Philly Feng Shui: What I Did to Find Zen in the City

Something about my living space just wasn’t working, so I turned to a spiritually minded interior design for help.

Photograph courtesy of iStockPhoto

I’ve been happily ensconced in a two-room studio apartment carved out of an East Germantown rowhouse for five years now, but something about my living/bedroom just wasn’t working right. After attempting to declutter and rearrange stuff on my own to no avail, I decided to try feng shui.

This ancient Chinese practice, rooted in Buddhist principles, aims to alter not just your home, but your whole life, by reordering your inner space to improve its energy flow. In our society’s constant — desperate? — quest to detox, declutter and find inner peace, the practice has become increasingly popular locally. For guidance, I turned to Mark Schrader, owner of Living Spaces Interior Design, who designs with the spiritual in mind. He broke the news mercifully: My apartment posed some challenges.

I’m not alone. Turns out that many 19th- and early 20th-century Philly homes just aren’t well suited to channeling the energy that feng shui masters call chi. “The old rowhouses in Society Hill and Old City are very well feng shui-ed,” says Schrader. “But that’s because life was different back then. There was a public self and a private one, and all the private functions were in the back of the house.”

Abodes built since then can be more problematic. Schrader says a common snag hereabouts is a recessed front door. In the bagua — the grid that feng shui masters use to align interior space with one’s life goals — the front door defines the edge of the house. “Everything behind that line is inside the house, and everything in front is outside it,” Schrader says. Private spaces like a master bedroom or essential everyday spaces like a kitchen that intrude in front of the line, he continues, could have adverse effects on an occupant’s life or health. But there’s a cheat of sorts: Hang a mirror facing the room in question so it is “reflected” into the right side of the house. (More problems a mirror can apparently fix: rowhouses with narrow vestibules, and front doors that open to reveal a blank wall rather than the front room.)

My problem? My front door opens into the kitchen, with the range facing it — which means I face away from that door when cooking. This, Schrader informs me, may be causing the weight issues I’ve been struggling with. (Go figure.)

My main living space works much better since I reordered it with Schrader’s help. I’m even sleeping better at night. Nonetheless, my guide says, my issues may need more than feng shui. He cites a joke that circulates among practitioners: “If you need a feng shui consultation, it’s time to move.”

Published as “Go With the Flow” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.