Synaesthesia (Part 2): The Sound of One Room Clapping

“Whistle while you work.” Its good advice. But sometimes you can make better progress if you “listen while you work.” Even on the simplest project, I have learned the benefits of listening. For instance…

With my level and ruler in one hand and my painter’s tape and a pencil in the other, I scrambled up the ladder to begin taping off the walls in preparation for rendering a striped finish on the walls of this home library. About halfway down the first wall, something seemed to tap on my shoulder. So I stopped, stepped down off the ladder, and stepped back to survey my work. To my dismay, I saw that the stripes were too thin and too evenly spaced for the size of the room. Rather than making the space expansive, they would create an atmosphere of confinement as if it were wrapped with prison bars!

So I dragged my ladder back to my starting place and began re-measuring and re-taping, altering the width of my stripes from 4 to 6 inches. After a few stripes, I stepped down off the ladder to evaluate—much better. I kept going. But as I approached the same area at which I had been stopped the first time, I stalled again.

While the 6-inch wide stripe was less confining and more relaxed than the 4-inch stripe, it was no less monotonous (and monotone). Of course, the tone of the room, being a rather formal space dedicated to reading and writing, is quiet. I didn’t want the finish to jump and shout. But I did want it to evoke a form of liveliness that would articulate a contemplative intention.

That’s when the image of the 4-inch stripe reverberated in my mind. It suggested a new possibility, the possibility of establishing an alternating rhythm back and forth between a 4-and a 6-inch stripe. Whereas the singular width of alternating color would have created a monotonic rhythm, I could see—or did I “hear” it?—that the slight alteration in the width of the stripes would create a more complex, two “note” rhythm that would shift the tone of the room from boredom to contemplation. A little difference can sometimes make all the difference. So I dragged my ladder back to my starting place a third time and began remeasuring and re-taping—this time in alternating 4- and 6-inch stripes.

Sounds like a lot of monkey-business for a simple adjustment that I might have been expected to know already or, at the very least, might more easily have resolved in the design stage? Be that as it may, the instructive part of this exercise was the heightened awareness I achieved about the possibilities of my perceptual awareness in the act of creating. Each time I was jarred out of my task by a sudden realization, it wasn’t my vision that informed me. I didn’t see that the stripes were wrong. Each time I was stopped in my tracks, it was because of something I…well, heard! 

There’s no other way to describe it—I experienced something like an imaginary auditory reverberation of the differing rhythms established by variations in the width of the stripes. While it may seem like a lot of fuss to go through over such a simple finish as broad-band striping, the very simplicity of the finish makes this experience an excellent demonstration of a valuable perceptual “tool” for use in the act of designing decorative finishes.

Rhythm—Not Just Visual

Notice, first, that rhythm is not just visual. The rhythm of a drumbeat, for instance, is auditory. But rhythm can also be experienced kinesthetically; for instance, the rhythm of dance. Are we to imagine, then, that there is no interaction between these divergent perceptual realms of rhythm? If so, then why does a particularly rhythmic piece of music make us want to get up and dance?

The technical term for what I am describing is “synesthesia.” Synesthesia is the simultaneous experience in an alternate sensory mode of stimulation that accompanies a stronger stimulation in a primary sensory mode— seeing what you hear, smelling what you taste, and so on. If, at first, this sounds bizarre, consider some commonplace examples of synesthesia; for instance, the musical genre we call the “blues.” The melancholia we associate with some tones and intensities of the color blue reverberates throughout “blues” music. Or consider taste; for instance, “sharp cheddar cheese” has an edginess that tastes the way sharpness feels on the palate. Finally, when we turn to a phenomenon that is closer to the decorative finishes—color— synesthetic associations abound.

Color can be loud (as in primary colors) or muted (as in pastels or grayed down colors). Chromatic intensity can blast like a boom-box.  And colors with chromatic intensity have a sharpness that is contrasted by the dullness of grayed down colors. We also readily experience a tactile sensation of color—some colors are soft (again, pas-tels), others have a brilliance that feels bold and hard (primary colors). Colors have also been known to be associated with specific tastes and smells. While the color rose has a floral scent, green is frequently associated with mint, and red-brown or golden-yellow have a musty odor. Yellow is a sour color, while red or pink is sweet; olive green sometimes takes on a bitter taste.

Besides color, many design terms are suggestive of the usefulness of  synesthetic perception in architectural and interior design. The concept of “echo,” whereby a desirable motif is repeated throughout a room and/or building to accentuate its impact, is borrowed by sight from the auditory realm; so, also, is the term “accent.” And we recognize, in turn, that accent fits into the larger concern that a room have a desirable pace or rhythm.

As I suggested at the beginning of this article, rhythm is a particularly in-tense synesthetically oriented design consideration that, when attended to in this multi-sensory fashion, enables us to enhance the overall “liveliness” of a design project. Harmony, including contrast, is another such concern that cuts across several sensory realms; so, also does texture, which can be both visual and tactile. And what about taste? A tastefully decorated room may very well be the penultimate goal of design…but when’s the last time you tasted a room? Clearly, the term is being used figuratively…synaesthetically.

This reference to the imaginal use of synesthesia is instructive. Some persons are capable of an actual, neurologically based experience of synesthesia. For instance, a neurologist reports this discussion with such a synesthete who is commenting on a dish he is preparing for dinner: “Fla-vors have shape…I wanted the taste of this chicken to be a pointed shape, but it came out all round.” But synesthesia is also an imaginal experience which poets and artists have relied upon to delve into the most subtle ex-periences of life. It is this imaginal ex-perience of synesthesia which is most useful for the decorative artist.

Wassily Kandinsky is undoubtedly the foremost artist who concerned himself with this imaginal form of perception—nearly every one of his paintings contains some visual representation of sound. His preference for sight-sound synesthetic associations is based on his assumption that spirit manifests itself by means of sound, which he believed to be the essential structure of the universe. Whether or not one goes this far with Kandinsky, his association of synesthesia with inspiration is instructive.

Synaesthesia, Kandinsky argues, taps into neither the sensory realm of perception nor the realm of abstraction (the realm of ideas or, in the lan-guage of design, the realm of the “concept”). Rather, synaesthetic per-ception taps into the realm of intuition. It enables us to develop a feel-ing for the space. This capacity which synesthetic perception has to aid in developing a feeling for the room assists us in discerning and articulating the peculiar form of liveliness that is distinctive to any given space.

Kandinsky’s description of how synaesthesia operates reveals another way in which this intuitive mode of perception can contribute to the achievement of liveliness in design. Kandinsky uses the case of sympa-thetic vibrations in music to demon-strate how synesthesia functions. Just as a stringed instrument vibrates with an echo when another instrument is played without being touched or one part of an instrument vibrates when the other parts are set in motion, so synesthetic sensation reverberates in sympathy to a primary sensation. Attentiveness to and skillful amplification of these sympathetic vibrations can enhance the liveliness of any de-sign because the primary experience is harmonized with and amplified by sympathetic vibrations in other sen-sory modes. For instance, a motif that is suggestive of movement which is shaped in such a way as to suggest a similarly graceful auditory resonance will have a more pleasing effect than if the motif is suggestive of movement but is auditorially flat. My own experience of recognizing a weakness in the design of a striped finish by attending to its synesthetic resonance in the auditory realm sug-gests another way in which this mode of perception is useful in the act of designing finishes. We are sometimes not able to recognize weaknesses in our designs by approaching them directly—for instance, this happens because we are simply too involved in the process to achieve the distanced per-spective that would allow for a more balanced critique. By shifting attention to the more distant resonance in ac-company sensory modes, we are able to discern weaknesses in our design.

Finally, adopting the principle that a decorative finish should articulate the implicit form of liveliness that is distinctive to a space suggests yet an-other reason to attend to synesthetic perception. A well-designed room comes alive not just visually but experientially. This is consistent with our experience of space which is not merely visual but multi-sensory. Even pri-marily visual features can be enhanced by attentiveness to reverberations in other modes of perception. Especially in a world of multi-media interactivity, we need to cultivate a multi-sensory approach to architectural and interior design. Developing one’s synthetic capacities is a great place to start.

How to Begin?

But where does one turn to begin to develop syaesthetic attentiveness? My own experience is suggestive of one practical possibility. Before I began working as a decorative artist, I was teaching communication. With previous experience as a mental health counselor, it was natural for me to gravitate toward the study of listening. It is no surprise, now, that I revert to listening in my approach toward the design of decorative finishes. The principle, then, is that synaesthetic perception in design can be facilitated by following a principle of economy whereby past life experiences which enabled the artist to develop skills in a different mode of perception. Do you have experience in sculpting? Draw upon it to discern the tactile qualities of a design. Do you have experience in dance? Draw upon the heightened kinesthetic awareness you developed there to help you design finishes which establish a desirable pace for a space.

Since I started this discussion with commentary on a striped finish, I might as well end there too. I once painted a “shadow-stripe” finish–stripes created by alterations in sheen of the same color–in a 40-foot long, 20-foot wide space (two separate parlors with large double pocket doors joining them. I can’t take credit for the finish—the client had chosen it. But she had chosen well—it complemented the vast dimensions and formality of the space beautifully.  It made the space “sing” with a soft, satiny tone.  That’s the first time I can remember talking about making a room sing.  Now it is something I strive for in every room. I want to make the room sing. I don’t always succeed. But developing my capacities for synaesthetic perception and training them so that they contribute to the design process is certainly adding voices to the choir.

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