sign of pride, and even insecurity). I wrote about it extensively at "Focal Point, Schmocal Point" (http://www.god-dess.com/ services_sensesAugust03.html), and have advocated a relationship-oriented motivation for design and décor for years, but I often felt like I was a lone (but admittedly loud) voice in the dark.

The above-cited road trip took me to visit a Charles and Ray Eames retrospective chair design exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (http://www.hfmgv.org/). The intrinsic esthetics of their mid-twentieth century designs are wonderful, but that was not the primary motivation for this husband-wife team. Rather, they began their designs by addressing some "problem" that needed a "solution," with their solutions being guided by what they called the "guest-host relationship." Essentially, by designing their chairs and other furnishings to be comfortable, attractive, sturdy, and easy to pack and assemble, the two Eames were solving several "problems," while enhancing the "guest-host relationship." That is, they, as the hosts, were doing what they could to make their guests, the customers, more comfortable and content. The philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," and it seems that many of today's designers have not have learned of the Eames' guest-host relationship concept and purpose for design.

The Eames were not the first to consider the comfort of their "guests" when they designed. The Henry Ford Museum also is home to the only Dymaxion (DYnamic-MAXimum-tensION) House in existence. This "futuristic" house, designed in 1927 by Buckminster Fuller to solve housing needs of the times, was an earlier example of the "guest-host relationship" (in concept, if not in name). Bucky Fuller wanted to address the problem of how to provide affordable, durable and comfortable housing for the public: his customers, his clients, his "guests." His "solution" provided them affordability along with cutting edge features: a vent-system that is the precursor to today's air conditioning, rotating closet and drawer spaces, and other amazing innovations. The public pre-ordered thousands of Dymaxion homes. Alas, Bucky's bosses started trying to strip away innovations to make the house even more economical, but less functional; Bucky became so disgusted that he severed the partnership, and despite his best intentions, only two prototype Dymaxion Houses were ever constructed.

I could cite other historic examples where comfort, relationships and the "guest-host relationship" dominated over mere appearance. Sadly, that has not been the prevailing situation recently. Despite lip service to interpersonal relationships, and despite an entire design field known as "ergonomics," the majority of designers care more about appearance than function … too bad there aren't more biologists-as-designers who would understand that "form FOLLOWS function" (well, usually … do you have a few hours to discuss functional morphology theory? I didn't think so!).


So, what can you do? Here are some guidelines to help you start conditioning your mind to be more mindful of your guests with regard to design and décor:

1. What is the shape of the décor item? Will it scratch someone? Will it puncture someone? Will individuals be inclined to bruise themselves by running into it? Or is it rounded and curved (organic) in design?
2. What is the location of the piece? Again, is it placed where individuals could bump into it and bruise themselves? Is the item in a high traffic area, which invites accidents no matter how exceptional the design? It is well secured to the wall or ceiling, or behind protective doors/windows?
3. What is the composition of the piece? Is it a natural material, or is it synthetic? Has it been certified organic? Is it an antique or older piece that will have already dispelled its toxicity?
4. Is the piece fragile, or otherwise easily broken or chipped? Is the piece already peeling or falling apart? If you must keep it, place it in a low-traffic area, perhaps with a brightly colored throw or other attention-getting technique to warn people to be aware (and camouflage imperfections).

Our environments should be welcoming. In order to be welcoming, they need to be safe, and this requires the intentional evaluation of the variables outlined above. Make it a top priority today to safeguard your home, office, play area, anywhere that you and your friends and family spend time. If you need some assistance spotting potentially dangerous décor and design, and solving those problems, I can help you like I've helped other clients. I'm easily accessible at 773.508.9208 or email me. I protect the innocent from dangerous design and décor!