I feel a near-constant desire to rearrange my living space. I always thought this was just a quirky trait of mine, but after speaking with a certified feng shui expert, I learned it might have more serious implications. “Your home is an extension of who you are — a metaphor for your life,” Laura Cerrano told me. She’s the CEO of Feng Shui Manhattan, and for almost 17 years she’s been helping her clients transform their homes to better suit their personalities and intentions.
I asked her to distill the art into quick guidelines for me, a request that ultimately proved my ignorance. Feng shui, she explained, is not about rules so much as principles, the application of which varies person-to-person, takes time and requires a bunch of emotional digging. “It’s not quick, it’s hard work. If you want rich benefits, you have to put some serious thought into what you want.” In fact, one of the first things she discerns before taking on a client is how committed they seem to transforming themselves alongside their homes.
Once she does take on a client, Cerrano walks them through her version of the nine “life areas” (a common device in Western feng shui): love, fame, partnership, career, health, children and creativity, travel and helpful people, and family and knowledge. Each area has a corresponding space, element, emotion and color palette. For instance, the entryway is tied to the career-life area, and technically should be decorated with water elements and cool colors which initiate inspiration and wisdom, but the exact interpretation of the principles will vary by person. (Wood elements help you expand and grow, earth elements help you stay grounded, metal elements help with communication.) This is the more pointed and complex side of feng shui that’s best incorporated with the help of a consultant or a good deal of research.
Not all of it requires depth of knowledge, though. When it comes to optimizing energy (or chi or prana or whatever you choose to call it) in the home, Cerrano explained there are a few straightforward ways you can get started. Below, I outlined the four tips she gave me — a sort of feng shui starter kit — and used my own space as a guinea pig.
Cerrano said decluttering is the first order of business for all of her clients. “In order to add, you have to subtract,” she explained. “It’s like starting a new painting, you have to clear the palette. Reclaim the space.” She sees the aesthetic appeal of a decluttered space as secondary to the emotional benefits. “The objects you allow into your home are symbolic of who and what you allow into your life.”
Okay, let’s see what I was allowing:
This shelf in my room is a perfect example of the chaos I’d introduced to my dressing experience. The top of my bureau was okay, but it never felt quite right to me. I’d sort of just thrown this stuff here with the intention to fix it later, but I never got around to tending to it. By the way, I’m considering my room my main “living space” for the purpose of this story, since I share the rest of my apartment with roommates.
The view from the door. It all felt…fine, but not overly thought out or cared for.
Here it is post-declutter:
Reorganizing that shelf and the top of my bureau and side table was so therapeutic. And it looks much nicer, yes, but the order of it also feels nicer. I’ve started treating my space with more respect. The newfound tidiness has inspired me to be more mindful of how I interact with my things.
2. Arrange your furniture in commanding positions
I told Cerrano I’d once heard that the bed should face the wall with the door on it. Like all my preconceived notions about feng shui, this was slightly off-base. It’s less about a specific wall, she explained, and more about what feels right. “In the Western method of feng shui, its recommended that you position your furniture — desk, bed, couch, chairs, seating — in a commanding position. To have them against a ‘mountain wall,’ because you want a mountain at your back for support.”
During our call, she explained she could see both her dining room entrance and foyer entrance from where she was sitting on her couch in her living room. “I feel comfortable and protected because I know who and what is coming in, and I feel more receptive to the energy moving through the house.”
You know when you enter a restaurant and there is a certain part of the room and even specific spot at the table that just intuitively feels like the best place to sit? Cerrano explained that’s the same intuition you should listen to when arranging furniture.
Here’s what I was working with before:
Furniture layout was a big issue for me. I knew the setup in my room was all wrong but I had no idea how else to position it (the space is fairly small). Per above, the bureau is to the left of my bed, the closet is to the right, the window is in front of it and the door is behind it. If I was in bed, I couldn’t see who was coming in. To get to my bureau, I had to literally climb over my bed or cat’s litter box.
This setup was just bad. I knew the “mountain wall” was the one my bureau was against; I could just feel it, per the restaurant analogy. But I also knew putting my bed there would cause bureau complications. I spent hours moving stuff around — to no avail — before I finally gave the “commanding position” thing a shot. But if I wanted to be able to open the drawers, I knew that would mean putting the bureau in what is essentially the middle of the room. Weird.
…but brilliant? It totally worked:
(I still sleep next to my cat’s litter box. That remains an unmitigated disaster.)
The space feels infinitely better this way, particularly from the vantage point of my bed, a perspective I hadn’t considered enough. When I get into bed and when I wake up, I feel much more centered and at peace.
So does Bug. ^^^
3. Define energy spaces
Cerrano pointed out that none of us are in a static emotional state when we’re home, nor do we want to be. Sometimes we want to feel motivated or creative or contemplative; our home setup should reflect that. Unfortunately, spaces are often built or arranged in a way that disperses energy too quickly or promotes an unfavorable mix of it. “A lot of homes have a stairway right by the front door, for example, which creates a sweeping energy that’s not ideal.” She told me there are tricks to combat this, though, like hanging a piece of art on the wall above the stairs to keep the eye from immediately traveling upward.
Tighter spaces present different issues. “In studios or small apartments, a lot of areas tend to flow together; you’ll want to find ways to keep the energy fields separate however you can,” Cerrano said.
This was ultimately how I justified placing the bureau at the foot of my bed, despite it seeming like an awkward choice. It felt jarring initially, but after I got used to it, I cherished the energy split. Now my room almost feels like it’s comprised of two separate spaces: a bed nook (above) and dressing area (below).
I no longer have to do parkour over a bin of cat poop to grab a T-shirt. Big feng shui win.
4. Assess your art
Cerrano advised, “Take a look at the artwork you have chosen and ask yourself: ‘Does this display the kind of energy I am looking to bring into my life?'” She told a story of a client who’d expressed his desire to find a female partner, but who had two paintings on his wall that were of a man and a woman turned away from each other looking sad. The paintings were from a past relationship, he didn’t even like them and one of the frames had a crack. “I can’t make this up!,” she joked. Another client had an urn on her shelf that was empty, meaningless and which she’d bought years ago and didn’t like. An urn! Cerrano says this sort of mindlessness around decor is more common than you’d think.
“Assess the art in your home as if you were a gallery owner,” she explained. “Does each piece of art relate to you feeling uplifted and motivated? Make sure all objects in your home are speaking to you and saying the right thing.”
This was more about adding than subtracting for me. I had little art in my room, but I hadn’t put much care into displaying it, and some I’d stowed away for no reason. So, after decluttering and rearranging, I took care to decorate in a more intentional way.
Some of my favorite books now surround my bed (on a white shelf I’d let sit on the floor for months and finally hung up) alongside a rat lamp (never taken out of its box) (I love rats), a golden cat statue (lost to clutter), red felt coasters (sitting on my desk at work, uncherished) and two illustrations I love by Leah Reena Goren (hidden under my bed).
I moved this Wool Gather hanging (which is so cool and reminds me of a beard) from Anomie back into my room from the living room, where it wasn’t holding much presence. Same goes for the wooden hand I bought from Tate Modern last year. Both bring me an inexplicable sense of grounded calm and had been a little forgotten. I also took more care to rearrange what was on my bureau so it felt like a little collection of beloved knick-knacks, rather than junk I’d found no place for.
That’s it! Feng shui for beginners, sure, but not without a pretty significant outcome. Decluttering my stuff, rearranging my furniture, defining energy spaces and reassessing the art in my room totally transformed the space and the way I feel (and even act) when I’m in it. And I didn’t buy a single thing! These tips aren’t so different from ones you’d come across in an interior decorating context, but the difference for me was how many of the decisions I made were emotional or intuitive rather than aesthetically driven.
That also means I’m not done. She left me with this: “Feng shui is a long process that involves checking in with yourself and making sure your home reflects who you are. If you are changing as a human and spiritual being, there is a very good chance you’re going to want to update your environment as that happens as well. Changing your home can be a way of moving on from the past, too. Remember the benefits are in the process. Thinking about your desires and intentions and how you’d like those to manifest is one of the most important parts of feng shui.”
Visit Laura Cerrano’s website here. Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.