A Matter of Taste

“Taste has no systems and no proofs” – Susan Sontag

I’ve always thought that designing a home for someone else is a lot like solving a crossword puzzle. My mission is to successfully fill in the blanks that are a clients needs and requirements in a manner that they find aesthetically pleasing. But any good crossword puzzler knows that the key to success is quickly discerning the underlying theme that ties all of the answers together, even if it isn’t evident at the onset.


In order to find good design solutions I need clues that serve as a starting point in determining a clients’ theme. Most times I can garner information by observing their current environment, their style of dress and noting their manner of being as they interact with their surroundings. But sometimes these observations alone don’t yield enough clues about which design direction to follow.

As I talk with clients, I listen for verbal clues in their choice of words, like ” classic”, “comfy” or “contemporary”. I know how to interpret those things stylistically – that’s the easy part. But the key to is to personally tailor these concepts to the individual taste of each client and determine what they like, and what they don’t. Three clients may use the same exact language to describe their tastes but they will wind up with three totally different outcomes. Why?

Because taste is nothing more than a compilation of one’s likes and dislikes.


This list starts forming the minute we are born and is unique to our experience. The items on the list blend and morph to create a unique picture of who we are and shape what we create around us. To insure that we are creating a reflection that is authentically aligned with who we really are, we need to understand how those tastes were formed.

Firsthand experience is how the majority of our likes and dislikes are formed.
As children, this experiential imprinting follows us into adulthood and forms the unique filter through which we process options and categorize them as “likes” and “dislikes”, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously. As an interior designer, I routinely have adult clients referring back to the home they grew up in as a point of reference to what they deem pretty or ugly or right or wrong. I once had a client tell me that his dining room should be green. I was surprised that he had such a definitive stance on the color, especially since there was no prior mention that he liked green and it was a disconnect with the color palette we were doing in the rest of the house. When I probed further he told me that his mother always had a green dining room. Subconsciously, his experience processed this in the “like” category. When I asked if he actually liked the color for his dining room, I could tell it was the first time he considered this on a conscious level. We knew a green dining room was something that his mother liked, but did he? We ultimately wound up with a totally different color scheme, which he loved. Questioning where and how he formed that belief saved him from living in a place that would never feel quite right for him.

Sometimes the challenge comes from presenting a design idea that they may have had experience with, but swept into the “dislike” pile. I can’t tell you how many people groan when I recommend wallpaper because they grew up in a house who’s’ walls were covered in floral prints and dreaded companion borders. It’s hard for them to imagine that wallpaper could be something they might entertain as an adult, but they are pleasantly surprised when they do. It’s kind of like hating broccoli as a kid, but discovering you actually like it when you are an adult.


Many times I will show a client something that they say they don’t like. It is not because I have not heard them or I am forcing them to like something. I do it because I know that likes and dislikes are painted with a very broad brushstroke, which often allow great solutions to be overlooked.

Years ago, I had a client tell me that she hated yellow, yet everything about her and her sun filled rooms told me she would love yellow. When I presented my ideas for her home she immediately gravitated to the yellow options. When I pointed out that she picked the very thing she said she didn’t like, she looked at me and said “but this is pretty yellow”. Turned out that she hated the mustardy brown family of yellow so she never opened herself up to its variations. That was 14 years ago and we’ve since done 3 homes and they all have heavy yellow presence in them. Had she not been open to something she’d closed the door on, she too might be living in a home that just missed.

While many of our likes and dislikes are tied to our pasts, they are not rigidly set in stone. Exploring the world beyond the known and familiar through travel, media or even just meeting new people is a great way to expand and cultivate new possibilities.

Ultimately, our likes and dislikes (bundled up as our taste) serve a very important role. They are the building blocks to the lives we create and they determine what we surround ourselves with. They make a connection to the physical world that interprets who we are internally. Reflecting on these likes and dislikes, how they got there and weather they still have value, can provide wonderful opportunity for re-adjustment and re-evaluation in our lives. They just may offer valuable clues to solving our own unique puzzles.

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