Q&A: Ingrid Fetell Lee on designing your home to bring more joy

Aug 15, 2019

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a designer and author whose work reveals the hidden influence of our surroundings on our emotions and well-being. Her book "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" and website aestheticsofjoy.com empower people to find more happiness in life and work through design. Her background includes a stint as design director at innovation firm IDEO. Her popular TED talk “Where Joy Hides and How to Find it” has been viewed more than 17 million times.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Good morning everyone and a warm welcome to designer Ingrid Fetell Lee. Happy to have her here today. She is the founder and author of The Aesthe tics of Joy blog, and she believes in the power of keeping order in the urban jungle and arranging our homes with simple beauty in mind. Her book "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" explains how to find the people, places and things in our own lives so we can live better. Right now, I'm getting joy from putting a bouquet of simple flowers in every bedroom and watching seagulls and bunnies do their thing. Let's chat with Ingrid.

Hi everyone, I'm Ingrid Fetell Lee and I'm a designer and the author of the book Joyful. For the past ten years I've studied the emotion joy and how our surrounds can influence our wellbeing for the better. I'm excited to be with you this morning answering your questions! Thanks for joining in!

How can you make your bedroom more serene? What colors are good to use in paint and bedding?

I love a serene bedroom! 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. Gradients work well in this context too!

I am planning on selling my house in the spring. Besides decluttering it, putting flowers in vases around it what are ways you suggest I do for my house to “spark joy”? What colors should I paint the walls? What colors should the be in the guest bedrooms? Thank you for your opinion and suggestions!

I love that you're thinking about how to make your home joyful for prospective buyers! One thing I've heard (and because I'm not a real estate expert I can't be sure on) is that in general new buyers gravitate toward white walls. There might some exceptions, for example if you have a historic home, but if you're painting, I might 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. I would also consider some houseplants (if you'll be able to take them with you) and really pay good attention to lighting the place well, because that's something subtle that people may not notice but will make a big difference in how they feel about the place. Also think about scent - are there soft, clean scents you can subtly infuse into your place to make it feel fresh? Citrus scents have been shown to promote cleanliness, so that might help as well. 

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?

Yes yes yes! I think 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 maximalism happening. Maybe the specific furniture or pattern choices will be different, more contemporary, but the approach to layering and mixing and matching is very current I think!

My favorite thing about Draper's approach is that she believes we should be creating homes and spaces that feel good to us, rather than what someone else thinks. And that idea, to me, is truly timeless!

How do you educate or suggest a millennial child declutter or organize their living environment to create a calmer more joyful environment ?

Hmm, tricky one! Everyone has different thresholds or comfort levels with clutter and mess, so what may feel unacceptably messy to a parent might feel cozily abundant to a child. 

That said, there are studies linking clutter and anxiety, so in general, a tendency toward decluttering a bit is healthy. I think the best thing you can do is to encourage someone to notice how their space makes them feel. A lot of us have been conditioned to ignore our space, so having them tune back in to the feelings they get when their space is tidy vs. messy might be a way to start to build intrinsic motivation to declutter!

Husband and I are in our early 30s and we live in a large 1 bedroom coop with a dining room inclusive of a table & chairs for 6. In the 3 years that we've lived there, I can count on my hands the number of times my husband and I formally sat for dinner in it. We're now expecting a baby next year and intend to stay in our current place for the first year or two transforming my home office into a nursery. Husband has been pushing to make the dining room into more of a functional space since the room is virtually unused... any suggestions?

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! 

The one question I would ask is 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 space feels worth considering. 

If you're ready to take the plunge, I would think about 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 others can come visit, one that will grow with baby as they do? Do you want a more flexible family space that accommodates relaxing, reading, games, and a bit of play?

One watch-out here 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!

Do you think that the art of arranging your home with the principles of feng shui is likely to make you happier?

I was really skeptical about feng shui at first, but it is a system with 5000 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. For example, 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! If you have to push hard on your front door just to get into your house, those little frustrations add up and influence your mood, which influences your interactions with others. 

I think 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. 

I'm less concerned with the bagua and making sure that everything lines up with a specific zone, and more focused on the fundamental sense of flow and space in a home. 

Hello, I'm an Art Director in Milan, I've just read your book and it's great, really interesting and exactly what I was looking for. I'd like to deepen the topic about joy, colors, identity, human instincts... Do you have some resources (books, video, movies, courses, articles) to suggest? I've already seen your website and I'm looking for some materials from your bibliography. Thank you, Giorgia

Thanks for this great question, Giorgia! 

For color, I recommend The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair and Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette. 

For understanding human instincts, I love Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, E.O. Wilson's Biophilia, Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, and Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. This last is an absolute must-read! Also I love Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, and Jay Appleton's works on landscape. 

As for other books about joy, I think Fredrickson's Positivity is a great introduction to the topic of positive psychology. 

Enjoy your reading!!

My living room has a fireplace that I have never used, even once, in 12 years. I have heard that most people like fireplaces when they are looking for a home to buy. Is this true; would removing the fireplace (that takes up an entire wall) decrease the value of my home. My home has central heating and air; I've never felt the need to light a fire, plus in California, if it ever gets chilly, they have a "spare the air" day discouraging fireplace use. So: good idea -- or not? Your opinion please. Mary Jo Painter

Hi Mary Jo, 

While I'm not an expert on things like resale value, I do think that many people do 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 in a space, 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 moment in her fireplace. 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 :) 

I live in a rental with a very low drop-ceiling in poor condition (stained, crumbly). How might I improve this situation in a low-cost manner? Just 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 in the room? Or do you have some other, more creative ideas??

Low drop ceilings are tough, and even tougher when they're poor quality. 

I would 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. Since I was just reminded of Dorothy Draper, here's an example of the way she covered the ceiling of the pool at The Greenbrier to make it feel more like the outdoors. Or can you use decorative wall decals to cover the damaged parts? 

In terms of ways to work with a low ceiling, in general you want to go tall with things like bookcases and plants, and hang drapes high, to make the height feel more expansive. But you might want to keep focal points low, like a sculpture on your table instead of an eye-catching painting on the wall. 

Good luck!

I live in a very small, two story row house. How do I balance the use of color between spaces like the foyer and the living/dining space or the two bedrooms next each other off a small hall? In other words, if I don't want everything to be the same color, how do I chose 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)?

I would 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, looking at them a few times a day. Once I have a sense for 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 you can see from one room to another to see how the colors harmonize!

Rules aside, the main thing about fengshui is that however you arrange your living space, you should feel comfortable about it. If you feel good, the fengshui is good. An example of fengshui is that you don't want to buy a house with the main door facing a street that cars can drive directly through your door, i.e. your house is situated at the end of a T-shape street where cars can drive directly into your door. This is bad fengshui, but you probably won't feel comfortable also on the possibility of cars accidentally drive through your door.

I love this example and in fact there's a home like this in my neighborhood, and every time I drive by I think about this. It's a very vulnerable position and not comfortable at all. 

If anyone out there finds themselves in this situation, the remedy is simple: plant a hedge or build a low wall in the front of your property to add a feeling of protection. 

A lot of the basics of feng shui and the aesthetics of joy are the same: we want to feel safe and protected, we want to be free and unconstrained, we need a certain amount of order and harmony to make sense of the world. Take care of those basics, and you'll have the foundation of a space that feels good to people. 

We have an 8X8 entrance area from which you can see the kitchen and great room. The flooring throughout the house is Kardean vinyl that looks like wood. Both the kitchen and great room can be seen immediately upon entering the house. What do you suggest for covering the flooring in that entrance hall? For example, do you suggest a small throw rug or perhaps a larger area rug that will fill the space? And should it match the area rug (light burber) in the great room? We want to keep a simple look yet protect the flooring. Thanks!

I would use a smaller throw rug with a pop of color that welcomes you home! As long as it includes one or two of the colors visible in the great room, it should tie together the spaces, while being a joyful statement in its own right!

Since you mention watching the seagulls and rabbits, I'd like to share something that brings me joy: a birdbath on the patio, outside the sliding glass doors from my living room. I get to watch robins, cardinals, sparrows, and lately some goldfinches taking a drink or a bath. My indoor cats enjoy watching it too! I change the water every day; it really does get dirty.

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Can you get your landlord to check for a leak and maybe replace the tiles? The only way you can reliably report leaks (which can damage their property a lot over time) is by being able to notice when they happen. New tiles are cheap and will facilitate this.

Good suggestion - and a good way to encourage your landlord to fix the ceiling situation instead of having to tackle it all yourself!

We are redoing our eat-in style kitchen and keeping the footprint. We have already upgraded the appliances and now want to replace cabinets and countertop and adding a backsplash plus redoing the flooring. We are looking at quartz countertops and Shaker-style cabinets. No decision on the flooring yet, either, tile or wood. For cabinets, what is classic vs trending in style and color.? We have a formal dining room that I am not opening up into the kitchen.

I'm not a kitchen trends expert, but I have noticed more people choosing color for cabinets instead of plain white or gray, such as 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!

Do you have some ideas for joy in a small space on a budget? I'm talking a studio apartment!

Yes! You don't need a mansion to create a joyful space! 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, as it creates a sense of depth and expands sightlines. 

Lastly, if you can choose rounder furnishings, it can help with the flow and movement in the space. Angular furniture + small spaces can slow your movement and make the space feel more compressed than it actually is. 

Thank you so much for your wonderful questions, today! I've really enjoyed chatting with you. Hope you have a joyful day!!

Thank you so much Ingrid. Very rewarding chat. Next week join Abby Hesketh of Graham & Brown for a discussion of paint and wallpaper.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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