Design Alchemy

James Michael Howard reveals the secrets of his emotionally immersive interiors in his first book, Atmosphere

Whether it’s mesmerizing pattern, captivating art, soothing hues or commanding architecture, the overall feeling that a room conveys, says celebrated interior designer James Howard, is also known as “atmosphere.” 

Carefully considered design elements, of course, are ultimately responsible for conjuring that unmistakable appeal, but to the average eye, that evocative feeling might also prove transformative, transportive or even something more akin to alchemy. 

In his debut book, Howard—who along with his equally respected decorator wife, Phoebe, owns and operates successful interiors stores and designs a signature product line—explores this idea of emotionally immersive interiors. “Even as it excites, atmosphere also soothes, offering an overall feeling of well-being and calm,” writes Howard. Here, the interior design great gives us an exclusive first look into Atmosphere: The Seven Elements of Great Design. 

Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles: We’ve always thought that the most successful interiors—those that walk the fine balance between polished and poised, engaging and captivating—also possess a bit of alchemy. Is “atmosphere” truly something that can be taught?

James Howard: Atmosphere can definitely be learned. It is the result you achieve when properly considering the seven elements of great design: style, scale and proportion, rhythm, light, color, texture and sound. Like most academic endeavors, atmosphere will be better understood after a few years of trial, error and improvements.

AH&L: You write that atmosphere is as much a science as it is an art. 

Howard: Design is both, because it involves the creation of a space with a certain elan, but that process requires combining elements in a mathematical order and progression. Scale and proportion are essential to the success of a design, as well as sound and light. Rhythm requires a mathematical preciseness that ensures the best outcome.

AH&L: Is the atmosphere that you create in your residential interiors something you also consciously strive to create in the showrooms you and Phoebe operate and the furniture lines that you and Phoebe design? 

Howard: The beauty that is achieved by creating atmosphere is something that I strive to achieve in every project that I do, whether it is with client work, or in the stores. It is in my soul and I just can’t get away from it!

Atmosphere: The Seven Elements of Great Design (Abrams, $50) hits bookshelves this month. The lushly illustrated tome explores the magic of a place—the unspeakable feeling, the “wow” factor— that designer James Howard asserts is an art as much as a science. Howard’s own design alchemy unfolds across several homes and a dozen chapters.