February is the doldrums. The holiday season is over. Spring seems a lifetime away. So when psychoanalyst David Dorenbaum phoned and said, in a voice that sounded like Peter Lorre with a Spanish accent, that he thought his consulting room "worked," I was intrigued. Would a room that was good for his patients not be good for us all?
The model that all psychoanalysts confront when putting together their consulting room is the original: Sigmund Freud's Vienna study. This turn-of-the-century home work space had the buttoned leather couch positioned along the wall just so, the psychoanalyst's chair placed in its particular relationship to that couch. In Freud's study, the walls were lined with books, the floors covered with Persian carpets, the shelves ladened with objects from antiquity. His furnishings suggested the breadth of his intellectual wealth and material success.
Dorenbaum's consulting room is not at home, but it is in what was a second-floor bedroom of a converted Victorian mansion on Toronto's Spadina Circle. Its domestic origin is evident in the panelled door and transom, the ceiling moulding, window trim and exposed radiator. The homey vernacular makes the room feel familiar to patients.
Dorenbaum decided against Freud's densely burdened aesthetic. His has no flotsam and jetsam, no framed degrees or certificates. Not one thing is without what Dorenbaum calls "signification." There is a small clock, because "time's up" is part of the structure of the session. It would be too unsettling to enter into free association without knowing it was contained by a defined time span. A small African carving recalls shamans and psychics, hints of cultures that understand the mind in non-scientific ways.
The window covering is not just a window covering. The translucent vinyl blind that lets in a filtered light and a vague picture of the world outside is like a veil. A veil, Dorenbaum says, represents memory. And memory is the Holy Grail of psychoanalysis. "In analysis, nothing is ever clear. The veil doesn't obliterate. It focuses our gaze. It lets us see the shades of an object and find what is meaningful in life."
The artwork, which includes Adam and Eve by Mexican artist and friend Jose Luis Cuevas, is hung low, so it can be seen to advantage by the person reclining on the chaise. The images are representational, but their subject matter is vague enough to be engaging. Says Dorenbaum, "They require effort to be revealed."
There is no ceiling light shining down into the patient's eyes. A 1950s floor lamp, bought for $20, directs light upward, giving the ceiling a soft glow. It is no coincidence that the lamp is best viewed from below. The green metal shade is perforated with rows of tiny holes that provide a pleasant focal point. The lamp sits on three toes like a stork's, animating the ordinary.
The "couch" reveals Dorenbaum's penchant for 20th-century design. The Snooze was designed in the 1960s by Charles Eames for film director Billy Wilder. He liked to have frequent, between-scenes naps. The chaise, produced by Herman Miller, has no arm rests. It functions as a kind of alarm clock: Wilder would nap with his arms folded across his chest and about 20 minutes later they would fall toward the floor and wake him up. Dorenbaum's patients feel comfortable, but not too comfortable.
The room also contains two Diamond chairs, designed in 1952 by Harry Bertoia and produced by Knoll. Their generously wide seat lets him change positions, even curl up his legs and nestle. They are low enough that he never looms over his patients and their upholstered metal frames are light enough to move easily. He normally sits behind patients as they recline on the chaise, but for those who are too unsure for such a relaxed position, the Diamonds allow patient and analyst to sit face to face. Though not quite like Anna Freud's rocking chair, the Diamonds have a little give to them, enough bounce to provide relief in the course of a long day.
There is also a small side table designed in 1927 by Eileen Gray, and the Carteggio, a small desk produced by Molteni since 1987. Its proportions suggest the scale and narrow verticality of the human body. Its small writing surface is at elbow height. This gives Dorenbaum a chance to stand up and stretch out a bit.
It is important that the room appear not to change. When it was repainted, Dorenbaum used the same pale grey he chose five years ago to suggest the colour of the stone walls of a monk's cell. The carpet is unobtrusive wool sisal. It is the patients who inevitably bring change to the room. The signs of their coming and going are left. There are two small slashes in the upholstery of a chair. Some things decay, others break. Objects, like people, gain their uniqueness from these marks.
A chair by architect Aldo Rossi, more sculptural than functional, has a broken rib that has been meticulously repaired with a fine gold wire. What was its weakest point is now its strongest. Dorenbaum describes the flaw as being "the inscription of the event on the object." Like a person, the chair has what Freud called the "single trait," the thing that distinguishes the one from the many. An Aldo Rossi chair becomes this Aldo Rossi chair.
Dorenbaum tells the story of furniture maker Gordon Peteran designing and building the bookcase of steel, copper and walnut. It was designed to hold the complete writing of Freud, all 24 volumes. Time passed. Three years, to be exact.
Then Dorenbaum was asked to come to the studio to discuss the placement of two small drawers. As they discussed the positioning, one of the drawers dropped and was damaged. Six months later, the piece was delivered. The flawed drawer had not been replaced. Where it had been damaged, Peteran had inlaid small pieces of bone. This single trait enhanced its uniqueness.
The bookcase sits just beyond the couch. But there are no books on it. Freud's volumes are kept in Dorenbaum's home. "I liked the shelves so much with no books on them," he says. "This way it is like having the ghost of the books."
To Dorenbaum, the consulting room is a transitional space between everyday life and "the inner space of the soul." It is a place of creativity, like theatre. In order to work, it requires comfort, privacy and freedom from interruption. The freedom from interruption, which lets us reach our most creative thinking, is surely the hardest thing to achieve without help or great discipline.
The consulting room must be private but retain a fluid connection to the world outside. It mustn't feel like imprisonment, hermetically sealed. The sounds of streetcars, a fragment of a conversation, a squirrel crossing the windowsill, a distant phone ringing, these are part of a comforting connection to life. We never want to feel that we are alone.
The consideration that Dorenbaum has brought to his room caters to the needs of his patients. But no room can replace the need to get out and connect. To sustain himself, immersion in the outside world is essential. Teaching, swimming, sleeping and playing are part of doing his work.
"To spend my entire working day dealing with the inner depths of my patients," he says, "I must look after my own mental health. I need to harness myself for these voyages, these couch trips." Dorenbaum cites film director Pier Paolo Pasolini's remark, "I work like a monk all day and at night I wander like an alley cat."
As I lay back on his chaise, I decided that a well-considered place like this -- free of clutter, free from interruption, containing only meaningful things -- would help to ease anyone through February's introspective hibernation. But what would really make it work would be to have someone sit nearby and listen. Rooms That Work is written and produced by Janice Lindsay, interior colour designer, PINK Colour + Design, 416-961-6281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Key elements Less stuff, more "signification."
Though sparsely furnished, each piece in Dorenbaum's consulting room has been carefully chosen for what it does or what it suggests. Consider the sightlines.
A room should look its best from the place and position where you spend your quality time. In this case, the patient's point-of-view is paramount. Well-designed furnishings blend form with function.
The recliner is comfortable but not too comfortable. The Carteggio writing desk and the Diamond chairs allow for movement and stretching during the long days. There is comfort in continuity and character in flaws.
It is important that the room be kept looking the same for the benefit of the patients. That includes knife slashes in the upholstery. Uninterrupted privacy without isolation from the outside world.
The blind functions as a veil through which the outside world can be glimpsed.