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Curvy or Not?

Straight and curved lines affect us in different ways.

Imagine this: You're standing in the furniture store staring at a pair of sofas, both of which are demanding to come home with you. One is curvier than the other--its legs are bowed a little bit, its stuffing is a little plumper, and its armrests curvaceously cuddle your forearms. The other sofa has been crafted by someone who owns a protractor; its lines are pretty much straight and meet at carefully pre-determined angles (we are talking upholstered furniture here, there is a limit to any sort of precision). Both sofas are covered in the same fabric and are equally comfortable to sit on.

Which sofa should you choose?

As usual, it depends.

Recent research done with images shows that we think that furniture with an organic look, and rounded forms, is more relaxing than angular designs. The cited investigation, by Dazkir and Read ("Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments," Environment and Behavior), is just the last in a long line of studies indicating that people generally feel differently about things that are rounded as opposed to angular.

Silvia and Barona in 2009, for example, found that when people are looking at objects that are equally symmetrical, balanced, and typical (so novelty isn't the deciding factor), rounder shapes were preferred to angular ones. Chang and Wu in 2007 had similar responses when they asked people about images of products, some with soft and curved surfaces and some in the opposite camp. In 2006, Bar and Neta published a study showing that objects and patterns with curved features are preferred to those with pointy ones and sharp angles.

Because most of us plan to relax in and enjoy spaces where couches normally go (living rooms and family rooms, for example), the curvier couch is starting to look like the way to go.

But it is not so simple. Our outlook on the world comes into play here and distorts the aforementioned generalizations. Research decades ago found that people who feel more strongly that fate plays a large role in the direction that life takes are more likely to prefer curved architectural elements while people who feel more in control of their own destiny go for rectilinear ones. Working in 2006, Zhang, Feick, and Price found that when people see themselves as generally independent of others, they find angular shapes more attractive while people who perceive themselves as primarily interdependent have the same sorts of feelings about more rounded shapes.

There are other implications for lines and shapes beyond home design and furniture selection. Vikas Mittal, a professor at Rice predicts that the new Starbuck's logo, which is curvier that the old one, should help in overseas markets. He is quoted in a Rice press release: "When angular logos were changed into rounded logos, they were more acceptable in interdependent and collectivist cultures--often found in Asian countries, such as India and China--than in Western countries, which tend to have a more independent or individualistic culture."

A space filled with curvy things would be oppressive, just like one in which all lines and planes meet at right angles. Select the sofa that seems to be the best fit with your outlook on life. And remember, as you choose sofas and wallpapers for your home or office, surfaces and lines that curve or meet at right angles do matter.