EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE. The Oriental art of `feng shui'

ON a clogged street in mid-Manhattan, Mary McGrath lives in a one-bedroom apartment with small rooms, a chokingly narrow hallway, and a single closet. Her furniture, mostly old family pieces, is ponderous and dark. Little wonder that she once found her home congested and, in a subtle way, exhausting. Today, a different feeling pervades Ms. McGrath's small space. It is comfortable, calm, and enlivened with playful energy. The mood was created not by replacing furniture or knocking out walls, but by applying principles of feng shui, the Chinese art of placement.

Based on a balance of energy and order, feng shui (pronounced ``fung shway'') is compatible with any furniture design or style, any configuration of space. Its art is that of arranging existing objects in their environment do create harmony between user and space.

``It's a vision of how to enhance a person's life,'' says Sarah Rossbach, the feng shui designer who helped McGrath rearrange her apartment. By positioning objects people already have in a harmonious and lively arrangement, people ``are not startled; they feel at ease. It's how the environment can nurture the self.''

Following feng shui principles, McGrath organized her storage areas to get rid of clutter. With mirrors, she added lightness and activity to her rooms. In corners she placed small, whimsical objects to attract or redirect the eye.

``I feel and my friends tell me that its now a very serene and calming place,' says McGrath, a corporate office designer, watching a mobile of pastel-colored parasols twirl and bob gently in the depths of her hall. Even after months, ``I'm amused and entertained by my own space.''

A blend of Taoism, Confucianism, folk customs, and common sense, feng shui has been practiced for centuries in Chinese-speaking cultures as a way of creating comfortable environments. (Story at right.) Historically, it related the position of rural homes to wind, feng, and water, shui (represented by the Chinese symbols above), as well as to the four directions of the earth.

The idea that a pleasant environment can improve people's well-being is basically common sense, validated for American designers by concepts of environmental psychology. But Western design tends to focus on the visually stunning, the angular and intellectual, rather than on people's day-to-day comfort. In contrast, feng shui begins with the most elementary requirements for human comfort and works from there toward a balanced and pleasing design.

``The first thing [Ms. Rossbach] said was that I should get the door fixed,'' recalls McGrath, whose apartment door was wedged against its frame. Likewise, Rossbach urged her to fix a broken lamp, radio, and stereo speaker, and to tidy up ``the places you think no one else sees,'' McGrath says.

To the untrained eye, there is little now about her apartment that indicates the work of a designer. Mirrors, lights, and flowers enliven corners and soften harsh angles. In a window directly facing the door, a small crystal engages and teases the eye.

But these small feng shui gestures direct body and eye movements so people ``can come graciously into the space and not feel crowded,'' says McGrath. ``The eye calmly surveys the room, lights upon little things, and is delighted.''

Feng shui works in a somewhat different way in the modern, minimalist loft apartment of New York interior designer Clodagh and her husband, Daniel Aubry.

Appointed in steel, leather, and concrete furnishings - many designed by Clodagh herself - the loft is strikingly original, with walls of paint-stripped brick and a mingling of textures and colors. But when Rossbach entered the loft as a feng shui consultant, she looked not for a visual composition, but a home.

``I asked her if she wanted to entertain more, and she said yes,'' recalls Rossbach, who then suggested moving the sofas closer together so people sitting on them could talk.

``From a design standpoint, it was much cleaner [before],'' says Mr. Aubry, a photographer. ``But as a living space it's much better this way. It's more comfortable, more friendly. We use it more.''

In the kitchen, Rossbach suggested installing a mirror above the sink so the cook can see visitors and not be startled by someone from behind.

Far from finding the ancient art incompatible with her modern designs, Clodagh says: ``I think its very easy to absorb. It's so intelligent and logical, a lot of it.''

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