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Space to soothe the psyche

Psychologists explore your childhood, happiest moments and favorite objects. The result of their analysis: a home aesthetic that reflects the real you.

March 08, 2007|Linda Marsa | Special to The Times

WHEN Ran and Ronit Ever-Hadani expanded their Mar Vista home, they ended up with a long, narrow space that had a fireplace smack in the middle. Because the room was almost like a bowling alley with no natural flow, the couple didn't have a clue what to do with it. So the area remained unused, and became a nagging reminder of their disappointment with the costly remodel.

"No matter how we rearranged our furniture, nothing seemed to fit," Ronit says. "Every time we looked at it, we thought about all the money we spent."

Instead of using traditional decorators to help them make over the room, the couple contacted Constance Forrest and her partner and sister, Susan Painter, two Venice-based psychologists who are pioneers in the emerging field of design psychology, which plumbs people's emotional responses to an environment in order to create living spaces that truly feel like a home.

In this approach, the design scheme is dictated by the results of lengthy interviews they conduct to learn about their clients' environmental histories, and to tap into the fulfilling experiences and emotions that contribute to their vision of an ideal place.

Now, after months of planning, Ran and Ronit are in the final stages of transforming the oddly shaped room into a warm living and dining area that not only reflects their personal tastes but also resonates with their psyches. The rich color palette echoes the persimmon and ivory hues in Ronit's bridal bouquet and the buttery yellows of Ran's favorite shirt, while an intricately designed wooden chair is reminiscent of the furniture Ronit's father used to lovingly restore when she was a child. "I can still smell the turpentine," she says, laughing.

Tapping into such psychological underpinnings can help define a home. "We want to create spaces that elicit that feeling of 'yes!' when the client enters them," Painter says, "that instant, instinctive gut-level reaction that a place feels just right."

Though there's only a handful of design psychologists across the country, the field's basic tenets are increasingly being adopted in the design world. Interior designers, environmental psychologists and architects are paying more attention to our psychological attachments to the home, says Denise Guerin, a spokesperson for the American Society of Interior Designers and a design professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

"More residential interior designers are focusing their practices on the psychological aspects of people's needs," she says. "And the meaning of home is becoming more important because the purpose of the home has changed. More people work at home and baby boomers are now aging in place instead of retiring elsewhere."

Getting to "that feeling of yes" -- whether you're buying a home, remodeling or revamping the interiors -- most often means reconstructing, in some way, places that remind us of our childhood homes or favorite haunts, these experts say. In fact, Painter says, most people decide to purchase a house, the biggest financial decision in their lives, after spending 20 minutes or less in it. We make up our minds so quickly, Painter believes, because we're subconsciously reacting to memories and impressions of past homes and places that were significant in our lives.

FROM a neurobiological standpoint, when we encode our experiences into the neural circuitry of memory, the physical settings connected to these experiences also become engraved in our psyches. The sensations linked with these experiences -- whether good or bad -- are rekindled when we're in similar surroundings.

"What explains that 'a-ha moment,' when something draws you in, is often not even conscious," says Toby Israel, an environmental psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and author of "Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places," considered the bible of the field. "The point of design psychology is to identify the primal, satisfying, existential essence of these places in order to use the positive associations they trigger as a touchstone from which to design. That way, we can create homes and other places that mirror our most fulfilled selves."

The field of design psychology has been inspired, in part, by intriguing research done more than a decade ago by Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley and author of "House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home."

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