Getting ambient

This is a companion article to that.

It's about a few very basic pointers on things that can help create a more supportive ambience for our listening spaces. My wife grew up in a Brooklyn brownstone. One of its flats was occupied by an older Chinese couple. They made their living working as accredited Feng Shui consultants around the city. They took a liking to Ivette whose mother worked as a nurse so was absent during the day.

Ivette accompanied these experts on many of their day trips to various homes and clients. There she watched them work in situ rearranging items, adding or removing others, proposing makeovers. She heard their explanations on why they did or recommended very specific things. By way of direct exposure, Ivette absorbed an early quite instinctual appreciation for this ancient way of placement and energy flow.

Much later reading books on the subject filled in her understanding. This still more intuitive than formal sense of the art has informed how we selected, laid out then decorated the various rentals we lived in over the last 30 years in the US, Cyprus, Switzerland and now Ireland. Because of her natural affinity with these basics, I've watched them turn into very practical action for a long time now. It's honed my own sensitivity to the feel and flow of a room's energy, to spotting zones of emptiness, conflict or blockage and how to achieve a better sense of harmony and balance.

If you wish to read up on Feng Shui, Ivette recommends starting with the following three books:

♦ For the very practical side of it, begin with Karen Rauch Carter's Move your stuff, change your life [Simon & Schuster].

♦ For the spiritual aspects of it, continue with Andrew Juniper's wabi sabi – the japanese art of impermanence [Tuttle Publishing].

♦ To round out the topic, Ivette points us at Soetsu Yanagi's The Beauty of Everyday Things [Penguin].

Reading this triptych won't make you a Feng Shui expert just as assembling your first system won't make you a sonic sensei or attending a weekend seminar won't attain mastery in anything. To Ivette's mind, these three books will simply give you a beginner's base from which to explore further and expand. Then you'll already have a good sense of discrimination to determine which follow-on books to pursue and how to start applying the basic principles of Feng Shui to your own places of living and work.

During a brief woodworking apprenticeship I did a very long time ago, the one thing its shop owner impressed upon me which stayed to this day was to keep our tools sharp, our workplace clean and tidy. The same applies to our listening space. Our experience in it is its work product. To produce quality work relies on a well-served space. It should enhance not oppose the listening process.

For most, this type of monochromatic décor without a single personal item or plant lacks life. Yet many listening rooms I've seen looked just like it. I think we can do better.

♣ Mirrors. What free room gain does for bass, mirrors do for light. They add lumen gain by reflecting so amplifying light. Particularly rooms with limited sun exposure can much benefit from strategically placed mirrors to reflect the light that does enter into the space's darker areas. Mirrors also add a sense of space to make a small room feel bigger. Our eyes penetrate the mirror's surface and follow the depths of what it shows.

Plenty of personal items in the wall shelving anchor this space to its owners' shared memories.

♣ Colored light. Candle light and fire places enjoy universal appeal for comfort and romance. Himalayan salt lights use mostly rock salt from Pakistan's Khewra mine in the Punjab. Rough small blocks get hollowed out so that a light bulb fixed to a round wood plinth can illuminate the salt from inside. The result is a lovely orange hue suggestive of fire without any open flames or heat. It's an instant mood creator. Many of these lamps have dimmers to dose the effect. For multi hues we use Moroccan mosaic lamps and, most sophisticated of all, Chinese Tiffany-style lamps.

It's how little money can bring into our room a bit of the illuminated stained-glass effect of churches. Color-changing light bulbs with a credit-card remote let ordinary lamps radiate many different hues with the click of a button. Light spreads through and fills our room like sound. Its intensity and hue have immediate transformative effects. The right choices will instantly set the desired feel and mood. Why limit ourselves to standard white light only?

This Victorian room will probably strike most of us as outdated and stuffy but it still demonstrates great deliberation in its choice of carpet, wall paper, curtains and blinds.

♣ Carpets, rugs, curtains. Ask someone about the biggest human organ. It's easy to overlook the skin. Likewise for a room's walls and ceiling. They're its biggest surfaces. Their colors set our overall tone. If we rent, painting walls and ceiling anything other than plain white or eggshell forces us to repaint when we move. Then it's more sensible to work with the next-largest surface of the floor. Even if a rental has wall-to-wall carpet not parquet, tile or concrete, we can use our own carpets or rugs to establish different core colors. Those can be picked up, enhanced or contrasted by curtains. That works even if our windows already have shutter blinds. We needn't actually draw curtains. Just hanging on either side of a window adds big patches of color, texture and pattern. If we live in Spain to look through bougainvillea-rimmed windows at citrus trees and azure skies, we could feel less starved for interior colors than we do living in a more overcast rainy climate or an inner city. Either way, using the big surfaces of walls, floor, ceiling and curtains for strategic colors and patterns paints in broad strokes. If we opt for solid colors or muted patterns, a few throw pillows will inject louder accents in small doses to not get too busy.

A rich blue wall, one lamp for effects and shadows, one colorful photo, one manicured bonsai tree – it's very basic but creates an immediate effect.

♣ Plants. They're alive. They grow and change. They produce oxygen. Not using interior plants even trees deprives us of most excellent company, never mind sonic diffusors. If we don't have a green thumb or sufficient light, mixing up real with artificial plants is an excellent option. We can even spruce up a leafy-green plant with silk flowers in the same pot to weave in colors that won't wilt. Just think of the instant sense of served comfort when tables in a restaurant or java bar sport flowers. Why not do the same for our listening room?

A busy black'n'white wall treatment mirrored by a zebra-print cow skin sets off the green of the plants and brown of the wood furnishings in high contrast.

♣ Travel photos. Computer and cellphone users love to install photos of exotic locales as screen backdrops. We can do the same for our room by framing a really big photo of a palmed beach in the Maldives or a picturesque fjordic coast line in Norway. Travel-agency posters can be an easy resource. Whatever our personal idea of earthly paradise, we can frame and hang it to become a virtual window into that dream world.

Some watch examples for how professional designers combine colors.

Mixed materials. Metal, wood, stone, glass, plastic, leather and fabric all have their own qualities. Too much of one can skew the mix like putting too much of a particular spice in a stew. Taking stock of what materials we currently have in play and what might be absent or overly abundant is another lens through which we can look then adjust.

An explosion of complementary colors created by a few pillow covers for a touch of Rajasthan.

♣ Mementos. Just as certain music carries a personal charge because it connects us to a specific time and place important to our life, so do certain mementos carry a charge. They personalize and energize space. Aside from their aesthetic expression, they won't mean a thing to anyone else. To us meanwhile they become active reminders of bygone parts of our lives. It's meaningful to surround ourselves with such reminders. It keeps us connected to more of us.

Little says 'home' like a jacket or coat you just wore getting in.

♣ Clothing. In my last upstairs listening den, I used wall and door hooks to hang up some sports coats in plain sight. They not only added color and texture but doubled as very basic wall treatment. Who says that every bit of clothing must be hidden in an armoire or closet? A well-worn pair of boots in the right spot can add an instant accent of at-home coziness. The trouble with most interior design photos as embedded here is that they're too neat, too done. One worries about actually stepping inside and getting anything out of order. That's not comfort. That's stilted arrangement. Just so, this very short stack of Pixabay photos represented very different aesthetics already. If you don't yet know your own style, rummage through magazines in this sector. That'll help identify elements which you find attractive. Next time you eat out in a favorite place, pay attention to the décor and its little details. Recognize why you find this particular place inviting. Then duplicate some of it in your own place.

This less than 1.5m² area in my upstairs room feels like a miniature garden and really makes me want to sit there and listen to this compact headfi. Wall art by Ivette.

It's very basic stuff. Just so, it can enhance the quality of our experience in it. So it's sensible to pay attention to basics. As with our hifi choices, it's only ourselves we must please. Anything goes. At times we're simply not aware of the full breadth of options at our disposal. Doing a bit of reconnaissance on the subject then is lovely homework for adults…