Focusing on the senses can refresh your approach to interior design

Light, sound, smell and touch can dramatically impact how you experience your home.
Light is an important sensory element in this Atlanta bathroom designed by Tish Mills. Photo: Courtesy of Tish Mills / Jeff Herr

Credit: Jeff Herr

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Light is an important sensory element in this Atlanta bathroom designed by Tish Mills. Photo: Courtesy of Tish Mills / Jeff Herr

Credit: Jeff Herr

Credit: Jeff Herr

There is a whole world of interior design beyond paint, flooring and furniture choices.

Sensory-focused design, for example, is a holistic approach to interior design that takes into consideration how light, sound, smell and touch contribute to how you experience spaces.

Atlanta interior designer Tish Mills is a firm believer in the many ways that subtle, sensory-focused choices can create a mood in your home, such as a feeling of calm or excitement.

“It’s absolutely important to the way that we approach interiors,” she said.

Here are suggestions for taking sensory design into account.


“Lighting is actually one of the most important elements within a space,” Mills said. She creates task-specific lighting for functionality, for example, and uses ambient outdoor sunlight to create a mood. Also, you should consider how lighting affects different members of your family. Some prefer a warmer, cozier space with more lamplight and less outdoor light, while others get a psychological and emotional boost by working in a room drenched in sunlight.

Mills noted that if the orientation of a room doesn’t allow for much sunlight, you can create a lighter, brighter effect that mimics sunlight as she did in one dark Atlanta kitchen. She used high-gloss lacquer paint in light colors on cabinets, a mirrored backsplash and both area-specific and ambient overhead light.

“The overall space felt much lighter by controlling reflection and the way light moved around the room,” she said.

Tip: Use 3,000 Kelvin bulbs for perfect light quality, Mills said.

Credit: Nickolas Sargent

Credit: Nickolas Sargent


Think beyond the speakers that pipe music throughout your home when using the element of sound.

Is the crisp sound of high heels on wood floors your jam, or do you prefer the muffled effect of rugs and carpet that minimize sound? There are a number of ways to bring relaxing sound elements into your home, Mills said, from a fountain that greets guests at the entrance to cascades of water in a swimming pool to the rich crackle (and scent) of a fire in the fireplace.

Tip: A water element of any kind is a great way to bring the relaxing qualities of sound into your home.


There is an entire industry devoted to home scent. You can buy plug-ins from supermarkets or turn to specialty companies. Lelior or Pura, for example, offer a vast array of scents — Thymes’ Frasier Fir and Nest New York’s Holiday are seasonal favorites — and delivery systems, such as diffusers, that allow you to control the release and intensity of the fragrance with an app.

“Scent has a deep impact on our senses. The olfactory system, which enables our sense of smell, is closely connected to our emotions and can produce powerful responses,” said Natalie Lazarovich, co-founder of Florida-based Lelior. She has seen research showing that certain scents increase productivity and lower stress.

“Positive scents really do improve our overall wellbeing. Scents can also bring back vivid memories, or even boost your appetite once you smell something delicious,” Lazarovich said.

Tip: Mills recommends spraying guest room sheets with a scent as a way to welcome company. (Just make sure to check whether your guests have any health issues, such as asthma, that would preclude this.) Lazarovich said you can consider switching up your home scent each season.

Credit: Chris Little

Credit: Chris Little


One of the many repercussions of the COVID-19 lockdowns was losing the powerful impact of touch when a lot of shopping was done online.

“I can’t really relate to not using touch because it’s one of my first senses that I use in design,” said Mills, who recommends people choose fabrics, drapes, pillows, bed linens and other soft goods in person to truly see how they feel, move and look.

Tip: Shop in person. Mills suggests stopping by the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center, also known as ADAC, in Peachtree Hills. She describes it as “one of the best design centers in the country.” It is open to the public, though only designers and trade professionals can make purchases there.

Felicia Feaster is a longtime lifestyle and design editor who spent 11 years covering gardening, interior design, trends and wellness for Felicia is a contributor to and has been interviewed as a design expert by The New York Times, Forbes and the Associated Press.

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