Staying in your comfort zone
Fashion has always influenced our homes but form over function can mean years of discomfort
If you want to predict the next interiors trend, look to the catwalk. The colours, patterns, and textures sold to us today for our homes were first seen in the fashion industry. Within a couple of years, the designs filtered through to homeware. It's a commonly accepted chain of influence and, on a decorative level, it's all good fun. But the power that fashion wields over interiors isn't always benign.
In fashion, appearance trumps comfort. For example, it's commonly accepted that stylish shoes can give you sore feet. If the shoes look good, people will buy them anyway. This is a problematic attitude on many levels, but it's a pervasive one. And, as soon as we start thinking about interiors in this way, we're in trouble.
Most people can afford more than one pair of shoes. You might buy a stylish-but-uncomfortable pair for public appearances and something cosier to wear at home. But few people can afford more than one sofa. If you choose one that looks good, but isn't nice to sit on, you're setting yourself up for years of discomfort.
As a journalist, I've been to a great many homes that looked spectacular on the pages of magazines. But would I want to live there? No I would not! Quite a few of them were bleak unfriendly places. They were designed to be looked at, not to be lived in.
"We tend to accentuate vision - how something looks - and forget the importance of tactility," says Tom Dyckhoff, design critic and presenter of the BBC's Great Interior Design Challenge. "Design isn't just about how something looks to the eye - it's about how it feels to the fingertips as well." He's one of a growing number of interiors professionals who emphasise the importance of comfort in the home. For a recent project with the sofa company DFS, Dyckhoff curated a living room to showcase the importance of making the home a comfortable place to be. Many of his choices are based on tactility. "Natural materials feel better. Wood is the classic, of course, as well as stone, brick, and warmer metals like copper and bronze. But don't forget handmade tiles, cork, terracotta, wicker, bamboo and rattan." He's also a fan of greenery. "Just the sight of a plant - even a photograph of one - has been proven to reduce stress."
It's also important, in terms of comfort, to keep technology in its place.
"Digital technology tends to bleed into our homes. Nothing is less comforting than an email from the boss pinging at 9.34pm, when you're two glasses into a bottle of red." He suggests keeping gadgets in the background, preferably in natural materials and colours. And, of course, there has to be a sofa. "Personally, I'm looking for a combination of firmness and softness," Dyckhoff says. "Some sofas are so soft that it's like sitting on a pile of marshmallows. Others are so hard and prim and upright that you feel as though you're waiting for the doctor."
The hearts of salespeople must sink when they see him coming. Dyckhoff sounds as difficult to satisfy as Goldilocks. "I've done a lot of sofa hunting in my time," he confesses. "It's important to set aside enough time to make the choice." He's right to be choosy. A sofa is a big purchase and it's all too easy to be intimidated by a salesperson. Eventually, Dyckhoff found a sofa that was neither too hard nor too soft. It's a four-seater called the Serengeti and it's available in DFS for €1,699 from October 31. The range also includes a cuddler (€1,149) and a large footstool (€449).
Lighting has a huge influence on the atmosphere of a room and Dyckhoff likes to build it up in layers. "Think about orchestrating the light to create a rhythm and tempo, just as you do in music." The brightest source of light in a room provides a focal point - that's the top note. The mid note comes from specific task lighting, like a reading lamp beside an armchair. The base note is ambient light. "That's the lowest in terms of wattage but the most important in creating mood."
The layering idea also works with soft furnishings. Shops like Next and House of Fraser are full of blankets, throws, cushions, and rugs in tactile materials: wool, chunky knits, sheepskin, corduroy, flannel and velvets. The online boutique Audenza has a range of velvet-upholstered furniture and accessories in eccentric colours. I fancy the Tibetan sheepskin rug (€153) in dusky pink or Caspian blue.
In terms of comfort, window treatments are hugely important.
"Window treatments can make or break the look of a room," says George Clarke, presenter of the Channel 4 series Amazing Spaces Shed of the Year. "Be clear about whether yours is a purely design-focused move, or about light control, privacy or heat insulation before you even start looking at options. Then stick to your objective. Otherwise, you'll end up with something that might look good but doesn't do the job you wanted it to do."
In a recent project with Hillarys, supplier of window dressings, Clarke emphasises the importance of choosing a window treatment that suits the room. If insulation is a priority, made-to-measure curtains (from €180) will help to keep the room warm.
"They'll also change the acoustics in a room, making it feel more intimate and cosy." Where space is tight, Clarke suggests layering up two different types of blinds - a white roller blind (from €60) for privacy with a blackout Roman blind (from €201). For drafty period houses with bay windows, Clarke recommends made-to-measure shutters. Shutters from Hillarys cost €536 per square metre in its off-the-peg colour range but, for an extra €28 per panel, you can have the blinds custom-coloured.
As with shoes, it is possible to combine style with comfort. You just have to be prepared to shop around.
See dfs.ie, hillarys.ie, audenza.com, next.ie, and houseoffraser.co.uk.