Inviting Interiors

BY DAWN KLINGENSMITH ON APRIL 27TH, 2017

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Unlike real estate agents who use the term loosely, interior designers are generally earnest in their attempts to define what gives a home charm. Two new books released this spring by the same New York publisher are devoted to that very purpose.

As each makes clear, it’s easier to assemble a showcase of charming homes than to describe what makes them so.

“I sort of define charm by what it is not. Charm is not about impressing,” says Susan Sully, author of “Houses with Charm: Simple Southern Style” (Rizzoli, 2013). “Houses with charm don’t say, ‘Look at me!’ They say, ‘Live in me.’ They’re inviting.”

When she began scouting houses to feature in her book, Sully found that all manner of architecture and styles might qualify because charm is defined not by appearances but by “an unaffected spirit that puts people at ease.”

Charm finds expression in houses old and new, and in interiors that are traditional or modern. A Greek Revival mansion and a modest cottage can both charm occupants because “charm is more of an attitude than an aesthetic,” Sully explains. “When a person is charming, you feel like you can let your guard down. A charming house does that. It puts you at ease.”

How is this sense of ease accomplished?

“It mostly depends on how well elements of the environment address matters of practicality and function,” says Jane Schwab, co-author of “The Welcoming House: The Art of Living Graciously” (Rizzoli, 2013). “A gracious or charming home tends to have obvious places for people to sit comfortably, obvious places to put down a drink, obvious places to read.”

Finishes and materials are selected with approachability and sensory engagement in mind. Even in a grand home, Schwab and co-author Cindy Smith like the look and feel of sisal rugs and use silks and velvets sparingly.

Touchable objects are a must. Mix textures so eyes and fingertips can light on “something soft, something sleek, something with a distinctive weave, and maybe just a bit of leather,” they suggest.

Also incorporate nuances and details that do not call attention to themselves but create an element of surprise when people come upon them, such as curtains with a scalloped hem.

Perhaps the richest source of charm in a home are “the things that separate the house from anyone else’s — the artwork, the way they arrange flowers,” Smith says.

If a space lacks charm, “it is probably missing something that expresses personality,” Sully says. “On my mantelpiece I have a nest I picked up on a walk. I have things here and there that I love because they are beautiful and spark a memory. These aren’t things from a catalog.”

This Newport Beach home displays elements of charm with inviting textures and personalized details. Image courtesy Warren Sheets Design / Mark Lohman Photography

On the other hand, there are elements that inviting homes should avoid. Clutter chokes the charm right out of a room, Schwab says: “It’s important to create negative space so that the eye has an opportunity to rest and appreciate what it’s going to see next.” She adds that special objects take on greater significance and charm “when they are fewer and far between.”

An overhead fixture as the single source of light is another “charm killer,” she says. Have three levels of lighting – table lamps, floor lamps or sconces, and overhead fixtures.

Schwab, Sully and Smith live and work in the South, but their definition of charm — as indefinable as it is — is shared by designers in other regions.

“To me, charming represents a combination of items, such as memories, beautiful collections and more, that create our own personal visual patina,” says Warren Sheets, of Warren Sheets Design in San Francisco. “A charming space is warm and inviting with plenty of personal style.”

Don’t be fooled, though. Charm in the real estate world is wholly different from the world of design, decorating or remodeling. The word “charming” in real estate listings usually is a red flag signaling that a property is small, cramped and perhaps outdated. Studying Chicago listings, the authors of the bestselling book “Freakonomics” found that the term correlates with less desirability and lower sales prices.

How charming is that?

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