Occupying Space

Maida Korte

     “My bedroom furniture is moving in on me.”  This was the phone message I received in the middle of the night.  It seems that Mrs. Smith could not sleep due to her bedroom feeling overly oppressive.  Rather than phone a close friend, or even a Doctor for help with sleeping, her first impulse was to call me in the wee hours of the morning and put out a cry for help.  Such is the role of the Interior Designer:  Space planner, Interior Architect, Project Manager, and provider of peace and calm, and dare it be said, happiness?  Listening to Mrs. Smith’s complaint made me remember again why I love my job. 

     I believe happiness can be designed and that clients want me to bring them more than a piece of furniture and a great traffic pattern.  While other fields cure diseases, launch rockets, mend broken bones, offer financial advice, pave roads and feed the hungry, I am busy solving problems like where to position the recycling bin and dispensing happiness in the process.  Though it could be argued that design should settle into the background of personal satisfaction, I disagree.   People who hire me have an expectation that exceeds the choice of lamp for the sofa table.  They want to feel something akin to joy when the lamp is placed just so.  

     The building where Mrs. Smith lives is on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, a very high end and expensive stretch of real estate.  Her building is mid-century modern and has a doorman who takes his job very seriously.  I have greeted him 173 times and each time he peers at me suspiciously as though this is the one time I will finally rob the parcels from the receiving room and escape on heels through the crowded lobby, clutching twine bound packages from Yves St. Laurent.  “Hi Bob, I’m here to see Mrs. Smith.”  Bob calls Mrs. Smith and then buzzes me through to the private elevators.  I marvel at the terrazzo floor that was poured fifty years ago in patterns of angular designs with small brass bars separating the colors.  I count over seven colors and each pour took layers and layers and the buffing and polishing of this crushed granite is amazing.  The beauty of this floor is that it gets better looking every year.  Now if only someone could make a face cream out of terrazzo.  I look down to see this workmanship before I inevitably look up and see the panels at each wall with the magnificent sconces guiding my way to the elevators.  Each sconce is shaped like a rocket ship blasting into space.  Solid brass, but not shiny.  Dull and intricate with the head of the rocket beaming light from the slats that make little splayed designs on the burnished walnut. 

     Mrs. Smith is an elderly woman who had produced plays for decades and has made a name for herself through hard work and determination.  She is known in the theatre world as a woman who can get things done and her confidence is contagious.  Living down town Chicago has provided her a place for her friends to “come calling” as she likes to say.   Her home has changed over the years but the effort toward entertaining with grace remains.  The ‘wee hours of the morning’ phone call to me was unlike her.  I called her immediately. 

     “Mrs. Smith, this is Maida….. Tell me about your bedroom.”

     “I don’t want to sleep there any longer.  The furniture feels overwhelming to me.”

     Mrs. Smith’s bedroom is large and expansive with a view of Lake Michigan through a wall of windows that go from the floor to the ceiling.  The openness of this room is breath-taking and entering the room makes me feel airy.  Upon first glance it would seem impossible to feel cramped and crowded in this space.  I am a detective searching for the clues that solve the crime of bad design. 

     A client may not always know how to describe why they love a space or why they want to make changes to their homes, so I need to aid the discovery process.  Even though they may never state it as a requirement before signing a contract, contentment and even happiness is still an essential part of the satisfied experience in design. Mimicking tangible items in homes, feelings such as these hold a deeper sentiment than filling up space. 

     As we have moved from carving chairs out of stone to shaping lion’s head on the legs of tables, we have loved our spaces and we want them to grow with us and speak about us.  After all, it is our own unique affections and selections that make up our surroundings.  I like my home to have soft colors with the splash of loud texture and I must have something red somewhere.  Someone else may require a palette of black and white to feel at home.  Alexander DeBotton, a contemporary designer has said about the things we place in our homes, “It is in books, poems, paintings which often give us the confidence to take seriously feelings in ourselves that we might otherwise never have thought to acknowledge.”   I am amazed that just as the poetry of life can be a set of words on a page forming something beautiful, it can just as easily be a painting properly placed over a mantel.  All of the interior spaces inhabited by human beings hold secrets and hidden stories that are endearing and essential to the fabric and tapestry of life. 

     When first entering Mrs. Smith’s high-rise home, I could tell she was well traveled.  There were artifacts from Israel, and stone pots from Italy, all lined up in rows on shelves.  Kilem rugs hung on walls from wrought iron forged in South Africa.  I wanted to know each story and over time Mrs. Smith divulged the secrets of her past by talking about her treasures.  The rugs were gifts from a village in India where she had visited many times to meet with investors for a play.  The stones in a pile on a slab of glass that looked as though it had been slashed out of a large block, were to memorialize her family’s plight during World War II.  Each memoriam told me what was important to Mrs. Smith and laid the ground work for knowing her person.  She wanted to tell me her tales of intimate family lore and each picture held a secret to understanding what was important to her.  It became clear to me that she needed to feel a connection to her surroundings at home in order to feel safe and content. 

     Every home tells a story that weaves its way around the wainscoting, down the hall and into the living room.  The careful selection of the furniture and decorative elements that surround us in our homes becomes part of family lore.  It is the telling of the tale of the driftwood end table that brings a room alive, just as much as the function of placing the mug of cocoa down on it.  Happiness is the by-product of these conversations and the Interior Designer helps the client tell the story.  Mrs. Smith’s bedtime story had become a nightmare for her and I had to help her find a happy ending. 

     I began to wonder if Mrs. Smith liked her bedroom in the daytime but not when she went to bed.  So I asked her, “What do you want to see just before you go to sleep?”   I had to get to the heart of the problem and find out why this bedroom caused Mrs. Smith so much distress.  I couldn’t just tell her that the room was beautiful and she should stop complaining.  There was a reason she felt constricted in this room and the furniture pieces themselves were only part of the problem.  What wasn’t working? 

     Sometimes I feel as though I am something akin to a house psychologist, not living in the back bedroom on staff, but tearing out the walls to expand the living space and helping my client achieve an elevated life experience as a result.  My success as a designer must partially be measured by the level of contentment and happiness achieved for my clients.  By changing the physical aspects of the space people inhabit, I believe I can make a difference in the life experience we all share.   

     The entrance to Mrs. Smith’s bedroom is through a small hallway that has three doors.  One door opens to her bedroom, while the door opposite that opens to her master bathroom.  The door in the middle is storage space.  Since the hall is small, the doors are close to one another.  In fact, if all the doors were closed, it would be difficult to figure out which door led to which room.  The door on the right?  Yes?  No….the other right….this one?  Oh!

     I began to wonder if this configuration of doors, open, shut, slam, bang, were part of the problem.  Was the cloister of doorways and the open shut open shut symphony creating a memory pattern of clutter for Mrs. Smith? 

     Our sense of a space is just as important as what the space actually does.  If I have a general sense that a space is open and expansive, I will most likely feel that way even if the room is filled with furniture.  If I duck once to walk under a light fixture, I might glance at it untrusting for a few days.  But if I smack my head on the chandelier, I will walk around it even after I have it lifted higher.   Fool me once.  We humans are stubborn in our senses.  Here is where logic leaves us and our feelings scream loudly.  I once explained with great care and patience the lighting pattern in a home and how this particular system would solve all of their problems of multiple switches.  Years later I returned to the same home to find a row of 8 switches all neatly labeled and the lighting system unused.  This was a smart client who refused to believe that the system could work and wanted no part of it.   A video tutorial could not have convinced him otherwise.  The handheld remote for the home theatre system, that contained more buttons and procedures than I could ever learn, was a piece of cake for this client, but the lighting system was snubbed.  It was best to leave it alone and just be content with the client’s happiness.    Designing contentment in a home is the nucleus of what I do.  Finding out what a client wants can be difficult, but everyone wants something.   Entertaining to some is a nightmare to another, and finding the set point of happiness is the elusive key to success.   A basic human need for happiness is a personal pursuit every human being begins at the earliest ages.  Genetic disposition plays into this and some small children just seem “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” while others chortle away and smile easily and eagerly.  No matter the natural disposition of the individual, happiness is valued and sought after.  Time and responsibility can either quell this pursuit for happiness or expand its elusive effect.  Most clients ultimately return to something experiential to describe what they want.  “I sat at his bar for 6 hours and talked and talked and had the best time ever.”  So we designed a neglected den into a bar and the client began to entertain in their home, something they had always wanted to do but had never achieved.  I have returned to this home to redesign every room as a result.  This client exudes happiness with energetic reports to me of home entertaining successes that even Carolyn Roehm would celebrate.  

     Memory plays a large role in how we live in our spaces.  We become comfortable with what is familiar and we make excuses for our homes when they offend.  Many a home remodeling project begins because a person just can’t stand it any longer. The affront of the popcorn ceiling has offended the sensibilities of the home owner one day too many and down it must come.  No matter if popcorn ceilings are chic in a 60’s ranch; this client never liked them anyway.   This was true of Mrs. Smith and her bedroom and another person’s opinion would not change her experience. 

     Once I had successfully navigated the neat row of doors into Mrs. Smith’s hallway and entered her bedroom, I could see a large bed with tall upholstered headboard that had a double row of tiny and hammered silver nail heads.  The fabric was a grey blue suede and it was tufted approximately every 6 inches.  The top of the headboard was curved to form a semi-circle and above the headboard were 6 prints of tiny play bills all framed in silver leaf.  I wanted to go and stand on the bed to read the play bills.  The walls were striped in a color on color pattern of soft grey, each stripe alternating between satin and flat paint to give the effect of stripe without screaming pajama pants. 

     There was a tall bureau that was filled with several picture frames of people that must have been important to Mrs. Smith.  There were other frames on a small table near her bed and a few more next to a large television on the wall opposite her bed.  All the frames were silver and old and yet this splayed collection that was dispersed throughout the room seemed weak and tepid.    This is a hidden law that no one seems to know about and yet it is as true to a collection as not placing a bureau with the drawers facing the wall.  Pictures cannot be dispersed in a room, unless you never want anyone to look at them.  Two here and three there means I will never see you.  Five together on a table and now this collection of photographs are important and I can’t wait to lift one to my eyes to peer into the faces of generations past and marvel at the costumed man standing next to the solemn baby with wide dark eyes. I want to know who and what and when and where.

Just as good design brings in personal elements to a room in order to say something about the occupant, I am intrigued by how much design has affected the far reaches of the world.  In the Pandav Caves of Pachmarhi, India, the inner decorations and paintings show attention to the beauty of the space that was not meant to be seen by anyone other than the occupants.  The cave of Chavet Pont D’Arc in France only recently discovered in the early 1990’s once again points to early cave dwellers painting and adorning these personal spaces for no one other than their own personal enjoyment.  It is not very much different today, as contemporary human beings desire to adorn personal spaces with all the uniqueness their own stage allows.   Even Zen ideology dictates, “There should always be a single beautiful and harmonious item to contemplate in a home.”  If the single achievement of the Interior Design professional is to add to the beauty and harmony of a space for a client, this is a significant contribution to society at large.   Well, grand as that may sound, what does my client think?  Is Mrs. Smith better off as a person knowing that her furniture is secure and she is safe in the middle of the night?  It is ultimately the opinion of my client that drives me to explore the problem at hand and find a solution that brings not only happiness but also harmony to Mrs. Smith’s heart, let alone allowing her to get a good night’s sleep. 

     So I explain to my client that the doors might be conveying a ritual of feeling closed in even though the room is large. I lay-out a plan to remove doorways and expand the entrance to the bedroom suite with double doors of etched glass where light can penetrate but still give privacy.  I touch nothing else in this beautiful haven and once the work is completed we never again speak of things that might go bump in the night.




Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: