Natural Home Design: Conversations With Your Home

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Let’s say you find yourself living in a solid Prairie-style bungalow with lots of dark oak trim. It’s wonderful, but it’s assertive, and you’re not sure it expresses your taste. You were thinking light and bright, and this, well…

Your friends suggest Mission furniture and the autumn red and ochre color scheme so dear to Frank Lloyd Wright. (In Chicago, where I work as a designer, Wright is always right!) If you listen to them instead of paying attention to your home’s voice and your own instincts, you may just give in–and you’ll never feel that the house reflects your taste. Or you may unconsciously fight the house and impose a scheme that belongs to that lighter, more feminine house you didn’t find. Heavy, Craftsman architecture will brood over pale colors and delicate furniture and feel more oppressive than ever.

But what if you bring the red up to coral, add a range of orange-tinted golds and the greens that oak loves: cool sage, sun-washed apple, and leaf tones? Now you’re working with the nature of the house while still satisfying your own taste. You could choose furniture that is on the heavier side, but with a touch of whimsy–Italian provincial chairs, a hand-carved and painted Mexican chest–and you end up with a light, bright, natural look for a Chicago bungalow.

A dialogue of light and motion

Take a walk through your own home. Walk slowly and mindfully through the house during three or four different times of day, observing the flow of light through the rooms. Does your use of the space reflect your preferences in natural lighting? Are there better ways to use some of your rooms to catch light or breezes? Maybe your west-facing bedroom could hold a comfortable chair or loveseat, along with a tea table or bookshelf, so that you can use the room at sunset.

The kinetic energy of a house depends partly on the layout of the rooms, partly on the way the rooms are used. Again, walk through the rooms, reflecting on what you use them for. This time, think about the people you live with and how your activities blend (or clash) in the house. Where do people gather? Where do they find privacy? Which rooms may be overused, which underused? Some people love to have a room–usually a formal living room–that remains pristine for a few quiet moments of solitude during the day. That’s a legitimate use of space. This exercise isn’t about strict utility, but about achieving an aesthetic partnership, a dialogue, with your home.

You can live more naturally with the flow of seasonal light and activity in your house.

As an example, take a look at your dining table. If your house has a pass-through dining room, it inevitably acts as a magnet for too many activities, too many piles of paper, too many people at once! Studying is not a dining room activity, but unless children have a well-lighted, well-furnished study space in their own rooms, what else are they to do? As for those piles of papers, a small secretary or other close-fronted desk in a corner of the kitchen, living room, or family room is sufficient for household accounting. A writing table in the master bedroom provides a quiet place for personal correspondence. With these modest additions to other rooms, you free your dining room to be a gathering place, as well as a beautiful space for displaying antique china or other cherished objects.

Becoming a great conversationalist

• Let your house speak. Take a pad and pencil and walk around your house’s exterior and interior. Write down any words the house suggests to you. Be open; free-associate. Now analyze your list. It will tell you a lot about what you love and which areas need work.

• Be a sensitive listener. Know your home’s moods. Walk through your rooms at different times of the day and evening. Note daily and seasonal patterns of light, wind, birdsongs. How do they affect the “feel” of your rooms?

• Become conversant with your house’s genealogy. Learn its history, or, if it’s new, the history of the styles that inspired its construction.

• Study your home’s geography. Know your region! It will inspire and enrich your conversation with your own house.

• Become fluent in the language of design. Visit notable houses and museums in your region and wherever you travel, browse the stores and shops, read the design magazines. Bring your discoveries into the dialogue with your own home.

• Speak up! A great conversation is full of discovery and adventure. Be bold. A pair of Louis XV armchairs may be just right in your minimalist glass-walled living room. They’re wonderfully comfortable, after all…

This dialogue with your house and all of its inhabitants is an ongoing one. When the seasons change, the light changes, and so do some of our movement patterns. The old practice of slipcovering furniture in light linen and rolling up the rugs in summertime was a charming one. There are lots of little changes you might make to live more naturally with the flow of seasonal light and activity in your house. Screen a porch or an outdoor pavilion and furnish it with comfortable daybeds and tables for gathering and for sleeping outdoors on hot nights. Cluster furniture around a fireplace in winter, then reorient it to a large window when the spectacle of spring begins. Plants and floral arrangements, toss pillows, bedding, and small accessories should all come up for review or rotation seasonally. Let the colors of nature be your guide: the red of autumn berries, the fragile green and yellow of spring, the luminous white and blue of summer skies.

Speaking up

Now it’s your turn. Assuming you’ve worked through the style, orientation, and layout of the house, you decide which furnishings feel natural.

For some people, natural design is defined very strictly. Admissible materials are from plant or animal sources that are treated only minimally: undyed linen, organic cotton, vegetable-dyed rugs, and live plants. For others, natural design is about making the interior draw directly from the house’s setting. The adobe house of the Southwest, the log house of the prairie, the Savannah townhouse, the shingled spray-whipped cottage of coastal New England–each of them evolved from the demands of the landscape, and each is, not coincidentally, associated with a coherent style of interior furnishing. We are rightly offended when developers scatter Cape Cod-style tract homes cover the mountains surrounding Albuquerque. We should be careful not to offend our own sense of place by making interiors that clash with what is outside our doors.

Explore the region in which you live, its terrain, its water and sky, its plant and animal life. Let all of them speak to you as you approach your own front door, then bring their colors and textures inside with you. In design work, I’m often reminded of ecologist Daniel Jantzen’s words: “The natural world is by far the most diverse and evocative intellectual stimulation known to humans.”

Ultimately, natural design is organic: It changes and grows. The best architects and designers of any period hope their houses will create a dialogue in space and time for the people who live in them. As preeminent interior decorator Mark Hampton puts it, the designer’s work “has to do with people and beauty and the timeless activities of domestic life.” Respect those, enjoy them, and your conversation with your house will have the warmth of a long chat with your favorite friend.

Martha Ruschman contributed to this article.