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The Detroit News Homestyle COVER STORY: Decorating Your Home For the Senses

The Detroit News Homestyle COVER STORY // November 2019

Though we may be familiar with the five senses, there’s a lot to be said for filling a home with components that entice sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Designing with these sensations in mind heightens the experience when you spend time in a space.

For Darla Rowley, owner of Impact Home Staging Experts in Troy, decorating for the senses comes with the territory. As she explains, stagers bring balance and scale with decorative elements that create visual warmth in a vacant or dated space on the market. “Without that, it can be cold and uninviting,” she says. Though the goal is to trigger a response that leads to a better offer, any home can benefit from these concepts.

Color and style are consistent for the interiors that complement the exterior of the house. “They may not be exact, but if a home is really traditional we wouldn’t want the interiors to be uber contemporary,” says Rowley. “They need to be cohesive with a color palette that flows gracefully from one room to the next.”

Tactile elements like upholstered chairs add a soft touch to all the wood in a dining room. Textiles like pillows and comforters in a bedroom also speak to the sense of touch, while a shower curtain and towels can soften the edges in a bathroom.

Rugs can have a similar effect, especially with hardwood floors. “The underfoot touch is important,” says Rowley. These accents can also soften the sounds of a house that echoes.

First impressions

During an open house, Realtors often play music and bake cookies for prospective buyers. Appealing to the sense of sound, taste and smell works equally well for guests when entertaining.

The nose also knows when something isn’t right. “You can’t sell it if you can smell it,” says Rowley. “Smell can be really off-putting. The only thing a house should smell like is clean.” Still, you can overdo it. If the clean scent is too strong, people start to wonder what the sellers are trying to hide.

Under the touch umbrella, Rowley stresses the importance of keeping your house at a comfortable temperature for others. “Some people try to save money, but there’s nothing worse than walking into a cold house during a showing,” she says. This makes potential buyers wonder if the furnace works properly or the windows need to be replaced.

Having your lights on timers creates a warm and inviting environment at night. For more natural light during the day, Rowley suggests opening the blinds and removing heavy draperies that make a room feel darker.

Visual distractions can overwhelm the senses when people try to picture themselves in the home like one too many fishing trophies.

Instead, for a visual touch that addresses the taste buds, lifestyle vignettes create the illusion of a meal with place settings. “You want to create that feeling of home so people can see where they would eat and if their family can fit in the space,” Rowley says.

Sensory perception

According to Margaret Skinner, owner of Margeaux Interiors in Birmingham, appealing to senses like sight can be achieved by repeating an element for balance. Even an object like a vase can be repeated on a shelf for more impact. For better flow, commonalities might include paint color or trim.

Though soothing sounds come from nature, technology offers some background noise. “With your iPhone or iPad or Alexa, you always have someone to talk to,” Skinner says.
Taste and smell go together in the kitchen. Cinnamon comes to mind during the fall season, especially around Thanksgiving with all the mulled spices and pumpkin pie.

When it comes to smell, Skinner says the less chemicals the better. “Guests can be sensitive or have allergies,” she says. “Go back to nature with food or flowers.”

Touch works wonders in a neutral space where textural elements like metal and wood play against tactile textiles like velvet and linen. “When you sit on a sofa that’s soft, the warmth starts to appeal to all the senses,” Skinner says.

The feel-good home

Skinner created a sensory experience for a main floor renovation of an Ann Arbor residence. Prior to the project, she says the layout of the Tudor-style home was compartmentalized like a colonial. With a center entrance and an isolated dining room that wasn’t very family-friendly, the wall between the kitchen and dining room came down for a better flow.

The former kitchen nook became a cozy seating nook with a compact sectional and a snack bar. “It’s somewhere they can actually sit and relax,” she says. From a touch standpoint, various textures appear on accents like a faux fur pillow and a leather ottoman with nailhead trim.

A wall-mounted TV can be viewed and heard, while the snack bar covers taste and smell with refreshments. French doors lead to a patio where the sounds of nature include chirping birds and crackling leaves at this time of year.

Taste and smell are at the forefront of the kitchen where texture comes into play with the tile backsplash and a wood bowl filled with apples on the island. A mix of metals contributes to the big picture, from the accent lighting to the counter stools.

This updated dining area lays the groundwork for memorable meals to be shared by addressing all the senses. Attractive accent lighting plays an important role in the overall experience.

Structural columns embellished with an interlocking wood tile typically seen in commercial applications add an artistic visual to the open layout. They also address what Skinner dubs the sixth sense: common. “If you don’t have the columns, the house would fall down,” she says.

A series of vases form a sweet centerpiece on the dining table. “They have a textural feel to them and the flowers bring in nature. They really bring all the senses together with sight, smell and texture,” Skinner says. A bar cart adds to the visual variety. “Alcohol numbs all the senses,” she quips.

In the living room, existing features were refinished like the pale pine armoire and the fireplace mantel that were painted black for a dramatic update. A new tile surround adds texture along with a twig mirror that contrasts with the black accents and varied fabrics that warm the space. Flowers add a subtle scent, while a colorful rug lends depth and dimension.

Lastly, the powder room provides a feast for the eyes with a faceted mirror from West Elm that reflects the wallpaper. A whimsical piece of art from the client’s collection accentuates the space in the home that addresses all the senses in a sensational way.

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at