Dennis Conner: A window on the psychology of space

Behavioral scientists like to debate the influences of our surroundings - colors, the layout of a room, a landscape - and how they shape us.

Indeed, British writer Lawrence Durrell once posited this notion: Pluck a group of people from anywhere in the world and deposit them, say, in the Rhone Valley, and after enough time passes they will assume the character and practices of the grape-growing natives.

Dennis Conner, an interior designer who runs his business, Design Dialogue from his residence on Capitol Hill, would no doubt feel at home with Durrell's outlook.

Conner is not an interior designer in the traditional sense, and even though he practices Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement and design, he is not easily categorized in that sense either.

"I find designers look at spaces with an eye toward pretty," he says. "Pretty is secondary to me. It needs to be energetically charged for me."

Conner has a long, pragmatic background in what he calls "compelling presentation." He earned his interior design chops working more than two decades with the Bon Marche/Macy's in the visual merchandising department, making sure everything was placed just so on the floor in order to sell.

That corporate, results-oriented background laid a firm foundation for his discovery of Feng Shui, which translates to wind and water, a few years ago. (Please see Debbie Walter's column on page 10 for a more complete treatment of Feng Shui).

But what is interesting is that Conner is not willing to concede that, design principles apply across the board. Conner's stance opens a window to one man's, and by inference, many people's, view of art, democracy and aesthetic standards.

Sure, he allows, Bach might be better than the Beatles, but not if you prefer the Beatles.

"The furnishings you already own are my tools to create one-of-a-kind environments that will reflect your lifestyle," he says.

And what if some of the furnishings are, uh, tacky?

"I'm not there to critique it," he rejoins. "If they love it I'm there to validate it."

Though, he allows, there are certain universals: "You wouldn't paint the inside of a prison cell red," he says, commenting on that color's well-documented anti-calming properties. And de-cluttering a room, he notes, is also good.

Conner works with residential and commercial spaces and prepares homes on the market to sell. The latter area is where his old retail training, and refined aesthetic touch, especially kick in. He doesn't practice "staging" in the usual sense - bringing in artwork and furnishings from the outside to spruce up a place. Rather, he works with what's already there.

Conner cites the case where a realtor friend voiced frustration about a home on the market that wasn't selling. Conner, to prove a point, offered to rearrange the existing interior tableau for free. After he did so, he says, three offers were quickly forthcoming and the owner fetched more than the asking price.

Conner believes painting a room before putting a house on the market is a potential time waster.

"Think in terms of how fluid is it (a room); to be able to just move through a space. Furniture placement and lighting are vastly superior to painting a room."

Conner grew up in an Air Force family and spent his formative years in Spokane. He remembers, as a kid, cleaning up the messes he and his brother sometimes made in their basement. Afterwards, he says, the room not only looked different but also "felt different."

After two years of study at Spokane Falls Community College, he went to work for the Bon Marche in visual merchandising in the mid-1970s. He moved around to a number of stores, including Walla Walla and the Tri Cities, and acknowledges that, young and confident in his abilities, he did not always play the corporate political game.

"I was loath to compliement mediocrity," he recalls.

Conner started Design Dialogue in 2000, around the time he first heard the term Feng Shui.

He acknowledges, "People are not necessarily open to metaphysical conversations" about topics like Feng Shui, and yet, "I do believe everyone is intuitive, but not everyone acknowledges it."

Space matters, he says. Take a hallway, for instance: "Psychologically, it is important to acknowledge when you walk down a hallway that you have the opportunity to have something beautiful at the foot of that path you walk everyday."

Conner encourages people to take a closer look at their surroundings, to understand the metaphorical properties of a hallway or other transition space along life's journey.

Sometimes, he says, it's the small touches that translate to moments of epiphany.

Conner recalls working on one office space where he had rearranged and placed everything except a bowl, which he held in his hand. Everything fit, except the bowl.

"I can't find a place for this bowl," he told his client.

"Don't worry about it," she told him. "I don't like it."

"Exactly," he replied. "Get rid of it."

Point made.

"I think of space as an art form, a canvas," Conner smiles.

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