Feng shui has been around for millennia among the Chinese, although now it is becoming more and more popular in western culture. While many Asian-inspired pieces of décor are often labeled “fengshui,” that is not necessarily the case – in other words, just because something is Chinese doesn’t make it inherently part of the feng shui thought. So, then, what is feng shui? We will discuss what feng shui is, and what it isn’t, in this article. But more than that, we’ll look at how this ancient Chinese directive can, and does, apply beautifully and seamlessly to modern interiors.
What is Feng Shui?
First of all, what, exactly, is feng shui? Translated, feng means wind; shui means water. Wind and water are considered opposites, but, in Chinese culture, both are important for good health. Wind and water are both large parts of the natural world, which is critical because the earth is considered to be alive and filled with energy, known as qi.
Simply put, feng shui (pronounced “fengshway”) is, in Chinese thought, a system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy. Breaking that down, we learn that feng shui offers precise and specific recommendations to maximize one’s space, both in look and feel, and to enhance positive energy.
Another way to look at feng shui is this: it is both an art and a science, developed more than 3,000 years ago in China, and adhered to by many across the globe still today. Feng shui is complex in its teachings of energy balance, but it is simple in its goal, which is to assure good fortune for people inhabiting that space. Of course, good fortune doesn’t look the same for everyone, everywhere.
Some people desire better health, others wealth, some improved relationships, etc. The list goes on and is as unique as individuals are. This is partly why feng shui is so complex – it addresses all these circumstances of fortune and has rules to enhance each aspect. Feng shui centers on five elements as one of its core and basic principles.
The Five Elements of Feng Shui
The five elements of feng shui are: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each of these elements is represented by a specific color, which is one of the easiest and most common ways to begin to incorporate feng shui into your interior.
The color of wood element is green.
The color of fire element is red.
The color of earth element is brown.
The color of metal element is white.
The color of water element is blue.
Although they each are represented by their own color, these five feng shui elements interact with each other complexly and necessarily. These interactions, or ways of relating to each other, can be divided up into cycles. The two main cycles are the productive cycle and the destructive cycle.
In the productive cycle, each element supports another, which in turn supports another, until the cycle is complete. For example, wood supports the fire element, fire supports the earth element, earth supports the metal element, metal supports the water element, and water supports the wood element…and so it goes, in a cycle of creation that is, essentially, productive.
Conversely, the destructive cycle is one where the elements break each other down. (Photo is not indicative of the destructive cycle.) For example, wood weakens the earth element, earth weakens the water element, water weakens (or completely destroys) the fire element, fire weakens/melts the metal element, and metal weakens/cuts the wood element. Bam. No more elements in the destructive cycle. You can see why this would have an adverse effect on a space’s positive qi.
Knowing these five elements of feng shui, and how they can enhance or weaken each other, is key to being able to incorporate feng shui decorating techniques into any space. This is important, whether you know it or not, in modern interiors as much as it is in Chinese spaces.
How to Use Feng Shui Elements in Modern Interiors
As we’ve discussed already in this article, decorating with feng shui rules in mind is a powerful technique to maximize the good feeling and aesthetic (we’ll call this energy) in a space. While we need to keep all five feng shui elements in mind while decorating, ensuring that their relationship is productive and not destructive, we’ll take a look at each of the elements alone to see how they work in modern interiors.
There are specific places to use these elements in true feng shui decorating, although we will not be discussing the elements’ specific recommended placement here.
Feng Shui Wood Element: Growth & Vitality
The wood element in feng shui incorporates energy of vitality, expansion, and far-reaching vision. Pause for a minute and reflect on what these concepts mean to you and to your space. What does the energy of life, abundance, growth, steadiness, and survival look like to you?
The wood element is green, although it’s brown, too. Wood element is progress, upward, joyful, growing, and grounded all at once. When you consider a healthy plant, you’ll recognize that its health is a result of deep roots, of the plants stretch in the air toward the sun and sky. Balancing the critical grounding role of the roots with the ever-expanding growth upward creates a really amazing and uplifting energy.
That is the sort of energy that wood element can bring into your space when used in accordance with the productive feng shui principles.
Wood feng shui element is an important decorating tool for positive energy when your vision is cloudy or doubtful, when energy is low or nonexistent, when you are feeling stagnant, when you’re confused, or when you simply need a boost in health or abundance in life.
When decorating with feng shui elements, such as wood element, in your modern interior, you’ll want to consider color, shape, and specific décor. Wood element is incorporated beautifully via green and brown colors, rectangles, and healthy plant life. Consider a potted plant, green area rug, brown throw pillows, or artwork that incorporates forest-y images.
Feng Shui Fire Element: Passion & Success
While literal fire is part of the fire element in feng shui, it is not the only component. Realistically, the energy of the fire element actually stems from the energy of the bright sun. Does that change this element in your mind? Think happy sunshine, warm celebrations, and exhilarating achievements.
Along with those celebratory, energetic moments, strong fire element also brings with it passion, romance, and sexual desire. Fire is warming, nourishing, and sustaining.
Just as the sun makes it possible for life to exist on this earth, fire element makes it possible for positive energy to exist in a space. Without fire element, the bright, happy feng shui energy would simply not exist. Sit for a moment and reflect on what fire element means to you and your space.
The success of incorporating this element depends on your ability to identify when and where to use it boldly, when and where to use it sparingly, and when and where to completely avoid it. Fire element is the warmth and cozy glow of a candle or a fire in the hearth. Yet it is also the heart-pumping siren of “danger” or “stop.”
Fire feng shui element is an important decorating tool for positive energy when you need a creative or motivational boost, when you feel cold and/or alone, or when you crave attention and recognition. Basically, if you’re feeling weak in certain areas, the fire element will surround you with strength to help you through.
Fire feng shui element is represented by deep and bold colors – red, orange, yellow, purple, magenta, pink. It is expressed best in pointy shapes, such as triangles and stars, and by using actual fire-related décor items. Surprise, surprise. You might consider magenta candles, yellow lamps, artwork incorporating actual fire, red rugs or carpet, etc.
Feng Shui Earth Element: Stability & Nourishment
Earth feng shui is critical in interior design. Of course, all five elements are important because they support each other and would tumble like dominoes if one were removed. But earth is particularly important for spaces that need positive energy in the areas of stability, support, trust, patience, and nourishment.
Our lives and even the world as we know it have a tendency to pick up the pace, either instantaneously or gradually, and become a hectic whirlwind of lists and tasks and responsibilities and needs. In online efforts to connect, we can find ourselves becoming more and more disconnected and isolated. Earth element in feng shui is a very real decorating tool that combats this artificial life.
Earth element, no pun intended, grounds us. We come back to ourselves in a calm and reassuring way. Our efforts, in all areas of life, are stabilized and supported within the scope of earth element. It is nurturing, protective, strong, sustaining, healing, and patient.
Note: In feng shui, the earth element is supported (or produced) by the fire element. The connection between these two elements is strong, which means that where earth element is present in your home, fire element should be present as well, at least a little bit. What does earth element feel like to you, in your life and in your space? If you feel it deadening your outlook, you might need less earth element and more fire or water element.
Earth feng shui element is an important decorating tool for when you need to feel centered and at peace, when you need support and steadiness in your creativity and responsibilities, and anyplace where steadiness and consistency will enhance your outlook. This could be in relationships, your work, or your health, which are important areas to identify so you can coordinate earth element’s usage in appropriate spaces in your home.
Earth feng shui element is represented by brown, taupe, sand, and cream (and all the colors in between). Shapes are balanced, such as a square, or wavy, and objects that incorporate earth element include crystals, stones, and pottery. You could incorporate earthy landscapes into your artwork, although remember the focus is on earth and not water or trees. Earth element décor could include pottery, taupe furniture, landscape art, and/or sandy area rugs.
Feng Shui Metal Element: Clarity & Ease
While the love of color in décor is a very real (and necessary) thing, there is something about the color white that infuses a space with unmatchable calm, lightness, purity, freshness, and crispness. Metal element brings with it serenity and peace to a space and enhances that very energy along with it.
But it’s not all touchy-feely, this metal feng shui element. It depicts efficiency, preciseness, clarity, and discipline just as much as purity. Ironically, despite its discipline, metal element is often misused in décor. Either it is used too abundantly to create a cold, sterile (albeit pretty) space, or it is used too sparsely to create an energetic space that lacks structure or necessary visual “white space.”
Sit with that thought for a minute. What does metal element look and feel like to you? What does it mean for your space? Are you inadvertently misusing the element, swinging too far to one side of the balance spectrum?
Metal feng shui element is an important decorating tool for when you need crisp, dynamic energy or clarity of purpose and vision, when you are feeling overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, when you find yourself battling lethargy and apathy, or when you need clarity of direction.
Metal feng shui element is represented with white and grey, in a variety of finishes from matte to metallic. Shapes represented well with metal element are round, and many metal décor pieces automatically incorporate metal element into a space to provide a fresh, strong, and cooling energy. Décor might include pieces such as white pillows, grey wall décor, metal objects, white rugs, etc.
Feng Shui Water Element: Flow & Freedom
It is no surprise that water, along with its naturally gentle and graceful state, can be incredibly powerful. Water is actually one of the most powerful forces of nature, with two opposing outcomes – powerful healing or merciless destruction – and this is evident when the water element is integrated into a space.
It is interesting to note that water is the only one out of feng shui’s five elements that can (and does) exist in different states, whether liquid or solid (ice) or gas (vapor/steam). Not only that, but water can be present in a variety of places – falling from the sky as rain, running or resting on the earth as rivers or lakes, and penetrating the depths of the globe as underground water sources. With such transformative powers, water element is mysterious and demands respect.
Consider this for a moment. Feng shui (wind and water) requires this element just as life as we know it requires it. What does water element feel like to you? What does it feel like in your space?
Water feng shui element is an important decorating tool when you feel disconnected to life or your surroundings, when you need a flow of ideas or creativity, when you are sick or hurt in some tangible or intangible way, or when you lack direction or purpose.
Water feng shui element is represented with blues of every hue and black. Shapes are wavy and curvy, which is no shocker because that mimics the movement of water itself. Mirrors and artwork that depict water bring in the water element to a space. Décor ideas that incorporate the metal feng shui element include fountains, water images, blue pillows or rugs, etc.
Basic Feng Shui for the Entryway
Most homes have some sort of transitional space between the exterior and the interior of the home, called the entryway, mudroom, or foyer. This space is important for two main reasons: (1) it forms one’s first impression of the rest of the home, and (2) it facilitates, hopefully with care, a critical shift from outdoors to indoors. (Much of the information in the following section is based off of Cathleen McCandless’ book, “Feng Shui that Makes Sense.”)
In feng shui spaces, safety equals comfort and relaxation. This is true of the entryway, which serves as a buffer against the hard world and our private “happy place.” Because of this, the ideal entryway for feng shui is one that is clearly defined and somewhat encased, such as with walls.
To help define an entryway where one isn’t defined, consider adding an area rug right inside the door and some sort of vertical features on either sides of the door, such as a bookshelf or plant or even a chair. Feng shui entryways are often painted in light colors to feel more spacious and inviting.
Feng shui is practical if nothing else, and the entryway traditionally becomes a dumping ground of sorts if you’re not careful. Be sure to make available organizational objects to help combat this – a bench for storing shoes, for example, and hooks for hanging outdoor clothing or hats. Even a decorative box to hold keys, sunglasses, wallets, mail, etc. will do wonders for a more relaxed entryway.
A note on mirrors in the entryway: They are better placed on the walls of the entryway rather than directly opposite the front door, as it is unnerving for someone entering the home to feel like “someone” is walking toward them.
Basic Feng Shui for the Living Room
The living room, family room, and even great room all serve one universal purpose (although they may be divided up in different homes, depending on the space constraints), which is to be a room for gathering.
While feng shui does have specific guidelines for furniture placement, ultimately the goal is to achieve a comfortable surrounding (which those guidelines tend to do), and this may look different in specific homes. A good rule of thumb is to place seating arrangements within eight feet of each other, to facilitate comfort and good conversation. Although it’s best to avoid placing two identically sized pieces of furniture (e.g., sofas and/or loveseats) directly across from each other, as it makes people feel exposed and vulnerable, which is bad feng shui.
Living room furniture that is for sitting on should usually have armrests for good feng shui. This is because armless chairs or sofas tend to make people feel, once again, exposed.
The height of the living room ceilings (as is the case for the rest of the house as well) must be proportionate to the room’s size – width and depth. If the ceilings are very tall in a living room that’s smaller, the proportions feel uncomfortable and, thus, bad feng shui. One rule of thumb for feng shui ceiling heights is that you should be able to comfortably see where the ceiling and wall come together without raising your head. If you need to visually lower your ceilings, consider painting them a darker tone than the wall color, which makes them feel lower.
Open ceiling beams tend to be frowned upon for private rooms, such as the bedroom, because they can feel threatening for some people. However, in the living room, where there tends to be greater movement and “life lived,” open ceiling beams can be quite charming.
Finally, bookcases that are used in the living room should only be used if they enhance the feeling of balance and harmony in the space. If a bookcase somehow feels too large or heavy or visually shifts the balance of the room, it is not good feng shui.
Basic Feng Shui for the Kitchen
Many people base a decision whether or not to move into a home largely on the kitchen – its layout, its location in the home, its functionality, its comfort level. Using feng shui in decorating the kitchen will enhance the positive qi of even the most challenged of kitchen spaces into a space that feels welcoming and appropriate for food preparation and gathering.
The color palette of the kitchen can vary, depending on your preferences as a homeowner. Red and orange tend to stimulate appetites; blue suppresses appetite. Black is not considered to be a healthy choice for the kitchen in feng shui because it is cold and not particularly nurturing. Earth tones are good feng shui kitchen colors, while the recently popular all-white kitchen is not in harmony with good feng shui. Too sterile.
A mirror under the hood of a dark kitchen reflects light and opens up the overall space. You can use mirrored or otherwise reflective tiles to achieve this effect; you can also simply lean a mirror up from the back of the stove, if you have space and proper support. (Consider using heavy duty putty to keep it in place.)
Because the kitchen is generally the first “public” room used by people in the morning (after the privacy of the bedroom and bathroom), lighting is important in the kitchen. A sunny, cheerful kitchen is more preferable for most people. This can be achieved with windows and skylights, where possible. But in the kitchen that is windowless, consider using full-spectrum lightbulbs to mimic the sun’s natural light.
Although it’s a popular design trend in the kitchen, hanging pots and pans above the head is bad feng shui because it makes people feel uncomfortable, having something heavy overhead. Similarly, avoid filling the space between upper cabinets and the ceiling (where applicable) with décor, because it draws attention to the ceiling (remember, feng shui prefers keeping things at a comfortable eye level) and distracts from the kitchen’s cleanliness.
Basic Feng Shui for the Dining Room
Whether your space has a separate dining room or not, the dining area is incredibly important to the community feel of the home. Even more specifically, the dining table is the heart of the dining area.
In feng shui, a round dining table is better than a rectangular dining table, because it equalizes everyone. At a rectangular table, there are two “heads,” and the rest of the diners are made to feel lesser because of it. A round dining table helps people to be able to see everyone else and make eye contact and great dinner conversation.
The color scheme of a dining room that adheres to feng shui decorating tends to be warmer rather than cooler, because warm colors are more inviting and friendly. As mentioned, red and orange even stimulate the appetite, which is a good thing in the dining room. However, these colors are quite bold and can stimulate aggression as much as an appetite, so it’s a good idea to use them strategically and somewhat sparingly – an orange accent wall, for example, rather than the entire dining room surround.
Where possible, dimmer switches to provide lighting variations help to enhance the atmosphere of the dining experience. This is, of course, good feng shui.
To enhance the comfort and overall positive experience in the dining room, dining room chairs in a feng shui styled dining room should be soft and comfortable. More than that, though, they should provide good back support. When diners are comfortable, they are more likely to linger longer after a meal, keeping conversation positive and flowing.
Basic Feng Shui for the Bedroom
As we are all aware, sleep is a vital factor in our overall health – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. When we can sleep well, life seems to be much more manageable and enjoyable than when we’re short on this oh-so-important physiological commodity. Knowing this, feng shui in the bedroom is critical for creating an utterly restful and relaxing retreat.
First and foremost, a feng shui bedroom must feel secure and safe. Whether this feeling comes in the master bedroom or a smaller bedroom in the corner of the house, the room that produces it is the best spot for your bedroom. Often, a master bedroom will be located near the front of the house, which means it is closest to the street and the outside world. Most of us want to escape that when we enter our bedroom, which means that the location of the optimal bedroom is critical in feng shui.
If the bedroom is quite large, it can feel cavernous and somewhat empty, which of course isn’t a relaxing setting at all. If you find yourself in this situation, scale down the size of the bedroom by creating a seating area with some comfortable furniture, installing luxurious window treatments to make the space feel more cozy, lay down a patterned area rug, and/or paint the walls a warm, darker color to bring in a feeling of intimacy and security.
A soft area rug or carpet in the bedroom is good feng shui, because it gives the overall room a gentler, calmer, and quieter environment. It feels better on bare feet, both at night and in the morning.
The bed and other furniture pieces in the bedroom will look and feel best if they are in good proportion with the rest of the room. A huge bed that takes up most of the bedroom’s floor space will make the bedroom feel cramped and uncomfortable. Similarly, a small bed in a huge bedroom will feel dwarfed and inconsequential, which is also uncomfortable.
Speaking of beds, good feng shui involves a bed with a substantial headboard. If you think about how vulnerable you are when sleeping, it makes sense that a solid headboard (either wood or an upholstered one) will provide more security than, say, a headboard with slats or bars. Feng shui wants you to feel protected and safe in your bed, and this is a common way to achieve that.
Basic Feng Shui for the Bathroom
Along with the kitchen, bathrooms are a major point of interest in the desirability of a home. Over the decades, bathroom preferences have, for the masses, evolved into huge, luxurious, spa-like rooms where, yes, bathing also occurs. Let’s discuss a few basic feng shui guidelines for bathrooms of all shapes and sizes.
Because the bathroom tends to be full of hard, shiny surfaces (think porcelain, tile, chrome, etc.), it’s important in feng shui to balance this out with some décor with warmth. Nurturing earth tones and other soft warm colors create a positive qi in the bathroom, whether through paint, artwork, towels, curtains, or other means.
You can incorporate pieces from and artwork of nature in the bathroom to really enhance its calming effects. This is true not only for the feng shui bathroom, of course, but also for rooms throughout the house. Peaceful points of nature will go a long way in adding a zen appeal.
Consider balancing the bathroom’s natural shiny state with more truly natural textures, which provides a yin and yang to the space. Seagrass wallpaper, fluffy towels, soft rugs, and more will soften the shinier surfaces and provide the feng shui bathroom with a clean but comfortable vibe.
Finally, a bathroom with good feng shui is a private bathroom. Having limited privacy to the bathroom (e.g., no door between the bedroom and the bathroom, or a toilet directly facing the door) is a feng shui killer. Add a door if you can; if you can’t, at least add a curtain or a screen or a visual barrier of some sort to separate the bathroom from the surrounding area. Windows should be appropriately covered as well.
We hope you find these feng shui decorating tips useful and helpful to creating a more positive energy in your home.