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Nine tips on how to turn a living room Zen

Local designer gives advice on creating calming interiors

In today's hurried times, a home's living space is often the only, and quickest, escape from the stress of daily life, according to interior design specialist Christina Pahl. And to turn that space into a calming interior is possible by applying Zen principles to home design.

"In Zen, you don't look for beauty in the same way that you look for it in Western art or in Western interiors," Pahl said as she explained the Japanese idea of Zen and its design principles. "(Zen design) is about being selective, being quiet, highlighting what is inherently there. ... There is nothing superfluous; it's simple, it's clean, it has every part of that for its function."

Pahl, who has worked with implementing Zen design in interiors through multiple projects, explains through nine pieces of advice how readers can turn their living rooms Zen.

1. Get rid of clutter

As unexpected as it may sound, Zen design is often not about what is added to a place to make it perfect but what is taken away, according to Pahl.

"We reach perfection when there is nothing else to remove. So that sets the tone. It's elimination, not adding," she said.

Pahl noted that usually the most challenging part of this principle is stopping household clutter because it means reducing possessions and not having everything out. However, that is the overriding element in Zen, she said.

"The biggest thing is to get rid of clutter," Pahl said. "Leave the things that have the most meaning or ... that add to the room in an important way and everything else goes. Just that will transform the space."

2. Use natural and authentic materials

Naturalness comes in many forms; one of them is using natural and authentic materials such as wood, clay and metal, Pahl said. The opposite case occurs with foil finishes in which "you're pretending it's wood when it's cluster, you're pretending it's marble when it's not," she explained.

3. Achieve stillness with horizontals

Pahl believes that being selective with what to include and leaving out excessive drama are crucial in Zen design.

"Let's say in a traditional setting you get drama by putting in big red drapes, but here we're getting drama by the white wall and we're so struck by its emptiness that it's dramatic and it's calming," she said.

Horizontals are often very useful in creating a still and peaceful atmosphere, according to Pahl. Horizontal figures, such as a long dark table in a white living room, add tranquility to the space. People would want to avoid vertical structures of traditional English design, such as paintings stacked up vertically one on top of another on a wall, she added.

"Horizontals are very calming. ... It's the feeling of horizon, it's the feeling of a wave; it's soothing because it's the flat line. So, strong horizontals in a room bring everything kind of quiet. You can do that with paint, furniture (or) color," Pahl said.

4. Wabi-sabi: Appreciate imperfection

Imperfect may not sound astounding at first, but Pahl invites readers to imagine an old, weathered farm table with marks of work and life on it.

"We look at it and we go, 'it's just wonderful,' because it's aged and it's an antique, and the wear on it is a good thing; it's not detracting from its value or its beauty," she noted. "Some objects lend themselves really well to imperfection."

The idea behind using imperfect objects — coming from the Japanese school of thought Wabi-sabi — is to make the space "feel human" rather than mechanical. Therefore, Zen-inspired interior design differs from certain minimalistic approaches where the space might feel cold or lacking naturalness and imperfection.

"If we're in something that's super perfect, we don't want to mess it up, ... we feel like we're invading the space," Pahl added.

5. Out of ordinary: Change the context

"Take things kind of out of their ordinary use and make something a little unexpected," Pahl suggested. One example is taking a handmade pitchfork from a farmhouse and displaying it up on the living room wall.

"You change the context for something, you're showing its beauty," she said. "So that's a little bit of surprise, a little bit of unexpected, changes your preconceived ideas of what belongs on a wall, what's worthy to look at, so you're changing the perception or feeling of that kind of space."

6. Bring in plants but be selective

Plants and other elements from nature are definitely an important component in Zen-inspired living rooms; however, their use is "not haphazard," Pahl noted. So the idea is not a fern in a pot sitting on the floor; it requires "a little more selectivity," she said.

"Look at (the plant) for its movement, for its color of green, for how it captures the light, ... the scale of the leaf," she said, adding that some favorite plants in Zen are orchids, bamboo and bonsai. "Another thing people can do is ... just cut off one leaf as opposed to the whole thing. So you're taking nature but you're selective, and you're showing nature in a different way ... so it's nature but it's nature that is selected, described, articulated — not this random (thing)."

7. Use natural colors but throw in accents

The coloring in Zen design tends to be natural (such as white, brown or tan) but with punctuations of color every now and then, according to Pahl. Among natural colors, "maybe we throw in some red as an accent," she added.

What people would want to avoid, however, is "an exuberant play of color and pattern," including colors like neon or gaudy pink. The accent color in Zen-inspired rooms should be "understated, subtle and put in just for a little bit of drama," Pahl said.

8. Sit on the floor

Leaving the comfort of a couch may seem daunting but sitting on the floor makes a person feel more grounded — literally. This is what Pahl advises homeowners: if they are comfortable, sit as close to the ground as possible. If cushions do not work, lower Italian sofas might be a better alternative.

9. Insert water and fire features

The calming effect of a babbling water fountain is undeniable; however, not everyone may have the space or resources to implement one in their living room. Pahl suggests bringing in small-scale features such as a portable mini-fountain to the living room. "It changes the environment and calms you right away," Pahl said. If possible, incorporating a fireplace also tends to have a similar impact.

According to Pahl, turning a living room Zen will not necessarily put a hole in a homeowner's wallet.

"You can find a lot of this everywhere," she said. "You could be on the beach and find a beautiful driftwood piece and put it on your table by itself so that you can see it not as a piece of driftwood but for its asymmetry and its beauty. Or you could bring in some rocks and put a rock on top of your napkins."


Sevde Kaldiroglu is an editorial intern at the Palo Alto Weekly.

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4 people like this
Posted by Superstition
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 1:35 pm

It cannot hurt to try this, but their is NO scientific proof to any of this..., but if it soothes superstitions, go for it.

Posted by Space
a resident of Palo Alto High School

on Oct 9, 2015 at 2:54 pm

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