Rooms of their own

Rooms of their own – psychological aspects of interior design and the relationship between the designer and client

Annie Murphy Paul

Home is more than a place to live, and interior designers are more than mere arbiters of taste. They’re psychologists of a different stripe.

Like many intimate relationships, the ones arranged by Karen Fisher begin in the dark. Fisher, whose company, Designer Previews, matches interior designers with potential clients, gives a slide show to people who want to decorate their homes. Then she sits back to watch–not the slides, which picture a parade of bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens, but the viewers’ reaction to them. A nudge, a grimace, a widening of the eyes, can tell Fisher what she needs to know. “Many people have an inner sense of what they want space to do for them, but they don’t have access to it or can’t put it into words,” says Fisher. “I help people visualize their dream–when they don’t even know what it is yet.”

After extensive interviews with the would-be clients, who are mostly married couples, she recommends an interior designer with whom she thinks they will work well. All this homework is necessary, says Fisher, “because decorating is about much more than fabric swatches and paint chips. It’s about how people see themselves and how they want to be perceived by others.” Designing a home can be a surprisingly emotional experience, she observes, and the relationship between designer and client can become intense.

People may find out all sorts of things about themselves in the process of decorating: that they prefer a rustic porch to a sleek home office, that they can’t live without walk-in closets, that despite their advancing age, a house like the one they grew up in is the only one that feels like home. They may even discover that to their spouse, home means something entirely different. “I’ve had so many clients split up on the day they move into their dream house,” says Fisher, ruefully. “The design process forces them to outline their vision of the future, and then they discover they don’t share that vision.”

The relationship between designer and client is itself a kind of marriage, which at its best is built on mutual trust and understanding. “If the process is really successful, the client feels like he’s a partner of the designer,” says Fisher. But this isn’t always a marriage of equals: while the client is the one who pays the bills, the decorator often calls the shots. He’s got the practiced eye, the well-honed judgment, the fluency in the foreign language of aesthetics. “The designer is educated, and he educates the clients,” Fisher explains. “He’s asking them to be visionaries, to grow into the space he designs for them.” Perhaps a parent-child analogy is more apt.

Or shrink-patient. The act of making a home is always psychologically fraught, laden with memories, fantasies, and expectations. “Decorating brings all kinds of feelings to a head,” says Fisher. “It doesn’t create feelings, but it stirs them up: feelings about one’s own life, about one’s partner, one’s parents.” Most people have strong emotions about the space they occupy, even if they don’t realize it–and designers must divine those feelings and channel them in a creative direction. “All the top designers are good psychologists,” says Fisher. “They get hired because they know what people need.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group