SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING HOME & GARDEN GUIDE : Furnishings Home In on Owners’ Psyche

Pamela Marin is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Before you buy a new sofa or paint your den a trendy shade of mauve or resurrect tintypes of your ancestors for display on the living room mantel--wait a minute. Did you ever wonder what your home-decorating instincts say about who you are?

Well, if you haven’t, others have.

“How we decorate our homes corresponds to social class, values, sex roles and stage of life as much as it does to personal preferences,” writes Joan Kron in the preface to her book “Home-Psych.”

The New York-based editor of upscale Avenue magazine and former home writer for the New York Times defines the subject of her book, published 6 years ago, as “the social psychology of home and decoration.”


In chapters with catchy titles such as “Fear of Furnishing,” Kron views her subject through the prisms of social science and psychology--an effort, she writes, “to discover the meaning and purpose of this activity we call decorating.”

From her office in Manhattan, Kron asked: “What is really going on when I go to the sheets department of a store and I am absolutely unable to make a decision, to choose a pattern--and then I look around and see other people roaming through the department just like me, almost in a trance?”

Local designers share her interest in the psychology behind the design choices we make.

“There is nothing more revealing than a home,” said Sandra Hayes, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.


Hayes, who lives and works in Fullerton and has been an interior designer for 15 years, described a few of the “little messages” she receives when walking through a client’s or friend’s home for the first time. For example, a lot of photographs tell her the resident is a “sentimental, romantic, a cozy kind of person.” A messy house gives Hayes the impression that “the people who live there are probably amiable, friendly types, and they want their home to be comfortable.”

Newport Beach-based designer Leslie Newquist-Fitzpatrick offers a slightly different reading on the meaning of disorder.

“On my first walk-through, I’m especially tuned to how important the home is to the owners by the way they take care of it,” she said. “Are there dirty dishes in the sink? Are there clothes all over the bed? Is the bed unmade?

“You pick up real quickly how interested they are in the home, and the next question becomes: Why have they called in a designer? Is it because they have a real interest and appreciation for their home--which is doubtful if the place is a big mess--or is it to impress other people?”

As for impress-other-people “showroom” homes--created by a designer, cleaned by a maid, free of the traces of actual living --Newquist-Fitzpatrick said she’s seen plenty. And the psychology behind them is obvious.

“What I’ve seen is people living in a museum,” she said. “They’re hoping to make some kind of aesthetic statement by hiring a designer and buying expensive things, but the real statement is that this is who they are--status-seekers.”

Both Newquist-Fitzpatrick and Hayes emphasized that the job of a residential designer is to create an environment that reflects the clients’ tastes--and their psychology--rather than impose a style of their own.

“I don’t want anyone to ever walk into a home that I designed and say, ‘Who is your designer?’ Or, ‘This must be Leslie’s,’ ” said Newquist-Fitzpatrick.


One method Hayes uses to get clients “in touch with their personal style” is to send them to art museums.

“Someone who picks out Old Masters,” said Hayes, “will want an elegant look, very traditional. If they pick out the Impressionists, they’re interested in light, in color, and we can go to a much more lively blend (of style).”

To understand clients’ “home-psych,” as well as to communicate with them more effectively, designer Judith Rand said knowledge of the basic principles of psychology is very important.

“The first thing I ask my students,” said Rand, who teaches a course in home design at Orange Coast College, “is how much psychology they’ve had. I tell them, ‘You’ve got to plug into some psych if you’re thinking about interior design as a profession. You need to learn about human behavior for this business. It’s just absolutely crucial.’ ”