11/06/2011 02:18 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

Family-Friendly Design

Many families are struggling to develop and maintain the sort of family bonds that Norman Rockwell's paintings have seared into our psyche. Not all families can achieve the bliss that he portrayed so evocatively, but everyone can use the physical environment to help build positive relationships among family members. This is the first article in a three part series focused on doing just that.

Furniture design and placement are key. It seems obvious that people should be able to make easy eye-contact with each other when they're together, but if you realistically take a look around the spaces available for your family members to hang out together, you may be surprised to find that's nearly impossible. Seats are often oriented toward television screens, so that eye-contact is minimized - and when that happens, people feel socially distant from each other.

But give family members a visual escape hatch - too much eye-contact can be uncomfortable. Something like a fish tank or a mobile that drifts in the air conditioning current towards which people can let their eyes drift during stressful parts of conversations is worth the daily effort of feeding or climbing up on a ladder for the occasional dust. Fires also do the trick here, and so do windows with views outdoors, but windows aren't always feasible and fires in July may drive people from a room, not welcome them in. All situations considered, furniture arrangements with sets of chairs and couches meeting at right angles are best -- of control always makes us feel more comfortable.

OK, so sets of chairs and couches should meet at right angles, but what should those chairs and couches look like? The upholstery tables and chairs and whatever else is in the room, should have a matte surface -not shiny - matte is more relaxing to view. A recent doctoral study determined that seeing furniture with a birch finish helps people restock their mental energy, the same energy that can be depleted by a day of knowledge or school work. When we're relaxed and restocked, we get along better with others.

The furniture should also have more of a curvy shape and fewer edges that meet at right angles. Looking at furniture that's curvy makes us feel more relaxed than looking at furniture that has mainly straight lines.

Make sure the seats on which your family's bottoms rest are padded. Recently, researchers compared the behavior of people sitting in chairs similar to unpadded dining chairs (we'll call them the "hard chairs") and chairs with slightly padded seats (the "soft chairs"). People sitting in those hard chairs were much more inflexible when negotiating prices than those in the soft chairs - those cushions will be useful during discussions of weekly spending money, use of the family car, and upcoming family vacations.

The seating options furniture provide also influence how we behave. When people can stretch out on a piece of they behave in a more dominant, as opposed to a more collegial, way. Maybe that's why the Dads in all of those 50s television shows had a recliner. Interested in more of a hierarchy in family members? Then only Mom and Dad should be able to stretch out. Looking for equality? Then all family members should be able to stretch out, or not.

Anchor as many of the seats as possible by placing them against a wall or something that gives some semblance of protection, such as a tall, leafy plant. We all feel more relaxed and comfortable when our back isn't exposed to passersby. In some ways we're not that different from chipmunks, our small mammal cousins.

When we're in the sort of positive mood that flows from being comfortable and relaxed, we get along better with other people, are better at problem solving, and more creative - the positive family relationship trifecta.