Home Decor For Maximum Calm : Life Kit The spaces we live and work in have a big impact on our mindset. And creating a calm, restful space can provide stability in times of change and uncertainty. It's called "comfort decorating."

'Comfort decorating' is all about making your home a sanctuary

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I'm Vanessa Romo, and I'm a breaking news reporter here at NPR. Since about May of last year, a couple months into the pandemic when we were all pretty much trapped in our homes, I've been trying to figure out the optimal layout of my one-bedroom apartment in LA - I mean, like, the Platonic ideal of an apartment where every single thing is in just the right place to provide the maximum level of joy and comfort and efficiency. Basically, I'm rethinking how I live and function in my home for the foreseeable future, and I know that I'm not alone. For one, there is Dani Chase. She bought a house in LA during the first full lockdown.

DANI CHASE: I have never in my life been a homebody. You know, I've worked remotely for the last six years, and even then, I can't focus in my house. So as soon as the pandemic hit, I realized really quickly that I needed to create an environment where I could entertain myself (laughter).

ROMO: She says she needed projects to keep herself from going stir-crazy, and she has definitely kept busy.

CHASE: I've learned probably 20 different ways to mount various objects on walls. There are a lot of ways.

ROMO: (Laughter).

CHASE: I built a TV stand. I've installed Nest products and smart lights and floodlights and locks and door stoppers. You name it.

ROMO: You get the idea. It's a really long list, but basically, Dani says...

CHASE: So I felt like I could change my environment as much as I wanted.

ROMO: Turns out there's a term for what Dani and I are doing. It's something interior designers and psychologists call comfort decorating. And I read an article about it recently that interviewed a psychotherapist who said that, quote, "with comfort decorating, we want to surround our space with beauty and meaning and create a sanctuary away from the difficult realities of our current world." In other words, it's more than just a makeover. It actually helps soothe us and provide stability in a rapidly changing and chaotic moment in time. So today's LIFE KIT episode is for everyone out there seeking guidance on comfort decorating. Whether you live alone like me or share your home with roommates or a partner and/or kids, we'll be going over some tips on the best ways of creating calming, productive and restful spaces in your home.

ROMO: So the first thing before embarking on any kind of decorating mission is to clearly define what you want from this space.

DABITO: Here's the thing. A space is only as beautiful as it works, as its function. Like, my dad's a contractor, and I work with him a lot. And he would say to me in Cantonese - he would be like, that looks good, but it doesn't taste good (laughter) - meaning it's like, oh, it looks really pretty. It's a Gram, but it ain't functional.

ROMO: That's interior designer and photographer and all-around creative person Dabito - Dabito.

DABITO: It's just Dabito, just like Cher, Madonna. I'm in that league, you know (laughter).

ROMO: He says, above all, a space has to function for your specific lifestyle. So that's the first takeaway, and it's his starting point with his clients.

DABITO: And I always start with, like, how do you want to use this space? What do you want to see in this space? And then we can figure out, you know, how to address those situations.

ROMO: Even if it's a tiny nook in an itty-bitty studio apartment, Dabito says you have to be clear about how you want the space to serve you in order to get the practical things right. He says an easy way to do that is to think of a room as containing different functional zones. So let's say you don't live in a palace and you don't have an official office, but there is enough space in your living room for a desk. That becomes your work zone. And if you realize you need extra shelves in order to make that function properly for you, then you begin the design process with that in mind. That, he says, allows you to move on to the more important question, which is how do you want to feel in the space?

DABITO: I mean, you know, you want to create a mood, a vibe. Sometimes - I always ask people, like, so what kind of space have you seen, or maybe you've seen in a magazine or maybe you've been - you've traveled somewhere and you remember being really excited or feeling really happy or feeling really inspired. So like, maybe there's that one hotel room or that one restaurant. For me, like, you know, visiting a friend's place, I was like, oh my God, this is so inspiring. How do I bring that into my own space?

ROMO: For Dabito, whose design aesthetic is bold and bright and who definitely takes a more is more approach to interiors, that usually starts with color, bringing us to takeaway No. 2, incorporating color in an effective way.

DABITO: Yeah, you know, it's so funny to hear how people really love color but are so afraid to use color. And so people are like, how do I decorate with color? How do I use color in a space that still feels fun and classic - classic meaning white walls and neutral tones. But classic can be as bold as you want, as eclectic, as colorful as you want as well.

ROMO: To be clear, Dabito is not anti-white walls. In fact, much of his own home has them. It's just that he layers loads of color on top of the white. So his advice on incorporating color in any given room is to keep it simple.

DABITO: Pick a color you like. Do you like green? Do you like blue? Do you like yellow? And then you go from there. And so I always say, OK, well, I really love yellow, and I'm going to use this yellow in my living room. So then I think, well, how do I want to use this yellow? Do I want to do a yellow wall or yellow sofa?

ROMO: Once that lead color is established, Dabito says that's when you can start thinking about other complementary colors.

DABITO: So if you have yellow, balance it with blue or green. If you got pink, balance it with another cooler, so you can do green. So pick up a warm tone, and then pick a cool tone, and then that's it.


ROMO: Let me back up here and explain a couple things he just said. When Dabito talks about warm and cool colors, he's referring to the way that all colors are represented on the color wheel. Reds, yellows, oranges and creamy colors are warm, and they're on one side of the wheel. Blues, greens and grays are cool, so they're on the opposite side. Another way to think of it is warm colors tend to make you think of warm things such as sunlight and heat. Meanwhile, cool colors bring up images of water, the sky, ice and snow. Anyway, Dabito says there's also a third color combo option.

DABITO: Or just go tone on tone on tone - yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, green, green, green, green, blue, blue, blue, blue, you know? And you can't go wrong with monochromatic as well.

ROMO: Another explanation here - when he talks about having a monochrome moment, like blue on blue on blue, he's not talking about the same shade of blue all around the room, super matchy-matchy. He means, for instance, in a bedroom, having a rich navy comforter over powdery blue sheets with grayish-blue accent pillows. They're all in the blue family, but they're different enough that they play off of one another.

If any or all of this seems overwhelming or this just isn't how your brain works, then you can take a Sally Augustin approach. Sally is an applied environmental psychologist, which means she tells people what color or shape a room should be, the kind of lighting or surfaces it should have, in order to make people feel more comfortable or think more creatively.

SALLY AUGUSTIN: Really, applied environmental psychologists are the people in the scientific world to think about how what's going on in the physical world around you affects what's going on in your head.

ROMO: Sally's advice when thinking about color, especially if you do plan on painting walls, is to again hone in on what you want to do in the room because different colors elicit very different behaviors.

AUGUSTIN: So I can tell you, when you're trying to be comfortable, decompress, the sorts of colors you want to use are those that are not very saturated but which are relatively bright. So that sounds like a bunch of, you know, psychology Ph.D. gobbledygook. So what that actually means is you want to use a color - a slightly grayish version of a color.

ROMO: In Sally's book and all of the scientific research that's been conducted on the topic, she says you can't go wrong with greens.

AUGUSTIN: Because, as it turns out, greens, all different shades of greens, have been linked to enhanced creative performance. And in this time, when we're all hanging out together, you know, for days on end, some creativity can be really useful.

ROMO: That's why she says greens, especially a sage green, works best in any place where you need to think creatively, like home offices or living rooms. One theory for why we as humans respond in this particular way to greens goes back to our early days as a species, according to Sally. Back then, being around green things likely made humans feel safe because it meant that there were lots of food options around, and that probably freed up some of our mental capacity to think creatively. Blue, on the other hand, communicates very different information to our brains.

AUGUSTIN: But in our society, we link blues with not only trustworthiness and credibility and all that, but we also link them with sleep. So a blue can be a great color for a bedroom, you know, or, like, a - so we're talking about, like, a sort of dusty, slightly grayish-blue that's really light. You know, an added advantage of these lighter colors is that they make a space seem slightly larger than it actually is.

ROMO: The one color she says you may want to stay away from, especially in a place where you need to really focus or concentrate, is red. And that's because it's been shown to degrade our analytic performance. Even briefly looking at it is enough to have an impact, she says. Now, while the power of color can influence our behavior, it's not all hardwired in our brains. Some of our associations and subsequent responses are learned.

AUGUSTIN: Some things that happen with colors are consistent from one group of people to another, and others are more cultural and learned by a particular group. So the not very saturated but relatively bright colors being relaxing - that's universal. And the responses that I shared to red and green - those are universal. But when I was starting to talk about our culture and blue and blue being tied in our culture to trustworthiness, credibility, you know, and sleep - you know, that's culture-dependent.

ROMO: If the idea of painting walls is just not appealing, for whatever reason - your landlord says it's verboten, you're buried under 3 feet of snow and can't get to a paint store - but you still want to break up a monotonous space, then takeaway No. 3 might be for you. Add color and coziness through pattern.

AUGUSTIN: Patterns, kinds of lines, have a really important influence on how comfortable we feel. When we're looking at patterns, say, in upholstery or a wallpaper or rugs or whatever that have mainly curving lines, we feel more comfortable.

ROMO: That's not to say that there isn't a place for straight lines.

AUGUSTIN: They're great for having us think about efficiency and keeping us moving a little bit.

ROMO: So that rug that maybe you got on sale covered in geometric shapes - the best place for it might be your laundry room...

AUGUSTIN: ...Or someplace else where you like to act briskly, move along. But in spaces where you want to relax and decompress and feel very comfortable, you want to use patterns that have more curving lines than straight lines. And you'd only want to use a couple of those patterns in any space because you really want to manage the visual complexity of any environment in which you find yourself.

ROMO: All right. I want to take a moment here to define visual complexity. There's quite a bit of science behind this concept, but essentially, it has to do with how many colors, accent colors, shapes and patterns are in any given space. And there are different tiers. There's low visual complexity, which we find upsetting.

AUGUSTIN: We don't like being in a place that seems like a white box to us. That freaks us out and makes us tense.

ROMO: Then there's high visual complexity, which is an environment that's highly cluttered or there's just a lot going on. Sally says that that's also...

AUGUSTIN: ...And a place that's got high visual complexity is also a stressful place for us to be, so you need to tone things back. Pull things back a little bit. Carefully manage your visual environment, but don't create a space that's too stark.


ROMO: OK, so if after hearing this, you feel paralyzed by the visual complexity Goldilocks conundrum - not too busy, not too stark, has to be just right - Dabito says relax. The stakes aren't that high. If you hate it, you can change it. In fact, here's his tip for figuring out your own tolerance for visual complexity.

DABITO: The tip is don't overthink it. Just do it (laughter). There you go. How do you put it together? You just did it, girl. You put a paisley next to a stripe - boom. Done (laughter). That's the great thing about being eclectic, is you can mix anything. And it's your space, and if it makes you happy, then that's great.

ROMO: Takeaway number 4, comfort decorating is all about embracing nostalgia. As I told Sally, normally, I'm the kind of person who likes very clean surfaces. I hate things that gather dust. You know, the things that I have out, I've selected carefully. They're all out there intentionally. But at this moment, I have so much more stuff out on display than I - than is my normal version of myself.

AUGUSTIN: The reason why it makes sense to me that you have more things out is all those different things are reminders of what you value about yourself, things that you feel are important about you and how you live your life.

ROMO: She says this applies to all sorts of things - family photos, a kooky clay pot you may have made with your nieces or a drama trophy you maybe got in the eighth grade. Trust me, they do exist. And it can apply to tactile objects as well - objects that actually make you feel good in a real, sensory way - a soft, plush blanket that your mom or your best friend knit for you that brings back really pleasant memories. Then there are the smells. Like, does the smell of jasmine or lavender take you back to a warm summer night that was special in your life? Then get yourself a candle that you can light whenever you need a little extra boost. Mentally, these objects and smells go a long way toward making us feel safe. And for those of you who, like me, worry that putting these types of personal items on display will make your home look too busy or cluttered, Sally has a solution. Think of these items as a visiting exhibit that you can swap out every month.

AUGUSTIN: Develop a little ritual for yourself, where you change the things out that are of you in your apartment. And that's really cool because - from a number of different perspectives because it cuts the visual complexity. It continually refreshes your familiar environment, which makes it seem even more comfortable to you. And it gives you a feeling of control over your environment. You're managing that. And having a feeling of control is great. It boosts your mood, you know, and that helps you get along with others and helps you solve problems effectively. You know, basically, all good things come out of a good mood.

ROMO: The next takeaway, the last takeaway - takeaway No. 5 - is one that applies to everyone, whether you're living in a generally sunny place year-round or it's winter six months out of the year. Find a way to bring some nature into your home. The easiest way is to buy a plant or, in my case, 27. Dabito says it doesn't have to be anything huge, just something that serves as a reminder that you are not trapped. There is a big, wide world out there that's on the brink of coming alive again.

DABITO: Bringing the outdoors in doesn't mean you have to bring plants. It can also be artwork. It can be a wallpaper. It can be a faux plant. You know, I think artificial plants are having a big moment right now, especially for people who don't have a green thumb or especially people who live in areas where you can't grow tropical plants all year round.


ROMO: Ultimately, comfort decorating is about creating an environment that helps you fulfill the needs of your daily grind, whatever that may include. And it helps to make you feel good and recharged, whether you live alone or with others. And clearly, there's no one way to do it and no wrong way because it's all based on you - whatever meets your needs, whatever speaks to you. In fact, here's a mantra from Dabito to encourage all the fearful, timid, aspiring comfort decorators out there.

DABITO: I don't need to ask anyone for their permission. I give myself permission to do whatever I want and be unapologetically, you know, me.


ROMO: So let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - take a step back to first think about what you want or need to do in the space. And one of the best ways to do that is by dividing up your apartment or living room into different functional zones. Then you can start brainstorming on how you want to feel in the space.


ROMO: Takeaway No. 2 - color. If you can, let loose. Don't be afraid to follow your gut and start with the hues that bring you joy, or choose colors based on what you hope to accomplish in the space. Takeaway No. 3 - patterns and fabrics help our brains to break up a monotonous space. The trick is finding the right level of visual complexity that works for you. Lastly, takeaway No. 5 - bring in some nature. Real plants, faux plants, a print of some nice scenery or wallpaper - it doesn't really matter as long as it reminds you that there is a world outside of your four walls.


ROMO: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to pick the right lightbulb for your space and another one on how to keep your house plants alive. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

And now a completely random tip, this time from listener Jen Cloke (ph).

JEN CLOKE: My tip is for anyone else who raises laying hens. And they know that you have to clip their wings once a year to keep them from flying over your fence. And the trick is clip them at night. Go into the coop when the chickens are roosting 'cause they're all just sitting there, and then you can just pick them up and trim the feathers and then put them right back. You don't have to chase them. You don't have to fight them. It totally changed the way that I deal with wing-clipping when I figured this out.

ROMO: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlen and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. A special thanks to L.A. Johnson for her work on visuals. I'm Vanessa Romo. Thanks for listening.


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