June 12, 2020 4 min read

I BELIEVE that our surroundings have a profound effect on us. At their most sublime they can move us, take us out of this world, and give us what I call "moments of transcendence."

When I was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, I often traveled on a bus across town to the Nelson Gallery of Art at weekends. I realize now that I was going there primarily not so much for the works of art themselves, but for the effect that the interiors had on me. I loved the great black marble-columned, four-story-high entrance hall, the austerity of the Egyptian gallery with its heads of Rameses and Anubis, the haunting medieval cloisters, the rich Cromwellian room, and the light-flooded Italian stone court with its marble benches and pots of oleander. The feeling of transcendence, of serenity and -- paradoxically -- of homecoming that was engendered by those spaces shaped my vision. Now, when I am designing, I return again and again to the lessons that I learned from them.

Over the years, there have been several places in which I have felt a similar mix of emotions. Living in Rome as a young man I remember the exhilaration of standing in the Pantheon as the light streamed in through the oculus above me. A few years later, when I walked through Rameses's hall in Luxor, even though the roof was missing the effect of the columns, which are 80 feet high and so vast at the base that it takes five men with arms outstretched to encircle one, swept me off my feet, elevating me from my own physicality. But perhaps the most memorable moment of all was my visit to the studio of the sculptor Brancusi. When I stepped inside I immediately became part of a reality totally different from any that existed in the outside world -- an emotional experience similar to being engulfed by a great opera or symphony. Surrounding me in the tall room were the collected works of a genius, their effect more powerful for being seen together. Sleekly polished bronzes and gleaming marbles were balanced on crude bases made from wine tourniquets. The objects in the room were covered with white marble dust and the light filtering down from the frosted glass ceiling veiled everything below in an even luminescence. I had walked into not just a room, but a work of art. I understood all at once why Brancusi always wore white clothes, why he wore that funny little hat straight out of I Pagliacci, and why his white dog drank milk and ate pale lettuce. I felt as though I had become part of the still life.

Standing there taught me that art can be not just something hung on a wall or put on a pedestal -- it can be all-encompassing, and a whole room can have as powerful an emotional effect as any work of art. It was an extraordinarily moving experience.

I felt similar a similar sensation when I first entered the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, near Rome. For me, water is the single most important element in any garden: the combination of sound and movement as well as constantly changing visual interest brings a garden to life; and here I was surrounded by water that was spouting, gushing, spilling, and cascading from an unimaginable number of jets and fountains, steps, pools, and grottoes. It had done so for four centuries, with the result that all the sculpted surfaces were covered in a velvety green moss. This, in combination with the superbly articulated site and beautifully controlled vistas, each leading to another surprise or reward, made the experience almost hypnotic in its intensity.

On a more intimate scale, but with an atmosphere almost as seductive as the Vila d'Este, is the Crowninshield garden on the old Du Pont estate in Wilmington, Deleware. Made in the 1930s to look like an Italian archaeological site with fragments and statues brought to America from Europe, it is redolent of the faded grandeur of the Roman Empire, but exerts a spell that never loses its potency.

These early experiences demonstrate the immense influence that our environments exert on our senses. This is why I think that houses should cater to our emotional needs, and why I say to clients, "If you walk into a room and it does not move you, then the room is a failure."

The reason many people seek help in designing their interior space -- aside from considerations of time -- is, I believe, because we live in a world in which people are taught how to read and how to calculate, but are not taught how to see. "Learning to see" is not part of the educational curriculum. In contrast to the emphasis placed on developing quantitative skills, and even competence in some of the other arts such as literature, it seems to me that most students' visual education is left largely immature and uninformed.

It is my wish to address this lack of visual skill, and to awaken an awareness of the potential for beauty in your surroundings, that prompted me to write this book. By presenting the keys to the door of my way of "seeing" -- the principles and guidelines that frame my design thinking -- I hope that you may be helped to develop your own powers of perception, and create an environment that will lift your spirits and nurture your soul.