Psychologist helps clients gain a sense of place

Taking interior design to a deeper level

By: Hilary Parker
   Toby Israel is not your typical psychologist.
   She doesn’t invite clients into her office for sessions. Rather, she meets them at their homes.
   She offers help, but it’s not of the lie-down-on-the-couch-and-pour-your-heart-out variety. Rather, she’s more likely to offer advice on what type of couch to buy and where to put it, based on clients’ senses of place and home.
   Taking interior design to a deeper level that emphasizes people over posh-ness, Ms. Israel is a pioneer in the field of design psychology.
   "It’s the practically applied aspect of environmental psychology," said Ms. Israel, who holds a doctorate in environmental psychology. "It is the practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principal design tool."
   When working with clients, Ms. Israel typically takes them through a series of nine exercises to explore their past, present and future senses of place and home. Many of these exercises are explained in her book, "Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Spaces," which helps readers uncover their own "environmental autobiographies."
   The exercises include such activities as creating a family tree — not of ancestors, but of ancestors’ homes. The process that Ms. Israel used in designing her own ideal space, her Princeton Township home, exemplifies the approach she takes in her consulting business, Toby Israel Consulting (
   In an exercise called "Favorite Place," she reminisced about favorite places from her childhood, including her cousin’s house and the woods near the Englewood home in which she grew up. She recalled photographs of the thatched-roof house in Hungary where her great-grandparents had raised 13 kids in the confines of its dirt floors and whitewashed walls, the warm orange hues of the wood lending a certain feel of homeyness.
   All these elements harmonize in Ms. Israel’s home, especially her kitchen. The house itself almost uncannily resembles her cousin’s house — photographs in her book are testament to this fact — and she has incorporated the big woods in the form of her "Spirit Seat." Crafted from a huge tree that she picked out on a tree farm, it offers a cozy place to sit and eat, or simply lie back and stare up at the sky through the skylights. In a nod to her Hungarian heritage, the walls are stark white, and orange-toned cabinetry lends warmth and color to the room.
   Next to the spirit seat, in the corner, is a statue that reminds her of a peasant woman in Hungary, pouring water from the well. The statue was her grandmother’s, and Ms. Israel knew she had the ideal space for it in her home. Then, it arrived, smashed into thousands of pieces. After drying her tears, she brought the statue to a sculptor at Seward Johnson’s Atelier in Hamilton, who painstakingly fit the pieces back together. Now, the sculpture stands tall, an ideal metaphor for Ms. Israel’s philosophy and practice.
   "I take fragments from the past and put them together into a beautiful whole," she said.
   While she originally emphasized speaking engagements and working with professional architects and designers in her business, she is now focused on expanding her work with individual clients and homeowners, including senior citizens looking to create a sense of home after relocating to retirement communities.
   A true feeling of belonging, a deep sense of place, may be priceless, but Ms. Israel insists that design psychology is not about income, and everyone deserves a home representative of his or her authentic self. For her, this meant forgoing expensive window treatments in lieu of branches she stopped to pick up on the side of Route 206, much to her daughter’s embarrassment, but they lend a sense of the big woods she remembers so fondly.
   Although she emphasizes design, she is mindful of the psychological, as she believes that we live in a psychological country. Design psychology fulfills our cultural needs in the way that Feng Shui originated to satisfy the spiritual focus of Chinese culture, she explained. Still, as her practice goes beyond aesthetics, the psychological and the spiritual often converge.
   "I’m looking to work with clients who are not interested in keeping up with the Joneses," she said. "I’m looking for people who are interested in matching themselves with the place in a psychological and, to a certain extent, spiritual sense."