Looking For Design Inspo? Why This Architect Recommends Movies, Not Magazines
Design and lifestyle magazines like Dwell and Wallpaper, Pinterest and Houzz boards, or even local real estate listings are a good place to start to get home inspiration, but note that these static images are just one aspect of space—sometimes you'll see the same prop repositioned in a new location, or several pictures of the same space from different angles, making the project look more complex when it may just be a simple countertop dividing two rooms.
The regular hodgepodge of dishes may get conveniently replaced with vintage apple-green Russel Wright dinnerware on picture day. Also, wide-angle lenses make spaces appear deceptively larger. While most magazines make an extra effort not to use this space-defying technique, computer renderings, real estate photos, and other flashy images are often unrealistic.
The insider's story on those magazine images.
I tend to treat images from design magazines and Instagram as I do models from Vogue and other influencers—they are stylized visions that have likely been manufactured and filtered to please you.
The actual model (aka space) probably looks like a version of the one in the magazine, just with more blemishes (clutter) and wearing comfortable clothes (that couch from your mom's basement). Influencer culture and design magazines have borrowed a page from fashion magazines and real estate marketing, offering staged images as a template to inspire your future stylish life.
There is an inordinate fixation on image-able space, and, admittedly, architects are among the worst offenders.
We like to create dramatic and photogenic rooms that we can put in our portfolios and get featured in publications, but sometimes the best space cannot be adequately captured by still-camera shots. I can tell you from my own experience that the pictures my professional photographer takes of my projects lend an ethereal quality to the spaces.
Most photographers like to take pictures on bright but overcast days to pick up the ambient lighting. This is not to say the homes aren't actually this nice, but the brightness is certainly enhanced, the piles of debris outside a window area are cleverly masked, and angles are maximized for the best take on a space. Power cords and outlets can get mysteriously cleaned up. White rooms tend to be easier to photograph too because you can blow out the color and make anything look bright. Dark rooms with deep tones are harder to capture and need appropriate lighting—I think this is why we don't see many dark rooms in print media.
The professional photograph is one representation of a project. Find others.
This is not to dismiss the value and fun of swiping through these images; just take them with a grain of salt. The important thing to remember is that your space should be designed for living, first and foremost. If you are designing for a two-dimensional vignette, part of the spatial ambience is lost. We live in three dimensions, so your space should be considered in such.
Movies are a little better indication of space because stories, as in real life, are the main show. Movies track movement in real time and show space for what it really is: background. It's not the main event. It can assist and enhance, but it is not the focus.
As you move around a room, flat backgrounds morph into dramatic angles, objects in the foreground may momentarily drift across your view, light bounces off of things in different ways from different vantages. The time of day changes how a space looks too. So watch some movies and see what you like.
And by movies I don’t mean design-y favorites like Diamonds Are Forever and Gattaca, unless you are designing your own personal lair. I mean regular movies or TV shows. Like Modern Family or Parenthood. Of course, movies also stylize and fetishize space, featuring dark backgrounds that don't clash with the actor's eyes or some other vague metric. But it's a little more accurate than a still shot.
So even better yet, experience some friends' homes that you like and have a conversation about what works. The architecture should almost be invisible in spaces that are really great. All you may notice is comfort, light, and the people you're with.
Adapted from an excerpt from House to Home: Designing Your Space for the Way You Live by Devi Dutta-Chowdhury (Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications © 2020).
Devi Dutta-Choudhury is a licensed architect (CA) with master’s degrees in architecture from both UCLA and Tulane University. She founded her own studio, Devi Dutta Architecture Inc., in 2008 as a response to a growing need for architecture that was modern and casual, affordable, and accessible.
Having grown up in environments as varied as the rural foothills of the Himalayas to the suburban American South, Devi is attuned to the varied lifestyles of her clients and seeks to create innovative, integrated design solutions. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works on a range of project types from mixed-use urban projects to public schools to custom homes.