Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and author of “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” joined Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius recently for an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: What colors can you use in paint and bedding to make your bedroom more serene?
A: I draw a lot on what I call the transcendence aesthetic in a bedroom. Transcendence is all about the joy of elevation, and at elevation, colors are lighter and softer. So think of sky colors, especially during a gentle sunset: blues and peaches, soft pinks and yellows and violets.
Q: I am planning to sell my house in the spring. Besides decluttering and putting flowers in vases, what do you suggest I do to “spark joy?” What colors should I paint the walls? What colors should be in the guest bedrooms?
A: One thing I’ve heard is that new buyers typically gravitate toward white walls. There might be some exceptions — if you have a historic home, for instance — but if you’re painting, try to start with a clean white canvas and add color through furnishings and art, so a buyer can feel the joy you’ve put in but also imagine a place with their taste. Also consider some houseplants and pay attention to lighting, because that’s something subtle that people may not notice, but it will make a big difference in how they feel about the place.
Q: Do you have some ideas for creating joy in a small space on a budget? I’m talking a studio apartment.
A: Many people shy away from color in small spaces because they’re afraid it will be overwhelming, but vibrant colors can give small spaces character and make them feel like a joyful oasis. Resist the temptation to make everything small to match the scale of the space — having one or two anchors within the space can keep it from feeling disconnected or bitty. And bring plants into the space to add color and texture. I’m also a fan of a mirror in small spaces. Lastly, if you can choose rounder furnishings, it can help with the flow and movement in the space. Angular furniture can slow your movement and make the space feel more compressed than it actually is.
Q: My husband and I are in our early 30s, and we live in a large one-bedroom co-op with a dining room that seats six. I can count on my hands the number of times we’ve formally sat for dinner in it. We’re expecting a baby next year and intend to transform the home office into a nursery. My husband has been pushing to make the dining room into a more functional space because the room is virtually unused. Any ideas?
A: I’m a big believer in making your space work for you, rather than adhering to any specific rules. If you’re not using a space as intended, the space stagnates, and that’s definitely not joyful. I just have one question: Where do you plan to eat with baby? Do you have an eat-in kitchen or a counter-style setup? I ask because I know so many people whose lifestyles really changed when they had a baby, so making sure that you’ve anticipated these changes before you rearrange a space feels worth considering.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, consider how you want to live as a family. Do you need more workspace so you can have more flexibility in your career? Do you want to host other families and therefore have a really amazing playroom that other people’s kids can use, one that will grow with baby? Do you want a more flexible family space that accommodates relaxing, reading, games and a bit of play?
One concern is that research has shown we have a tendency to create multiple sedentary spaces in a home: TV rooms, living rooms, etc. If there’s a way to make it more active, it might be more joyful — and create more interesting possibilities — for you and your family.
Q: How do you suggest to a young person that they declutter or organize their living space to create a calmer, more joyful environment?
A: Everyone has different comfort levels with clutter and mess, so what may feel unacceptably messy to a parent might feel cozily abundant to their child.
That said, there are studies linking clutter and anxiety, so in general, a tendency toward decluttering is healthy. The best you can do is encourage someone to notice how their space makes them feel. A lot of us have been conditioned to ignore our living area, so having them tune back in to the feelings they get when their environment is tidy vs. messy might be a way to build motivation to declutter.
Q: I live in a rental with a very low drop ceiling in poor condition (stained, crumbly). How can I improve this situation in a low-cost manner? Should I buy replacement tiles for the broken ones, use mirrors (to bounce light and distract from the low ceilings) and try to tempt the eye to focus elsewhere? Or do you have some other, more creative ideas?
A: Low drop ceilings are tough — and even tougher when they’re poor quality. Focus on the quality issue first. Can you replace the tiles or paint the ceiling? I might suggest trying something with fabric, too, depending on how low the ceiling actually is. For example, you could drape fabric across parts of a room, either gathered or in a canopy style, to cover the ceiling. Can you use decorative wall decals to cover the damaged parts? In terms of ways to work with a low ceiling, you generally want to go tall with items such as bookcases and plants, and hang drapes high to make the height feel more expansive. But you might want to keep focal points low, such as a sculpture on your table instead of an eye-catching painting on the wall.
Q: Do you think arranging your home using the principles of feng shui is likely to make you happier?
A: I was really skeptical about feng shui at first, but it is a system with thousands of years of history, so I figured there must be something to it. As I dug into it, I found that many of the basic principles of feng shui make a lot of sense. One key idea is that you shouldn’t have doors that stick, because it means the chi can’t flow properly. Well, if you have doors that stick, that means you can’t flow properly, either! Little frustrations add up and influence your mood, which influences your interactions with others. The main idea that resonates with me from feng shui is that everything is connected, and seemingly simple changes in your home can have big effects because you’re interacting with them all the time.
Q: I live in a very small, two-story row house. If I don’t want everything to be the same color, how do I choose colors that will flow well in spaces that are in the sight line from pretty much everywhere on each floor (unless a door is closed)?
A: Work on choosing a family of colors that feel good together, and then test in the space with your light. I love to start with a piece of artwork — something multicolored that brings me joy and has the feeling I want for the space. Abstracts are good for this kind of thing: think Matisse, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Delaunay, etc. You can hold paint chips right up to a painting in a gallery or in a book and choose a set that works together. Next, I usually get a few strips of similar hues and hang them in the space I’m painting and look at them a few times a day. Once I have a sense of the best ones, I get sample pots and paint a big swatch on the wall. Try to paint on a couple of walls so you can see how the light hits it and how the colors harmonize.
Q: My living room has a fireplace I’ve never used in the past 12 years. I’ve heard that most people like fireplaces when they are looking for a home to buy. My home has central heating and air, so I’ve never felt the need to light a fire. And in California, if it ever gets chilly, there’s a “spare the air” day discouraging fireplace use. Would removing the fireplace (that takes up an entire wall) decrease the value of my home?
A: Many people like the appearance of a fireplace, even if they don’t use it. From a joy perspective, a fireplace creates a kind of centerpiece or anchor in a home for people to gather around (that is not a TV, for example). It’s also a great point of symmetry, which is key to the aesthetic of harmony I talk about, and something the human eye is universally attracted to.
That said, your home should work for you. My first thought would be, can you use it as is in a decorative way? I recently saw someone who painted the ends of firelogs in eye-catching colors with chalk, and this created a joyful, artful look. Or use the mantle as a picture ledge and create an installation there. If none of these ideas float your boat, then get rid of it. Life is too short to live with something you don’t love. Just be prepared for future buyers to be surprised that you got rid of it.
Q: We’re redoing our eat-in kitchen and keeping the footprint. We’ve already upgraded the appliances and now want to replace cabinets and countertops. We’re looking at Shaker-style cabinets. What is classic vs. trending in style and color for cabinets?
A: I’m not a kitchen trends expert, but I have noticed more people choosing color cabinets instead of plain white or gray — maybe navy or green. These colors add a little something but are classic enough that they won’t look dated. I’ve also been seeing more decorative backsplashes, such as with patterned Moroccan tiles. Have fun with it.
Q: You write about Dorothy Draper and her abundant and colorful room designs. Do you think her bold use of color and pattern still works today?
A: Yes, yes, yes! Dorothy Draper’s approach to decorating is just as relevant now as ever. After going through a seriously minimalist phase, it’s joyful to see a return to maximalist happening. Maybe the specific furniture or pattern choices will be more contemporary, but the approach to layering and mixing and matching is very current. My favorite thing about Draper’s approach is she believes we should be creating homes and spaces that feel good to us, rather than what other people think. And that idea is timeless.