Interior designer John Wheatman says the most important lesson he ever learned about his work was to "cultivate the mind of a 3-year-old." Young children have "open minds and adventurous hearts. An open mind is essential to good home design."
Having an open mind allowed Wheatman to learn a number of other design lessons that he shares in his new book, "Meditations on Design: Reinventing Your Home With Style and Simplicity" (Conari Press, $24.95).
"If you're wise, you learn from everything and everybody," says Wheatman, 74. Full of photos of his design work -- which earned him a place on House Beautiful's list of top American designers last year -- "Meditations" covers 21 interior design principles. They include making the most of a home's limitations, displaying the things you love, and creating a happy place to be alone.
These are lessons Wheatman has shared with students -- he has taught extensively at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and the Inchbald School of Design in London -- as well as his clients.
"Every day you work you're a teacher," he says. "You teach people how to use space, light, color and texture -- how to work with what they have and how to acquire what they need."
When it comes to approaching design projects, he discourages clients from copying what they see in magazines, or relying solely on a designer to create a look for them. First, he insists people figure out how to be comfortable in a space and then decide how it should look.
As an example, he mentions that if a client has arthritis, then the first priority might be to have a swimming pool where he or she could work out every day. "Then you would make sure that the pool was close to the house so that you could see the lights reflected in it by night and perhaps have a fountain in it by day," Wheatman says.
"People need to think first about their life, not about how to decorate a specific space," he adds.
Wheatman has five "meditations" on connecting the garden outside to the home inside. One is to place cut flowers by a window to establish a visual connection between the room and the view outside, he writes in "Meditations." "Think of windows as being links, rather than barriers."
Using mirrors to reflect an exterior view in the room and working with a color palette of nature-inspired hues are other ways that he encourages clients to incorporate nature in a room. By experiencing life outside the walls of our homes, whether on a long walk outdoors or a trip around the world, Wheatman insists we can better "bring the outside in."
Some of the loveliest photographs in the book are of the home that Wheatman and his wife, Mary, share in San Francisco. The beautiful apartment with its stained-glass windows, mahogany paneling and rich, terra-cotta-painted details, is a testament to Wheatman's design principles.
For example, the dramatic formal entry to the apartment illustrates Wheatman's belief that a room should have two or three focal points of decreasing importance. The large round mirror in the entry immediately grabs your attention, then your eye takes in the ornate chest below the mirror and then the coach lamps flanking the entrance.
His design sensibility was influenced by several experiences: growing up in a three-generation household in San Mateo, Calif., serving in the military in Korea, and earning a fine arts degree at the University of Washington.
Since then, he's designed thousands of homes and gardens, run his own design firm and retail shop, and taught countless courses in interior design.
The spareness of Wheatman's designs comes from careful editing. He does not insist that people throw out everything they own, but rather that they keep what they love. "Pruning is as important as cultivating," says Wheatman.
On the same theme of simplicity, light should come from many sources, preferably inconspicuous ones. "Lamps can be boring," he writes. "Lighting is essential, but you shouldn't be aware of it in a room."
According to Wheatman, what you should sense is quality, which he defines as "a simplicity of line, excellence of construction and ease of movement."
A sofa, for example, should be "long enough so that you can fit between the arms when you want to take a nap, and comfortable enough that when someone tosses a blanket over you and you don't wake up until the next morning, you've had a good night's sleep," he says in the book.
Wheatman bemoans the trend toward "mediocre" furniture. He encourages clients to buy a few good things rather than a lot of lesser-quality items that will quickly need to be replaced. "People should buy things they will want to pass on to another generation."
At the same time, Wheatman says, a home is not static, as generations of clients have learned.
"I've helped mothers, then daughters, then granddaughters decorate their homes," he says "And for each of them, the rooms should be altered as their lives evolve. A good room is never done."
Design advice from John Wheatman