Does Your Childhood Home Dictate Your Design Choices?

Get on the couch: A design psychologist says your grandmother’s garden and your father’s den influence your sense of place in ways you don’t understand.

Newsstands are crammed with shelter magazines that dictate how your home should look. Cantilevered credenzas, bamboo modern beach furniture, appliances in bold colors–these are furnishing of the moment.


Will they gratify you? Not unless you understand the emotional roots of your likes and dislikes, according to Toby Israel, an environmental psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home. Just as therapy helps a patient unravel family patterns and predilections, design psychology shows how we’re unknowingly influenced by the design and décor we knew in our formative years, for good or ill. Israel helps clients “design from within” by plumbing what forms and objects from the past have positive associations. “We all have an environmental autobiography,” she said. “Why not open this treasure chest and think consciously about what gave you pleasure?”


Last week US magazine asked Israel what the Neverland Ranch tells us about Michael Jackson. In a follow-up conversation with me, Israel said it was no coincidence that Jackson named his ranch Neverland, the home of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. “Because he was a child star he just didn’t have a normal childhood,” she said. “It seems to me he was healing his wounds by recreating the kind of place that he would have liked as a child.”


Another example of a notable figure unknowingly reacting to childhood: The architect Michael Graves grew up in Indianapolis where his father worked in a stockyard. Ten years ago Graves designed a home for himself from a warehouse in Princeton, New Jersey. Observing that the warehouse contained a series of pen-like rooms, Israel suggested to him that he may have recreated the stockyards he’d seen as a child. “To prove that I was absolutely wrong he drew the floor plan of his house,” she said. “Halfway through he dropped his pencil and said, ‘My God it’s exactly the same.'”

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