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DECOR ADVICE: PART 2: Joyful spaces

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Here are some creative ideas to bring calm and contentment to an environment

Expert: Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and author of ‘Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness’ 


Q: How do you suggest to a young person that they declutter or organise their living space to create a calmer, more joyful environment?

A: Everyone has different comfort levels for clutter and mess, so what may feel unacceptably messy to a parent might feel cosily abundant to their child.

That said, there are studies linking clutter and anxiety, so in general, a tendency toward decluttering is healthy. The best you can do is encourage someone to notice how their space makes them feel.

Q: I live in a rented home with a low drop ceiling in poor condition (stained, crumbly). How can I improve this situation in a low-cost manner? Should I buy replacement tiles for the broken ones, use mirrors (to bounce light and distract from the low ceilings) and try to tempt the eye to focus elsewhere? Or do you have some other, more creative ideas?

A: Low drop ceilings are tough – and even tougher when they’re poor quality. Focus on the quality issue first. Can you replace the tiles or paint the ceiling? I might suggest trying something with fabric, too, depending on how low the ceiling actually is. For example, you could drape fabric across parts of a room, either gathered or in a canopy style, to cover the ceiling. Can you use decorative wall decals to cover the damaged parts? In terms of ways to work with a low ceiling, you generally want to go tall with items such as bookcases and plants, and hang drapes high to make the height feel more expansive.

Q: Do you think arranging your home using the principles of feng shui is likely to make you happier?

A: I was really sceptical about feng shui at first, but it is a system with thousands of years of history, so I figured there must be something to it. As I dug into it, I found that many of the basic principles of feng shui make a lot of sense. One key idea is that you shouldn’t have doors that stick, because it means the chi can’t flow properly. The main idea that resonates with me from feng shui is that everything is connected, and seemingly simple changes in your home can have big effects because you’re interacting with them all the time.

Q: I live in a small, two-storey home. If I don’t want everything to be the same colour, how do I choose colours that will flow well in spaces that are in the sight line from pretty much everywhere on each floor (unless a door is closed)?

A: Work on choosing a family of colours that feel good together, and then test in the space with your light. I love to start with a piece of artwork – something multicoloured that brings me joy. Abstracts are good for this kind of thing: think Matisse for example. You can hold paint chips right up to a painting in a gallery or in a book and choose a set that works together. Next, I usually get a few strips of similar hues and hang them in the space I’m painting and look at them a few times a day. Once I have a sense of the best, I get sample pots and paint a big swatch on the wall.

Q: My living room has a fireplace I’ve never used for 12 years. I’ve heard that most people like fireplaces when they are looking for a home to buy. My home has central heating and air, so I’ve never felt the need to light a fire. And in California, if it ever gets chilly, there’s a “spare the air” day discouraging fireplace use. Would removing the fireplace (that takes up an entire wall) decrease the value of my home?

A: Many like the appearance of a fireplace, even if they don’t use it. From a joy perspective, a fireplace creates a kind of centrepiece or anchor in a room for people to gather around (that is not a TV, for example). It’s also a great point of symmetry, which is key to the aesthetic of harmony I talk about, and something the human eye is universally attracted to.

That said, your home should work for you. My first thought would be, can you use it as is in a decorative way? I recently saw someone who painted the ends of fire logs in eye-catching colours with chalk, and this created a joyful, artful look. Or use the mantle as a picture ledge and create an installation there. If none of these ideas floats your boat, then get rid of it. Life is too short to live with something you don’t love. Just be prepared for future buyers to be surprised that you got rid of it.

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