A comfortable home caters to the senses

April 04, 2005|by CHRISTINE BRUN/Copley News Service

Everyone talks about wanting a comfortable home, but what does that really mean? What makes us happy? What elements make up a feeling of safety and calm?

According to Deborah Burnett, ASID, the senses need to be satisfied in order for us to achieve the hard-to-define feeling of ease we find in successfully designed homes. She says science is beginning to give us the tools to understand how and why certain design elements combine to play an important role in our innate need to surround ourselves with an aesthetically pleasing ambience.

Burnett is an award-winning interior designer, licensed contractor and author who appears regularly on HGTV, TNN, QVC and other major networks. At the recent ASID National Convention in San Diego, she delivered a seminar that dealt with the effects of light, texture and sound on the human body.

Burnett says comfort depends, at least in part, on the age and inclination of the major occupant of the space. Textures are important since most of us are more tactile than we realize. A small kitchen built for a senior citizen with significant contrasts between the surfaces - floor, counter and appliances - can help the occupant distinguish between them and avoid accidents.


The smallest home or room can benefit enormously from proper lighting, she said. Certain artificial light sources can lift minor depressions, such as those associated with winter blues.

Also, soft instrumental music playing low in the background, whether it's modern or classical, creates a relaxed environment and has an energizing effect. A water feature of some kind can also be a wonderful way to add tranquil sounds as it contributes a decorative feature.

Color is another big part of the ultimate comfort in a space. A new HGTV series called "Get Color!" comes to the rescue of color-challenged and color-phobic homeowners. It is the network's first-ever design series devoted entirely to color concepts. Hosted by interior designer and color expert Jane Lockhart, the series tackles one color-impaired space at a time, helping homeowners overcome fears about color. Each episode will emphasize how the character and mood of a space can change dramatically simply through a change in color before any furniture or accessories are even added.

Given that each decision in a small room or home becomes even more important than an equal determination in a larger home, it is useful to pay close attention to the dramatic power of color. We know from past scientific studies that color can alter the heart rate and blood pressure of someone sitting in a room. Certain colors stimulate the appetite or decrease the desire to eat. For example, don't paint your kitchen blue or use blue plates if you are trying to gain weight.

An all-white room is also a no-no, according to Burnett.

"No matter how pretty it might look in a picture, no one really wants to live or work in an all-white room," she said. "First is practicality. People are messy."

Science has also proven that scent is an incredibly evocative tool for establishing memories and creating impressions. Some scents can actually make certain rooms seem larger. They can also reduce stress and anxiety, induce sleep or wakefulness, recall a happy memory or suppress appetite.

A while back I wrote about Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist who says that certain smells can be used to trigger positive emotional responses. Burnett agrees, calling scent "one of the most profound sense inducers."

Given that sight, sound, touch and smell can affect our mood and behavior, a top priority in the design of our most intimate space - our home - ought to be understanding the role that these environmental influences have on our bodies. Think about what makes you feel good, and then incorporate it into your comfortable home.

Christine Brun, ASID, is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Big Ideas for Small Spaces." Send questions and comments to her by e-mail at or to Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, CA 92112.

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