It's interesting that most of those who read my design psychology book, take my courses or enter my training program are women. Most are female interior designers or psychologists.  Is it because they, too, deal with interior space?

It’s bothered me that the only design psychology interviews I’ve published heretofore were the “environmental autobiographies” of famous design-world men.  Had I left unheard the story of women in design? It’s not that I didn’t approach female architects for interviews.  I did.  They just replied, “Too busy.”

I am not a feminist design scholar but I am an ever-pondering woman.  I continue to be curious (or feel guilty?) about my lapse when it comes to women and design psychology. Then, after all, I am one of The Three Muses.

Jennifer, Nina and I (“The Musies”) are not an official group.  We are just three women who go into withdrawal unless we meet every few weeks in a patient proprietor’s local bistro or one of our home nests. There’s the obvious that glues us together: We live near one another in New Jersey. We are all writers of about the same age, divorced, single, empty-nester mothers who speak around the world about our work.

So, yes, we sit for hours and critique one another’s latest prose or project. We swap tips on contract negotiations or our sweet sons. Yet what inspires us the most to return again and again to our well of food and thought is that the three of us have worked hard, successfully, to follow our passions. Inevitably it’s meant that we Musies journey half off, half on the beaten track.

Take Jennifer. I first met her because she was my client- - a client with an amazing pedigree. Her Grandmother, Barbara Morgan, was the pre-eminent dance photographer of the twentieth century.  (Can you picture Morgan’s famous photo of Martha Graham leaning forward in her sweeping skirt?).

Open Jennifer’s people & place treasure chest and you’ll find further environmental autobiographical riches: You’ll see her grandfather working as the first Contributions Editor for Life Magazine and as the first Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. You’ll see her father, a renowned printer, carefully arranging moveable type (part of the world’s largest wood type collection) from up in his Adirondack home. In another Hudson River town, her mother in a Victorian home balances being a musical director with caretaking Jennifer and her five brothers and sisters. Then there are Jennifer’s Swedish ancestors in their farmhouses braving brutal Minnesota winters and, I forget, which one of her ancestors owned a British castle? 

Jennifer, lithe, blondish and blue-eyed like her Swedish forebears exudes the wonderful life force of a dancer whose creative thoughts leap always into air with glee.  When I first met her to discuss an addition to her Princeton home, she’d just finished her third “Big Bang” children’s book on the origins of the universe.

At first we met in her freelancer’s “office”- - her favorite downtown coffee shop. Inevitably our conversation would be interrupted by her unofficial colleagues - - local town physicists, theologians, cosmologists, and friends who wandered up to say hello. In Princeton, it seems, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a Noble Prize winner.  Jennifer has no university affiliation but, with her unique combination of a BA in Theology and an MBA, she’s engendered respect and huge affection from ‘Big Brains’ who admire her passion to tell the “Universe Story.”

Still, when we met, Jennifer was at a crossroads.  Her only child was soon to leave for college.  Especially since her household size was about to change, she wanted to open up her space so as not to feel confined as she moved forward on her solo “heroine’s journey.”

When we first toured her home around the corner from mine in Princeton, I could see why she wanted to renovate the modest two-family house. The portion she occupied had a small, narrow, dark living room adjacent to a nondescript kitchen. The ceilings were low with (sort of) wood beams that looked more like crude struts exposed to make the ceilings seem higher. How could thoughts from an inspired dance there?

So if your life was about to change and you were about to renovate your home, whom would you call? An architect? An interior designer? A design psychologist?  I’m guessing you wouldn’t call me if you’d never have heard of design psychology. But Jennifer and I crossed paths and when I explained, “I help people create homes that support their positive growth and change,” Jennifer “got it” immediately and became intrigued.

She called me and an architect (whom I never did meet) but we became a team. As part of the initial design programming process, I took Jennifer through my nine Design Psychology Toolbox of Exercises and together we explored her past, present and future sense of place until we arrived at her ideal home oasis vision:

My ideal home is organized, simple beautiful, cozy, comfortable and warm with flow and freedom reflecting a spirit of abundance, creativity and vitality that comes from moving with intellectual curiosity with a community of interesting people through the heroic journey of a life where what one does counts.

It was hardly your typical architectural program specifying square footage requirements, number of bedrooms, etc.! Instead it was a mission statement, Jennifer’s vision of her house/life transformation.  Thus the statement became the Design + Psychology = Touchstone that guided Jennifer and her architect throughout her home redesign project.

In fact, the design psychology exercises she’d completed enabled us to map out Jennifer’s self-place path. It helped her choose which memories of color, space, texture, and special objects to unpack as symbols of her ‘best-self’ and which she should leave behind on the side of her road forward.  For example, the Environmental Family Tree Exercise Jennifer completed brought out her ”inner farm girl” as she remembered stories she’d heard about her heroic early ancestors who owned farmhouses with wooden floors and bright red barns. The Favorite Place Exercise helped her recall wonderful memories of times gathered around warm hearths in the Adirondack Mountains.

Then, too, Jennifer missed the lively household hum of her siblings coming and going which reverberated in the hallways of her childhood home. An ‘extroverted thinker,’ she thrived on family gatherings yet also loved looking out the window near her desk  to ‘more beyond.’ At her empty-nester juncture, the path to ‘more’ remained uncertain.

So how did this all translate into final, nurturing design? Drive to her remodeled home and at first you’ll think the house hasn’t changed.  It just looks like the same simple farmhouse.  Drive further and you’ll wonder: Is there a barn behind the house?  Go up the driveway and park near the new addition, now deep red like Jennifer’s long line of farmhouse barns. Do you see and hear the echo? It’s been designed as a psychological trigger to remind Jennifer while on her journey, “You come from ancestors with a sense of courage, of simple strength against all odds.”  

Open the new side-porch door. Enter and let the now-abundant, flowing dining/living space surprise you. There you’ll see Jennifer, Nina and me sitting, chatting, and laughing beside a cozy farmhouse stove. We’ll wave you over to join us in this warm oasis.

A little shy since you don’t yet know us? Ok, I’ll try to lure you in: Take off your shoes and walk on the deeply-glowing wooden floors - - aged planks salvaged from long-lost Minnesota barns. Crossing the threshold, step on one special plank reclaimed from Grandma Morgan’s N.Y. photo-studio, reset as a symbol of Morgan’s vitality and creativity. Can your feet feel the inspiration?

Walk forward and enjoy the light that fills the space from huge windows and doors that now form a wall of glass bringing the backyard in and allowing Jennifer to look always out.  Feel life and spirit open up, up as you gaze up at the room’s cathedral ceiling. Sit in any comfy chair right here by the hearth.  There, just above the mantel, is Barbara Morgan’s abstract painting, “Phoenix Rising.”  Think: Archetypal bird, Jennifer (and you?) are rising from any ashes with freedom and flow.

Now take the spiral staircase upstairs and feel that you are climbing a British castle’s tower or tiptoeing up on a DNA spiral to her son’s new loft room. From there, at night, or from Jennifer’s new bedroom, look out into the infinite mystery - - the ever-transforming universe that Jennifer continues to ponder and share with us.

Copyright Toby Israel, 2015

About the Author

Toby Israel Ph.D.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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