The living room in the northern Harford County home of Jim and Terry Dick is elegant and eclectic, with a white sofa and occasional chairs, a marble-top table, a Queen Anne desk and tea table, a bamboo bookshelf and an Oriental rug. A painting of Mrs. Dick's great-great-grandfather -- the first sheriff of Cumberland -- hangs from the wall.
"I feel comfortable there," says Mrs. Dick, a pharmaceutical representative for Schering Laboratories. "I like to go in and sit down and read a book. And I love to look at the room. It makes me feel good."
But the couple's guests, she says, seem reluctant to sit on a white sofa, even though it is quite comfortable. Instead, they tend to gather around the TV in the adjoining family room, which is comfortably stylish, but less formal. There are lots of toss pillows, a chess set on a glass-top table and an inviting brick fireplace that warms the room.
"To some people comfort means durable," Mrs. Dick says. "To me, comfortable means attractive, nice and usable. In my family room, the furniture doesn't show dirt, yet it suits me in style and attractiveness. The leather sofa is very durable and dark-colored. The recliner looks like a traditional-style chair."
The house is filled with "meaningful" items that Mrs. Dick and her husband, who is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have collected over the years. There are family antiques and paintings from trips, as well as Mrs. Dick's collections of baskets, elephants and carved ducks. The elephants all have upturned trunks and face the front door for good luck.
"I like things that put you in touch with your past," she says. "I think they make a room feel warm. That's what should surround a person in his home."
There's a renewed emphasis on comfort today, even in the most fashionable homes. Furniture is selected not just for styling but for how well it has been filled. Colors are chosen not only for artistic expression but also to make the occupants feel at home in their space. Fabrics and wall coverings not only look good but feel sensual.
"In all design you have function and aesthetics," says Girard Ebert, president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and principal of Innerspace, a local interior design firm. "Historically, aesthetics has been ahead of function. But comfort decoration puts function ahead of aesthetics."
What makes a room comfortable is "somewhat defined by the individual" and is affected by colors and lighting, Mr. Ebert says. Still, the primary sources of comfort in a room are furnishings that "affect the human frame," that is, anything that a person will "sleep on, sit on or put his feet or any other part of his body on," he says.
But what is comfortable is subject to individual interpretation. Indeed, comfort is not so much a style or a look as a perception.
"Everyone, regardless of whether his space is formal and traditional or contemporary and casual, wants to have a space he feels comfortable in," says Katherine Stites, director of marketing for the H. Chambers Company, a local interior design firm. "But what feels comfortable to me may not be what someone else feels comfortable with. There are so many different things involved in what one perceives as comfort."
Some people want to have a room in their home where it doesn't matter if they put their feet up on the coffee table, lounge back and watch television.
"People will also say that they'd like a room to be very formal, but they want it to feel comfortable," she adds. "What they're saying is not that they want people to feel that they can lounge around on the furniture but that the colors are comfortable and inviting . . . and that people will feel good when they're in the space."
Many homes still have formal living rooms and separate family rooms, she says. In fact, a room that "looks like a museum" can be very inviting to some people and "fit their lifestyle perception of comfort to a T."
Others may prefer to have just one multipurpose living space. "The type of look depends upon lifestyle. The room may still have a bit of a formal feel to it yet the type of furniture may be a little more lounge-oriented and durable. The flooring may also be able to withstand more hard use. There are ways of reconciling formality and comfort, of giving the feeling that you're willing to go both ways."
For years of comfort in a room, she says, adhere to good principles of basic design and avoid trendy decorating.
"We really try not to design to a trend," she says. "People don't have the ready funds to run in and redo a room every two years. They need something that is lasting. We have clients whose homes we did 25 or 30 years ago and you'd have no idea that it has been that long because their rooms are still very much in keeping with good design.
"Good design is going to be the most comfortable. It has a quality about it that doesn't offend the senses. It gives a feeling of order."