Understanding the 5 Ways You Experience a Room

A room is never just a room.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

Looking at the glossy pages of magazines, one might be tempted to think that interior design is simply about creating a pretty or elegant room. Or, looking at the variously tidy and untidy rooms of our current pandemic lives, one might think that “real” living is more about comfort or survival.

In truth, no room is ever that simple. Rooms are containers for delights, disappointments, desires, and needs. And every room—no matter how filled or barren, utilitarian or decorative—engages the deepest parts of your psyche.

According to Mary Jo Weale, James W. Croake, and W. Bruce Weale, human beings experience their environment in five basic ways. Below, I’ll dig deeper into these five facets to uncover exactly how and why we perceive our surroundings the way we do.   

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

1. The Senses

Sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell are probably the most obvious way that we engage with our homes. Pattern, color, lighting, and spatial arrangement appeal to the eyes; flowers and candles appeal to the nose; textures and space planning appeal to the touch; music, conversation, and quiet appeal to the ears; and foods and drinks appeal to the tongue.

A comfortable home will have elements designed to please all of the senses, but every space engages the five senses, even if it does so through unpleasant experiences like fluorescent lighting and humid, A/C-less air. 

We often have unconscious, historically conditioned expectations for what constitutes a “pleasant” space. For example, the Arts and Crafts movement (1880-1920) reacted against cheap, mass-produced goods, and insisted that environments needed natural materials and handcrafted artisanship. And eighteenth-century elites preferred lighter, brighter paint colors that weren’t available to their predecessors. Sensory preferences aren’t purely biological; they’re often tangled with economic and cultural considerations.

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

2. Time and Movement Through Space

Most rooms involve a thousand trips through time. Environments steeped in antiques with deep backstories and generations of love will feel different from those with streamlined, crisp furnishings.

Also consider how a single object might encompass multiple histories. Take, for example, the Louis Ghost Chair, designed by Philippe Starck. Created in 2002, the chair’s a modern interpretation of the classic 18th-century Louis XVI armchair.

Space is a more obvious element of design. Floor plans relate form to function, and they have the power to give a room a sense of fluidity and freedom or the sense of being restricted and hemmed in. How people move through the space, the distance between objects, and the quantity of negative space all fundamentally alter the “feel” of a room.

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

3. Reasoning, Memory, and Imagination

Furnishings don’t exist in a vacuum, and even the smallest of objects will probably carry a mental association. For many people, memory is the most pervasive faculty when it comes to furnishing a home: a table from one’s parents, souvenirs from a trip, photos of important events. Our lives are awash with memories, and the home is, in many ways, a museum of comfort, where all these memories are gathered and cherished.

But reason and imagination are no less important. When you decide on layouts or organize your belongings, reason is at work. Reason ensures that a space is functional, and at the best of times, it floats invisibly behind the scenes, adding logical order to daily life.

Imagination is the element that keeps you creative, nourished, stimulated, and inspired. It’s at the heart of the most successful “cathedrals of consumption,” like theme parks and casinos, but in simpler ways, it inhabits the art, books, and objects that spark your curiosity.

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

4. Emotions, Both Pleasant and Unpleasant

The instant you step into a room, you feel something. The colors on the wall may energize or calm you. You may be repulsed by the scent of last night’s garbage or comforted by the smell of warm bread. A room with a great deal of natural light will yield itself to different moods than one without windows.

Spaces also acquire associations through our emotions. I am fond of my mother’s kitchen because I associate it with warmth and joy. I am decidedly less fond of certain sites where I experienced trauma or pain. Our overall emotional states profoundly influence how we perceive our surroundings.  

Even “non-places,” like airports and parking lots are meticulously designed to give you a “non-feeling.” Whether you are in Hong Kong or San Francisco, you have an intuitive sense of how to navigate, and you experience the same familiar, non-culturally specific, “neutral” feeling (which, of course, is anything but neutral; we are simply accustomed to it).

 Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Illustration courtesy of Vincent Tsui

5. Anticipation or Expectation

Sometimes you want things to be exactly as they seem or as they “should be.” There is comfort in having one’s expectations met. Being able to predict basic things like where the spoons will be or whether the bedroom will be restful can help a person maintain a sense of control. All too often, the world is filled with unrelenting anxiety, and keeping those confusions out of the home can ensure that it is really is your haven. 

The power of subversion—even subtle subversion—is immense. Imagine your surprise if your partner secretly relocated the spoons to a new drawer. It’s a minor change, but it would certainly throw you off your routine.

Like emotions, expectations also have the power to alter our experiences of a space. Imagine a mid-level hotel room; it’s bland but clean, no-frills but comfortable. If you had been looking forward to luxury five-star vacation and walked into that room, you would likely be disappointed. The experience would be quite different if you were on a road trip and expected to stay in a less-than-desirable pit stop.

A Room is Never Just a Room

Even from these simple descriptions, it’s easy to see that these five elements are deeply interrelated, and most of them are almost instinctive or intuitive. We don’t consciously tick these boxes every time we visit a new place. Your environment is just as much about your mental state as it is about the physical trappings of the room itself.

It’s often hard to describe what it’s like to “experience” a room, but it may be easier to understand when you consider its component parts. Being aware of these five aspects of experience can help you design a space that nurtures or excites you. It might also help you change your perspective on spaces you inhabit daily and provide insight into why you feel the way you do in certain spaces.

This post was adapted and revised from this post on Apartment Therapy.

References

Augé, Marc. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995.

Obniski, Monica. “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America.” Met Museum (June 2008), https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acam/hd_acam.htm

Ritzer, George. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Continuity and Change in the Cathedrals of Consumption. 3d edition. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010.

Roche, Daniel. A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Weale, Mary Jo, James W. Croake, and W. Bruce Weale. Environmental Interiors. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.