Interiors: Like, Totally Auspicious

You've chucked out your chintz, but your centre of energy is still all wrong. Time to apply a little Feng Shui to your life. Kate Worsley finds that things augur well for the Chinese art of environmental arranging in 1998

Kate Worsley
Sunday 04 January 1998 01:02

Two men in a bright, second-floor office in Clerkenwell are looking very pleased with themselves. The room may look like your standard magazine launch pad, with its piles of press packs, huddled desks, trailing wires and sprinkling of sweet, young women, but there's more to it than that.

Look closer. Water is trickling from a small plastic fountain of the type you might buy in Brick Lane. A Pa Kua mirror is lodged on a windowsill, facing outwards, and publisher Stephen Skinner's desk is as far away as possible from the entrance and positioned at the point where the two main thoroughfares of Old Street and Clerkenwell Road meet. The walls align precisely with the four points of the compass; the corner overlooking the street is gently rounded off.

These things, Skinner and his colleague Martin Wood tell me, augur very well indeed. For this is the office from which Affinity Publishing is about to launch the world's first Feng Shui magazine, Feng Shui for Modern Living. It will make the promise so many other consumer magazines have failed to keep: to impart the secrets of health, wealth and happiness. And in terms of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese method of arranging your environment to get the best deal from Chi, the life force in all things, the layout of the office is so "auspicious" that it virtually guarantees all three for Skinner and Wood.

This, it seems, could be the year Britain realises there's more to Feng Shui than keeping the toilet seat down. There are already around 1,200 websites and over 80 books on the subject. One by Stephen Skinner himself and another by Britain`s self-designated "leading expert" Sarah Shurety, both sold out within a few weeks of their publication last autumn. In March Conran Octopus gets in on the act with The Feng Shui House Book, its own weighty tome by ex-PR Gina Lazenby, who runs the Feng Shui Network of 13,000 members. Later this month Russell Grant will present Housebusters, a 13-part Channel Five series, featuring Sarah Shurety as its resident home-related problem-solver. And dozens of Feng Shui masters are poised to emerge from the five or so British training schools any month now.

Feng Shui was embraced by celebrities such as Boy George and Donald Trump long ago. And Tatler already considers the subject "too popular" to cover. But some fads just won't go away. How long before every home boasts Feng Shui's trademark Pa Kua mirror alongside the ubiquitous satellite dish?

Skinner's glossy monthly will certainly sit well alongside the growing number of interior/lifestyle magazines that encourage us to consume while simultaneously urging us to streamline and de-clutter. "It does not matter if Feng Shui can or cannot do what it claims," the magazine reassures its advertisers. It hopes, by "indulging the desire to redecorate the home", to ensnare ABC1 women, design professionals and ex-pat Chinese with a blend of interiors, gardening, travel, Chinese horoscopes and celebrity spreads on Jeffrey Archer and Michael Caine.

"Women understand that nesting and making a good home are conducive to a good relationship and a happy life," says Skinner, "whereas men don't. Men have to use the rules."

"Also," adds Martin Wood, "women are in the house more than men, even today. They sit in the lounge and think, `I feel really down. Now if I just paint the wall pink I'd feel much better.' If people told them there are actually rules about which wall to paint and whether it's salmon or rose this comes as a great relief."

Michelle Ogundehin, features director at Elle Decoration is no new age Stepford wife, but she is, nevertheless, enthusiastic. "There's no doubt there's a lot of interest at the moment, though I'm not sure whether going monthly with a magazine is such a good idea. But I'll be fascinated to see it. Feng Shui is a very powerful thing, even if a lot of it is common sense, such as not having sharp, pointy things hanging above your bed."

Feng Shui is certainly seductive amid the free-floating anxieties of urban life in the Nineties. Yes, in fact, you can have a hot job, a hot lover and a hot apartment all at the same time. If you follow the rules. These are many and complicated, but this is as reassuring for some as a string of letters after a builder's name. Feng Shui confirms the estate agent's mantra of location, location, location, while satisfying the homemaker who would rather rearrange the furniture than the walls (strategically placed wind chimes, mirrors and bamboo sticks solve all manner of problems).

It has cool status too, with the blessing of minimalist architect John Pawson in his own book Minimum. Chuck out your chintz indeed. A lot of women already know they feel a lot better after a good clear out and dust down. The suggestion that this sort of displacement activity could itself help sort all those problems (overdraft, bored at work, missing boyfriend) may mean Feng Shui replaces retail therapy as the modern woman's cure- all of choice.

Stephen Skinner, for one, is utterly convinced. A fan ever since he went to Hong Kong in 1976 and wrote the first Feng Shui textbook in English, he has put plenty of thought into maximising his chances of success. Since the office sink has been in the patronage corner (water outlets drain energy away) Affinity's parent company has pulled out, leaving them with all the stock ("much, much better"). He points out a red symbol in the Chinese almanac on the page of the launch date, that shows it is highly auspicious for him to launch a business venture then. The junction outside the office means that good energy pools nicely, while the Pa Kua mirror deflects the poison arrows of bad energy caused by - he winces visibly - the sharp angles of a nearby church spire and lamp post.

The year itself is auspicious for Feng Shui, according to Sarah Shurety. "1998 is the year of the Tiger, it will be explosive." Speaking on her car phone, she explains how energy moves in cycles for people, buildings and countries. "From 1984 to 2003 we are in the age of Tui, the Youngest Daughter, a period of femininity, spirituality, glamour, sex and prosperity ... Gay people can be much more open. Women are not having children but contributing energy to the country at large ..."

She's been helping to design a new "Feng Shui" village in Jamaica funded by developers who hope to persuade people to move there from a shanty town on a site they want to develop. "The houses will be cosy, small, with the right colours and layout. I'll take a holiday out there myself when it's in the right direction."

Feng Shui applies to direction, too. During a conversation, Shurety has me down as a "fire horse" ("you're intuitive, not an initiator, creative, you get lost in detail, you hold hurt, you're a real femme fatale ..."), and tells me if I move house in a north-easterly direction this year I'll probably get pregnant.

"We went with Sarah straight away. A lot of other people in the field are a bit flakey," says Lucian James, who made the Housebusters pilot. He considers Feng Shui "probably the most solid" of the methods the programme uses to diagnose problems such as that of a couple who have had no friends since they moved to a new house in Gilmorton, Leicestershire. "They're not a sad couple or anything," he says hurriedly. "Sarah looked at their garage and found that was the source of their social energy and it was in a mess. Her suggestions included painting it terracotta and getting in a few plants. We go back a month later to see what's changed."

"It's become a touchy-feely thing over here", sniffs the Sunday Telegraph Magazine's Angus Donald. "People forget that in Hong Kong [where he lived for many years], Feng Shui is all about money." In Singapore the Feng Shui master who saved the Hyatt Palace Hotel by suggesting they move the entrance (and charged pounds 5,000) now lives in its penthouse. In the UK consultations cost from pounds 250.

Money was certainly the motive behind Wimpey Homes DIY Guide to Feng Shui for new home owners, which was such a success they had to call a halt in July after distributing 15,000 copies. They worked with the Feng Shui Network, says Elaine Mitchell in corporate communications, "because other organisations were too holistic. We'd never get any land to build on if we went the whole hog." The booklet bought Wimpey cred with Far- Eastern clients, pounds 2.5m to pounds 3m in cost-equivalent press coverage and a slot on GMTV.

Perhaps Feng Shui's most promising Western application is in the planning of public spaces. As Stephen Skinner points out, you don't have to believe in poison arrows to see that fast roads such as London's Westway damage local business and communities. The auspiciousness of Canary Wharf's site in the loop of the Thames will be explored in the magazine. "The building is Fire element because of the triangular bit at the top," he says. "I don't know when Olympia & York went bust over Canary Wharf but I would wager a small meal that it was in a period when Fire was badly aspected."

Town planner Michael Osman called in US expert Bill Spears, said to charge pounds 350 an hour, to help defuse racial conflict in the Bethnal Green area. Suggestions included introducing curves to the footpath across the well-used but characterless Weaver's Field to slow down the flow of Chi. The area's proliferation of long straight railway lines posed more of an obstacle. Osman is undaunted. "There is currently a bit of a credibility issue when dealing with local authorities. But in 25 years I would like to see Feng Shui taught in undergraduate planning courses."

One hard-headed thirtysomething, sent on a pounds 280 one-day Feng Shui course by her employers, was surprised to find "quite a lot of it worked quite well. I rather suspect it's a fad," she says, "but not a bad one. If it will make people think about how we move around in space and if people are using it to rethink office spaces that can only be a good thing."

Feng Shui may make no impact on British sceptics, beyond "auspicious" replacing the term "awesome" as a term of respect, but after this year's onslaught, you won't be able to look at those compelling little ground plans that the Landmark Trust prints in its holiday home handbook in quite the same way again. This one's got a spiral staircase. Think of the poison arrows. A sink in the wealth corner? We'll be burgled while we're away ...

`Feng Shui for Modern Living' is launched on 10 February; `Housebusters' is on Channel 5 from 19 January for 13 weeks

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