Some of you may know that in a former life I was a PhD candidate, studying communications and culture. The experience of an academic lifestyle and education has undeniably influenced me, even in my approach to interior design.
Academics tend to be understated style-wise, which is not to say that style did not matter. It did quite a bit. Being smartly dressed and owning homes that showed culture and learning were definitely part of the lifestyle practices of many circles of professors. Works of art, objects from travel, artifacts with a sense of history, and of course, endless cases of books define the homes of academics. If you have been reading my newsletters for a while now, you will know these are elements I continue to love in an interior.
One of the fields I studied in graduate school was semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols and systems of signs. Written language is a system of signs where letters combine to symbolize actual things. For example, the letters B-O-O-K signify bound pages with a title and printed content on a specific subject, an actual book. Semiotics is used to study more complex systems of signs such as cultural meanings. For example, what does an actual book signify to us when we see it. Depending on the type of book it can signify many things, but generally most would agree that books signify knowledge, learning, literacy, culture, education, and other related things.
When I design a space, I consider each element I add not only from a technical perspective (Is this piece functional? Is it the right scale? Does it fulfill the use requirements?), and purely aesthetic perspective (as in “will this look good?”), but also while asking the questions: Is this piece making the right statement? What does it communicate? Is it saying the right thing? Does it tie in with the overall feeling we are aiming to create? This can actually be surprisingly challenging. Just like in semiotics, where each sign exists in relation to other signs, each element in a room has a relationship to the other elements. If you take some of the elements out, it can be hard to redesign the room with what is left because each element only made sense as a design choice in relationship to the other choices already made in the project.
Picking up on visual and verbal cues can also be central to how I settle on a design direction for a specific project. For example, in trying to understand a client’s style I will pay a lot of attention to what they have in their home, what pieces they love, where they tell me they love to travel or eat, or how they spend their spare time. I ask them to give me images that inspire them and then I look for the common threads. What are the elements that keep reappearing? What visual cues keep popping up in their inspiration photos? What overall flavor and feeling are they after?
Most people very intuitively pick up on a fairly large range of design cues. It is not a fully conscious process for them. It does help, though, if you can be more aware of what design cues you gravitate towards, because it can steer you away from buying decisions that are more impulsive or based purely on functional need as opposed to choices that fulfill both a functional and a design need within an interior. Here are some thoughts on creating a room with attention to its symbolic aspects:
1. Do some investigating: What is the look you are after? Get clues from places you love to visit, be it a restaurant or vacation spot, or a home away from home. Also try to see themes in furniture styles you tend to gravitate towards or magazine pictures you have been collecting.
2. Define a fairly coherent design direction: I usually have a set of words I use as reference points for each project. Here are some examples of “word schemes” I’ve used: “rustic, European, and elegant.” “Classic, refined, geometric.” “Modern, geometric, graphic.” “Natural, luxurious, contrast.”
3. Assess each piece you are considering for your interior against the word scheme. Does it fit? If it truly does not fit, skip it. I do like surprise and interesting juxtapositions in design, but it is important that there is something tying the varied elements together at a very basic level. The juxtapositions can be contained with the overall design direction, like the contrast of “natural” and “luxurious” elements being part of the same room.