How many times have you picked up a snazzy home-design magazine, drooled over images of perfect-upon-perfect rooms, and wondered if there had ever been any people present?
We love to see pages and pages of gorgeous rooms full of great paint colors, super sofas, cool light fixtures, fabulous art, etc. But … invariably there is never a person in sight (for any number of reasons, including privacy concerns). And so we tend to forget that the rooms are always designed in consideration of the real people who have to live there every day.
I was drawn again to this topic because of a text I received from my cousin E., who had just moved into a new home. Obviously thrilled, she picked up a nifty looking sofa as well—E sent this wonderful photo (above), and the following amusing conversation via text ensued:
— Her: “Our new sofa! Family sold separately!”
— Me: “You're a scream! Forget the sofa—although very nice and entirely suitable for your Mid-Century Modern home. Where can I buy that family?!”
— Her: “Love it that it took the interior designer to draw my attention to the people and not the furniture! You can't buy that family! They're already YOURS! XXXX”
— Me: “Hey! You're right! How lucky am I?!”
Via our chat, I realized yet again an essential design concept that I perhaps don’t express often enough: A functional, enjoyable and wonderfully designed space for your use depends on—in fact, is inspired by—the people who live in it.
Good interior design is all about people first and cool stuff second. Good interior design is focused almost entirely on human needs to create "people spaces." The parts and pieces—furniture, fixtures, art, cabinetry, among all the myriad items curated for any one project —are secondary, and must really work well for the end users.
Who are the people the space is intended for? How do they live? How can the space accommodate each family member’s differing needs? What mood might be evoked in those spaces that makes the inhabitants feel comfortable? Are there anyone’s special physical needs that must be met? Before you run out and buy that nifty new sofa, or lovely wall paint color, snazzy drapes and so forth, make sure to ask yourself these few, crucial questions.
This is as true of work-related environments where people need to be able to interact with the built environment in a highly functional manner, as it is the fun-filled family living space, complete with appropriate pieces to serve the family well for years to come.
But here’s the challenge:
In that relatively simple act of, say, buying a sofa, we’re faced with a design marketplace full of potential pitfalls. There are more and more choices out there to select from, and more information and discussions and ratings. And that means hours and hours researching.
Here are just a few examples of things to be aware of:
• Poor construction or materials. Bargain prices might mean your great-looking piece is junk in a year or so. It might be a shoddy framing materials, poor cushion fill, or fabric that’s easily worn. Perhaps the way it’s put together means it simply won’t hold up.
Buying “leather” pieces for just a few hundred dollars is a great example. What you’re probably buying at that price is a manufactured reconstituted bonded product—essentially ground up leather scraps glued together and formed into leather-textured sheets of material—that simply won’t endure like real leather.
Similarly, buying the “affordable” cabinet piece is fraught with issues. Folks may believe they’re buying solid wood, and maybe it is—solid junk wood with a glued-on walnut wood-looking paper. Generally if a piece of wood furniture is just a few hundred dollars, you can suspect it’s not what it seems.
Meanwhile, don’t believe that only “solid wood” means quality and thus discount any items made of “MDF,” medium density fiberboard, a wood product composed of wood particles and glue technology. Good quality MDF is used to build a great deal of high-quality furniture because it’s dimensionally stable and less susceptible to warping than solid wood. Those terrific modern flat-panel cabinetry designs are never made of solid wood, simply because solid wood expands and shrinks depending on the humidity, and can twist in unpredictable ways along grain lines.
• Cool design with unseen design flaws. You spy a set of fabulous modern and uniquely styled dining chairs. You’ve never seen anything like them before—very comfortable and reasonably priced. Terrific! They stand up well for handful of years of moderate use … until a 6-foot-tall Thanksgiving guest stretches backward in expansive delight after the meal, and the back snaps with an awful crunch, broken along it’s niftily designed horizontal structural axis.
The problem is simply a matter of physics: The horizontal supporting structure of the chair back was apparently not designed for taller people to lean backward. Who knew?! I’m the first one to want to grab an interesting and uniquely designed piece, but unless it’s gone through extensive testing or verified usage, you’re taking a chance.
Really, that’s how it goes in much of life. Either you stay with the tried and true, or you adventure out to the less-known or totally new. That’s the trade-off. And, because most furniture products don’t go through extensive pre-market testing, like drugs, cars or high tech materials, we’re on our own. You just need to make the best decision you can.
And, although I didn’t pay for chairs with the hidden design—they came with my husband—I really enjoyed having those fabulous chairs in my life even for a few year.
• Fads. These days people are madly embracing Mid-Century Modern and super-sleek modern Italian design (see my earlier blog post on this topic alone). I don't blame them—it's a great look. A lot of these styles of seating, though, work well only for short people who can comfortably sit in (and rise from) chairs that are 16 inches or lower without strain, or young people with knees and hips in perfect working order. A super deep, low sofa is inviting, but for smaller people it actually might not offer back support. It might make for a great day bed, but that’s it.
And that brings me to chair and sofa arms. Many people discover soon enough that they depend on furniture arms to leverage themselves up and out of the seat. I once tested out a pair of super-interesting chairs at a colleague’s show house room. They were high-design and really made the room, but I honestly couldn’t get up out of them! Too deep, too low and no arms to help me (a friend had to pull me up).
• Trying before buying. This is more and more difficult to do. You see something great online, but it’s nowhere to be found in any showroom. Meanwhile, showrooms are shrinking their square footage as online sales increase, so the situation only gets worse. Designing and buying from only the sample stock in any showroom limits your options by at least 90% in one fell swoop.
One tip that can sometimes work: If you are luckily working with a well-trusted source who can guide you to a similar type of seat that “seats like” the one you would like to try but can’t, you may be able to decide with some assurance and comfort to buy that untried piece you love. If you go this route, be sure to work with a very knowledgeable and caring individual who is not dead-keen on making the sale at any costs.
Happily, my cousin E. and her family did get to try their fab sofa before buying it, and it suits them fine, according to all reports. They feel that the quality is decent, especially as it was purchased from a local, non-chain retailer who’s been serving the community for years. It might even have been locally made, which is often an indicator of better-made things. Best of all it works really well for them every day. Happy days!
Jacqueline Hosford, ASID, principal of Jacqueline Hosford Interior Design, loves working with clients to design their spaces for optimum function and each client's ultimate delight. Jacqueline is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID); is certified by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification; and is an adjunct professor of interior design, State University of New York (Purchase). Jacqueline is a graduate of Barnard College-Columbia University, and the New York School of Interior Design with highest honors. She can be reached at Jacqueline@jacquelinehosforddesign.com.