Five years ago, America couldn't even pronounce feng shui. Now there are 12 feng shui listings in the Salt Lake Yellow Pages and a whole feng shui section at Barnes and Noble. Even Ace Hardware is plugging feng shui.
And here's one more milestone in the mainstreaming of the Chinese "art of placement": Ellen Schneider, who describes herself as a "strategy consultant and feng shui expert," will deliver the keynote address to the Utah chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
Feng shui — basically interior design that cares more about "energy flow" than fabric swatches — was practiced for 2,000 years in China before Mao Tse-tung decided it was a feudal practice in need of purging. Still practiced in Hong Kong (where by some estimates four-fifths of the city's Chinese residents use feng shui when choosing an apartment), it has found its way into American homebuying, decorating and workplaces.
Schneider, who is an advanced instructor for the Western School of Feng Shui and is co-founder of a construction company in Tucson, Ariz., lists among her clients Salomon Smith Barney, Chase Manhattan Bank and Alphagraphics.
"At least half of my clientele is business," Schneider said. "They say, 'Come and do that thing you do.' They call because Mary did it and her profit increased or Sam did it and now his employee retention is up."
What it all boils down to, Schneider says, is that some places feel pleasant to be in and some don't. Most of us feel this at a subconscious level but can't articulate why a home or a room or an office or a store feels like a place we can't wait to leave.
"My job is to find the splinter," she explained. "I look at what's missing. I can feel if the energy is moving or not." The best definition of feng shui, she says, is "the arrangement of your environment to positively affect the quality of your life."
In Eastern countries, feng shui advocates spend a good deal of effort figuring out how to avoid bad luck. Mirrors, according to Chinese feng shui, deflect bad luck. In Hong Kong, there are reports of mirror wars in which one apartment dweller puts up a mirror to deflect the bad feng shui of, say, a neighboring high rise, and then the people in the high rise put up a bigger mirror, and then the apartment dwellers put up one even bigger, and so on.
In America, feng shui has been Westernized and sometimes Heloise-ized (one current book is "Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui"). Still, there are elements of even American feng shui that might seem, at first blush, a bit peculiar.
Schneider uses a bagua, a map divided into nine sections that include "wealth and prosperity" and "love and marriage." When she comes to consult at a business or home, she stands at the front door and imagines each part of the building as sections of the bagua.
At the office, employers can use feng shui, she says, to organize their furniture so that energy flows more easily and can place their employes in places where their strengths can be utilized (put a creative person in the "creativity and children" section of the bagua, put a researcher in the "knowledge and self-cultivation" section.)
One business she consulted wanted more clients to come through the door, she says, so she advised adding some "fire energy" — bright colors, pictures of people and animals. She also suggested adding a fountain in the "helpful people" quadrant.
"Business picked up and never ever stopped," Schneider said.
Schneider will address the Utah chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners at noon Wednesday, March 14, followed by a feng shui workshop from 2 to 4:30 p.m.