Design Tips for Creating Calm Spaces at Home

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Sacred Living's Robert Esterley merges classic design principles with holistic healing modalities in his approach.
Sacred Living’s Robert Esterley merges classic design principles with holistic healing modalities in his approach.

It’s no secret that Laguna Beach has a reputation for being a tranquil place. For those of us who are lucky enough to call this seaside city home, it can sometimes feel like we are living within the spread of a magazine. Research has even showed that spending time near the ocean has positive effects on health and well-being. In the early 1900s, doctors on the East Coast prescribed trips to Southern California and its beaches for a variety of illnesses; exposure to clean air, sunshine and a Mediterranean climate were considered simple remedies to quickly restoring physical and mental health.

But even local residents can quickly feel stressed as we get wrapped up in the pressures of daily life, making our homes more of a haven and refuge than ever before. In order to achieve a sense of well-being in these spaces, Jackie Craven, author of “The Stress-Free Home: Beautiful Interiors for Serenity and Harmonious Living,” says we need to take a simpler approach to interior design. “The atmosphere of a room is more than the sum of its decor,” Jackie writes. “Things we cannot explain or even name will exert subtle influence on your emotional state. To create spaces where you will feel at peace, listen closely to your instincts and choose details that resonate for you.”

From relaxing colors to soothing audible elements, there are myriad ways to bring calm into your personal spaces. To create a tranquil retreat, local humanitarian designer Robert Esterley advises periodically reassessing your home by asking the following questions: Am I happy with the home’s environment? Is it clean, organized and functional? Does it make me feel calm, relaxed and nurtured?

“If you answer ‘no’ to any of the questions, then it may be time for a change,” Robert says.


Making Space

Esterley removed clutter and opted for muted hues to create a sense of tranquility in this carpeted home.
Esterley removed clutter and opted for muted hues to create a sense of tranquility in this carpeted home.

Though it can be tempting to start an interior redesign by looking for new decor, experts say the first order of business is clearing out some of the belongings you already have. In whatever way we acquire our possessions—blending households, inheritance or too many shopping sprees—it can quickly pile up and encroach on our living spaces. Though it can be difficult for some of his clients to let go of things, Robert says they usually feel a sense of freedom and lightness during and after the process, when he organizes then edits out furnishings that can crowd a room.

“I believe that any environment can be less complicated by managing the daily clutter,” says Robert, who founded his design firm, Sacred Living, to merge classic design principles with holistic healing modalities. “Life is so much easier when we come home to spaces that are maintained. Making beds, putting away clothes, stacking mail and papers, and discarding periodicals takes only a few minutes out of your day. Discipline yourself and encourage loved ones so that all will benefit from the effects of entering a home or room with a sense of calm.”

Local marriage and family therapist Mary Franz points out that taking care of clutter can actually add unnecessary effort to your daily routine. “It can also create more expense, if we end up renting a storage unit for our extra stuff,” she says. Mary proposes using “your mind to empty out the room” before taking time to decide what you really want to put back into it. She also encourages clients to sort out their values in order to free themselves from guilt of letting go of certain objects during decluttering.

“For instance, if you inherited an aunt’s old china set but you’re more into urban ceramics, you need to decide if that china set is really something you want to keep,” Mary explains. She says a solution could be to give the set away, or sell it to someone who would truly treasure it.

After decluttering, the next step—which Robert says is crucial—is to thoroughly clean the home. “This allows for a connection to occur—taking pride in one’s environment,” he explains.


Indoor Oasis

A soft color palette lends itself to relaxation.
A soft color palette lends itself to relaxation.

Once a home is tidied up, Robert says he considers “all aspects of an environment as it relates to each of the senses” in order to blend functionality with a holistic approach to design. “Organization, cleanliness, flow and space planning are crucial to setting the foundation for all furnishings, lighting, window coverings, et cetera,” he explains.

Hardwood floors can offer a clean, simple look to an interior, for example, but they also can create a lot of noise. Because it has become such a normal part of our daily lives, we may not realize how much sound can adversely affect our mental state: According to the U.S.  Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, exposure to loud noise can induce physical and psychological stress. “I’d avoid too many hard surfaces where sound just bounces around,” Robert says. Instead, he recommends reducing noise with felt tabs to soften the slamming of doors and drawers, soft window coverings and rugs.

Since we often can’t eliminate noise entirely, Robert suggests using soft music or sound conditioners (like white noise machines) to mask unwanted noises. The designer has also found that meditation recordings and videos can be used to create a soothing ambience. Other ways to enhance your space with audible elements can include adding a fountain or hanging chimes in a place that attracts light breezes. For a more unique sound, Robert also suggests using singing bowls, a kind of bell with roots in Asia that produces harmonic overtones. In one Laguna Beach home, for example, he added a quartz version of the bowl to be used for relaxation and meditation as well as during massages on a table placed in the master bedroom.

To decide on color palette and lighting techniques, Mary recommends assessing each room on its own. “Some people like rooms darker, because they feel they are more calming, while others like to bring in as much sunshine as possible,” she says. “Focus on things like using mirrors to draw in more light if you feel that brightens a room. Even using a new or different color palette can help enhance one’s mood.”

Robert opts for colors that are known to affect emotions and physical well-being: Softer, paler palettes will provide a more soothing atmosphere, while bolder, brighter shades can be more stimulating. “Personally, I prefer muted colors with accents of bold colors,” Robert says. Using colored lights—often in a bath or water feature—can also add a sense of relaxation to a space. “I’ve had profound effects with it and have witnessed the overall pleasant effects it has had in rooms I’ve designed,” he says.

And because clutter has been cleared out, Robert suggests replacing objects that formerly added stress with those that are more significant, which can make you feel more relaxed and comfortable. “Sacred objects represent the most meaningful connections to those we love,” Robert says. “I’ve found that some people have them stored away and when they bring them into view, they open up positive memories, creating much needed healing. I think we need focal points in each room to remind us just how sacred life is.”


Outdoor Sanctuaries

Succulents can add to a unique and relaxing plantscape.
Succulents can add to a unique and relaxing plantscape.

Tranquil design doesn’t need to stop at your back door. Regardless of the size of the space, a well-utilized outdoor area can become a haven for relaxation. As with the indoors, outdoor spaces should be cleared of clutter and debris, and greenery should be considered. Make sure that plants are 

suitable for the climate and amount of light; just as extra clutter can create stress and more work, plants that are mismatched to their environment can demand extra time and induce frustration.

“Personally, I love working with succulents and mixing various types to create unique plantscapes,” Robert says. “This can be done by adding pea gravel, decorative rocks or crystals, and then uplighting with accent lights to create dramatic settings which can be enjoyed at night and viewed from indoors also.”

Mary says the scents of certain plants, like lavender and chamomile, can also have a calming effect. “Cut sprigs to use indoors in glass jars,” she adds as a way to bring the outside into your home. Other plants to grow are citrus, which has been known to boost energy; pine, which can lower stress; peppermint, which can increase focus and concentration; and fragrant jasmine, which can help with depression. Robert often encourages his clients to roll up their sleeves and get their hands in the soil, since gardening allows you to enjoy different textures and scents.

Finally, outdoor spaces can attract elements of nature through the incorporation of bird feeders and birdbaths, and serve as an artistic outlet. As Robert suggests, “Add garden statuary, sculptures, colored mirror balls or whatever your creative heart desires—in my book it’s all good.”

—Written by Lisa Hallett Taylor | Photos by Jody Tiongco | Interior Design by Robert Esterley

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