If I asked you right now: Where is your happy place? — 99 out of 100 of you wonderful people would name a place somewhere outdoors, in nature… Maybe you see yourself sitting on a beach, listening to the waves gently rolling ashore… or gazing at a mountain range… or you lounge in a beautiful, lush garden, the warm sun tingling your skin as you listen to a bird’s song.
How do I know you are not thinking of a downtown square, sirens blaring, rubbing shoulders with 1000 of your closest neighbors? Enter the concept of Biophilia. At its most basic, it’s the idea that deep down, every single one of us is happiest when we feel close to nature. Seems pretty obvious when you think about it, right?
If it’s so obvious, why then am I joining a quickly growing movement of architects, city planners, interior designers, scientists and artists who think and write about the idea of Biophilia? Why should you want to continue to read this? Fair question. Because of one number: 83. These days, we spend 83 percent of our days inside, scientists have found. And that number is growing. That happy place you are thinking of? How much time do you actually spend there, or anywhere that at least reminds you of its existence?
If this paradox is the new reality of our always busy, increasingly urbanized society — and it is —, then we need to look for ways to bridge the growing divide between how we live and how we’d love to live. Understanding Biophilia and how to use it to design the indoor spaces we spend most of our lives in may just hold the key to creating more happy places, and reduce rampant stress and anxiety along the way.
To be clear: This is not a guide advocating that a houseplant or the picture of a tree can or should replace a walk in the woods. No. Rather, this is an exploration of practical, science-backed ways how you can holistically invite nature back into more areas of your life so that you can effortlessly feel happier and more whole more often. It’s not either, or. It’s either and or. Turns out, you can’t really overdose on nature. But we are beginning to understand the dire consequences of a nature deficit in our lives.
“Deviation from nature is deviation from happiness.” — Samuel Johnson
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What does Biophilia mean?
What Biophilia means is basically the idea that exposure to nature is akin to revisiting our evolutionary happy place. It’s a term coined in 1984 by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. In his now popular Biophilia hypothesis, he describes that ingrained in our genes lives an instinctive bond with nature. Literally translated, Biophilia means “love of life” (how beautiful is that??). Wilson argues that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history out-of-doors, we have an innate love of natural settings.
Wallace J. Nichols puts it more plainly. “Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended on nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature physically, cognitively and emotionally”, the marine biologist writes in his bestselling book, “Blue Mind.”
Nature, adds Florence Williams in “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier And More Creative”, “is where our savanna-bred brains are, to borrow from John Muir, ‘home’, whether we consciously know it or not.” Nature is not a place to visit, it is home, the beat poet Gary Snyder, one of my favorite writers, knew. It’s a notion that is both my creative cradle and my mission as a photographic artist: creating artwork that provides your mind A Sense Of Home.
Biophilia describes our primal longing for that kind of intimate connection with nature. Biophilia explains why every child wants a teddy bear and why we build houses with a water view. It helps us understand why crackling fires and crashing waves captivate us and why a garden view enhances our creativity. It is an idea that continues to receive more and more attention these days because that innate connection is under threat from the urbanized lives that we as a society have constructed for ourselves.
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What is Biophilic interior design?
The Biophilic interior design style takes this knowledge about Biophilia and applies it to those spaces where we apparently now spend more than 80 percent of our days. Subconsciously, this practice is nothing new, of course. People have always used natural materials and natural images to design their homes. In fact, this goes all the way back to the earliest cave paintings and to classical Greek temples, as Sally Coulthard points out in her self-described handbook for bringing the natural world into your life, “Biophilia: You + Nature + Home.”
Those earliest applications of Biophilic design just go to show: Wilson, the Harvard guy, really was onto something when he poured our evolutionary love for nature into the Biophilia framework. No, Biophilia is not some new trend that will go away as soon as the next flashy thing comes around. That’s the whole point: Biophilia (and Biophilic design) have been around forever. All Wilson did was sharpen our collective awareness for our need for nature and give credence to using this awareness of ancient wisdom to more intentionally design our living spaces today.
Paula Kennedy is one of a growing number of interior designers who has fully embraced the idea of designing our homes as a Biophilic homage to nature, a homage to all which makes us happy. Paula, a fellow West Seattleite, focuses much of her interior design work on creating timeless kitchens and bathrooms. But over the course of the last few years, she has also begun studying and teaching Biophilic interior design to a new corps of up-and-coming designers. I knew I had to talk to her for this guide.
“Here in the Pacific Northwest, we probably spend even more than 80 percent of our days inside just because of the nature of our weather,” she says. “Meanwhile, every day we are learning more about the health benefits of bringing elements of nature inside. Turns out, the power of creating spaces in our homes that remind us of the outdoors is just as powerful and grounding for our bodies and minds as actually being out.”
Now, it merits mentioning again that Paula still goes for long walks along our local Alki Beach or through the woods behind her boyfriend’s house in Kirkland all the time to get her nature fix. Remember, it’s not one or the other. But by doing things like enhancing the flow of natural light in spaces, using natural color schemes, lots of house plants and imagery of nature, she says she creates indoor spaces for her clients that reap many of the health and happiness benefits of nature when they can’t be outside. And who wouldn’t want to spend the vast majority of their time in that kind of sanctuary?
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
What are the benefits of Biophilic interior design?
So what are some of those specific benefits of nature that Biophilic interior design taps into, aside from holistically making us happy?
We do not even realize it, but nature actually helps us heal — both physically and mentally. “Studies have shown that having a connection with natural surroundings (from spending time in gardens to petting animals, forest bathing to looking at images of nature) can improve memory and concentration, reduce anxiety and depression, and significantly reduce stress levels,” writes Sally Coulthard in “Biophilia: You + Nature + Home.” “People also show physiological responses to nature - from lower heart rates and blood pressure, to improved immune response, reduced inflammation and better sleep patterns.”
Coulthard lists numerous other benefits of being more connected to nature, looking at nature or being surrounded by natural elements, including:
- Reduced cortisol levels, the stress hormone
- Elevated white blood cell counts, crucial for immune health
- Improved attention in children and adults
- Boosted focus and creativity, including problem-solving
- A calmer mind and a boosted self-esteem
- Improved short-term memory
- Encouragement to develop healthy lifestyle habits
- Increased longevity
I’ll take one of everything, please.
But honestly, my favorite and most simple way to think about creating a connection to nature in our homes and workspaces is the idea of micro-breaks. In an age when most of our days are seemingly made up of rushing from task to task, nature’s proven ability to pull us back into the here and now becomes a welcome and crucial element for keeping our sanity. “Even just a fleeting glimpse of nature is restorative,” writes Sally Coulthard.
She recounts a study done in Australia a few years ago. A bunch of people were given a menial computer task. After five minutes, they were asked to look at an image. One half of the group looked at an image of a rooftop garden, the other half at an image of a concrete roof. Just 40 seconds later, they were asked to continue with their task. Team “rooftop garden” saw their concentration rise, team “concrete rooftop” saw theirs fall. “The study’s findings suggest that taking these little 40-second green micro-breaks - glancing at nature through a window, at a natural image on the wall, or even on a screen - genuinely helped performance in the workplace,” Coulthard concluded. A number of studies have found similar results.
I like to think of these beneficial mirco-breaks as opportunities to dream. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t see anything wrong with allowing ourselves to daydream. In fact, I believe it makes us happy if we allow our racing minds to seek out a restorative place in our imagination. It certainly is when and where I have my best ideas. Such is the power of nature: it spurs the imagination — and thanks to Biophilia, that process happens, well, naturally, without us having to try.
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“It’s important what we feed our minds,” explains interior designer Paula Kennedy. “We all have an active imagination, and we usually go to our happy place in our daydreams. Mentally and emotionally, giving ourselves that opportunity is so important for our happiness.”
That thought rings especially true in places with lots of variable weather and long, dark winters where we spend more time inside than elsewhere (yes, I am looking at you, PNW). Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the Danish concept of hygge. Now, hygge is much more of a feeling than a design style, but one influences the other, really.
Hygge really is the search for emotional comfort. It’s a sense of community when a group of friends comes together around a table filled with good food and the kind of laughter that makes your belly hurt. It’s the warmth of our favorite cozy blanket and flickering candlelight. It’s the smell of coffee brewing and the way wood feels when we touch it. It’s cuddling on the couch with your dog, and it is the sound of the ocean. Hygge can mean many things to many people, but much of it is born out of connection. It’s no surprise that this idea originated in a place where a lot of that emotional comfort needs to be sought and (re)created indoors, most often with the help of natural elements. A lot of hygge really is Biophilia in action.
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What are the elements of Biophilic interior design?
The whole purpose of this guide is to inspire you to be more intentional about your natural interior design — that’s why I want to take a minute first to explain why you might want to consider specific design elements such as wood, water, and horizontal lines before telling you how to use them in the next section. Make sense? Note, by the way, how a lot of these Biophilic elements are the same as in traditional Chinese Feng Shui and can be used very similarly, too.
- Wood: Wood is an element of life, of growth, of strength and stability. It nurtures and inspires.
- Fire/Light: Fire is associated with strength. It provides warmth, comfort, gives us feelings of coziness. It also drives out darkness.
- Earth: Earth is the element of stability, roundedness, fertility, potential and stillness. Earth can also be an element of beginnings and endings. It provides balance, support and is centering.
- Metal: Harnessing the metal element in your home can help you simplify your life, explains Paula Kennedy. It helps clear mental fog and creates organization out of chaos. It helps you clear your mind so you can access creative thinking and take advantage of new opportunities that come your way.
- Water: Water is the element of emotion and the subconscious. It invites contemplation, calmness, observation, forgiveness and acceptance.
- Air: From the first breath of life (om), air is the element of intelligence, creativity and beginnings. It is connected to the mind, to wisdom, the spirits and the soul.
- Organic Shapes:
- Horizontal lines make us feel calm and peaceful, as they remind our subconscious of water and the promise of the horizon.
- Fractals repeat the same shape in different sizes — think of a tree limb that divides into smaller branches, a stream with its many tributaries or the leaf of a fern. Looking at this particular pattern is soothing: it engages the mind and relaxes it at the same time — that’s because fractals stimulate the part of the brain that regulates emotion and is also activated when we listen to music.
- Research also shows that our minds prefer curves over hard edges. The brain automatically associates the latter with discomfort and danger, whereas soft curves, like those found in shells, ease that fight-or-flight response. Sally Coulthard writes in her book of one study about interior design that found people were much more likely to call rooms with rounded decor (think couches, tables, chairs etc.) “beautiful,” and researchers discovered that those rooms produce significantly more brain activity.
- Circles have dominated design, architecture and symbolism since the earliest days of humanity. They abound in nature, and our most important natural cues, the sun and the moon, are also both round.
Symmetry helps the mind make sense of chaos. It signals that something is healthy. But: Too much symmetry can start to get boring. “Nature is rarely perfect, and our experience tells us that,” writes Sally Coulthard. Yet, “symmetry is successful in an interior scheme because it is predictable and comforting.” Studies, she says, show that even non-human species seem to be drawn to symmetry: Honeybees prefer flowers with radial symmetry.
“An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.” — John Ruskin
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Biophilic interior design ideas: How to use it in your home
My own first attempt at Biophilic interior design was, in retrospect, a bit of a disaster. It happened, out of all places, in Washington, D.C. I didn’t even know I was doing it at the time. What I did know was that a few months earlier, I had left my beloved life in Colorado’s mountains behind to take a job in the cutthroat world of political media in the nation’s capital. I quickly realized how much I missed life in the mountains.
I felt so withdrawn from that liberating sense out West that I made a desperate attempt to turn my tiny downtown high-riser apartment into a log cabin — fake yellow aspen tree, supremely heavy log furniture and a thoroughly annoyed girlfriend included. Yeah… it was a lot. (Don’t worry, the girl still married me.) It was a layman’s foray into the world of Biophilic interior design, and yes, one that makes me cringe a little bit thinking about it now. But it was an effort born out of desire: A desire to connect with what I loved, what I missed: my happy place.
I have since spent a lot of time studying Biophilic interior design principles, and I have learned that to reap many of the benefits of Biophilic interior design, we don’t need to go overboard. Even more good news: Most common interior design styles already invite you to use lots of natural materials. So whether you like a mid-century modern aesthetic, or coastal, BoHo, farmhouse or rustic — you don’t need to remodel to more intentionally bring nature home.
“Use things like leather surfaces, area rugs, artwork and other natural finishes to create a subtle nod to the natural place you love,” says Andrea Bushdorf, another West Seattle interior designer who embraces the use of Biophilic elements in her beautiful designs and who was gracious enough to lend her expertise to this guide.
“I’m a big proponent of plants if people can handle them,” she says. “But bringing in natural elements goes beyond using real plants. It’s really important for us to find ways to ground ourselves. That could be rocks on the bathroom floor, in an accent piece or on your fireplace.” Were she to design the kind of cabin-y space I envisioned in DC, she says she would turn to big chunky wood pieces with heavy grains, and maybe mix in some sandy desert color pallets and terracotta that transport us to the Southwest.
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The same concepts, albeit with different finishes, apply for those who hope to replicate the more local Pacific Northwest aesthetic, says Paula Kennedy. Given her specialization in bathrooms and kitchens, she often turns to the use of color and texture in tiles and natural, raw door hardware that pay homage to the great PNW outdoors. “All the different color pallets of our region are very Biophilic,” she says. “They are very natural, earthy, sometimes a little bit more subdued neutrals.”
As you maybe have gathered by now, there — thankfully — is no one formula for how to create a Biophilic interior design. Rather, it comes down to personal preference in materials and colors, and the kind of place you live in (or would love to live in). That being said, Sally Coulthard created a few general guidelines as well as a handy Biophilia shopping list in her book that I want to share with you here.
- Use natural materials for both construction and the finishing touches. “Often a natural material used in the structure of a building is so attractive that it acts as its own decor — constructional timber frames, for example, or hand-made bricks,” writes Coulthard.
- Use things fit for purpose. For example, learn which wood types are most functional and appealing for the type of flooring you envision and need for your family life. In my house, fit for purpose means hanging all plants from the ceiling so our plant-obsessed cat can’t eat them and our doofus of a dog can’t knock them over.
- Aim for a sensory-rich interior: The idea is to create a space that gives your mind the opportunity to physically and emotionally experience a variety of different natural materials — “by touching them, walking on them, laying on them, seeing them, smelling them and so on,” Coulthard writes.
- Use varieties of material indigenous to where you live
- Keep materials as minimally processed as possible, without compromising comfort or utility.
Doing internet research for this guide, I also came upon three more nuggets of helpful advice, these ones courtesy of British interior specialists Ellei Home.
- Harmonious color combinations: You’ve heard interior designers Paula Kennedy and Andrea Bushdorf talk about the importance of color in their work. Ellei Home shares a useful tip on how to take inspiration from nature for our color selections, “as nature creates harmonious color combinations that we instinctively find pleasing”: Collect a few photos of natural scenes whose color schemes you find especially pleasing, and analyze those colors. Then try and find replications of those colors for accent walls or painting entire spaces. Also be aware of how your favorite colors have the power to influence your mood.
- Leave negative space: This one speaks to our longing for simplicity. “An often-overlooked point of inspiration from nature is the calming effect that can be created by leaving empty or negative space within a design,” write the fine folks at Ellei Home. “Some of the most soothing landscapes are expansive open spaces with room to breathe, like a seascape, a lake view or an open plain. Incorporating negative space into our interiors creates an expansive and calming feel to a home.”
- Embrace imperfection: We usually try and make our homes look as polished as possible. But nature is rarely perfect, and there is beauty in that imperfection that we can bring inside. It allows us to mix the old with the new — like newer furniture sitting on top of reclaimed wood floors as well as using aged copper and marble in an otherwise more contemporary kitchen. Say the experts at Ellei Home: “Not only is this look more forgiving than a more-difficult-to-live-with minimalist modern style, it infuses an interior with depth and soul, giving the eye more to discover and linger on.”
With all that in mind, as promised, here is an (incomplete) shopping list to get you started on your own multi-sensory Biophilic interior design journey.
- Stone, rocks & crystals
- Pampas grass
- Salt lamps
- Scented candles
- Essential oils (my favorites are cypress and eucalyptus)
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What about using artwork in Biophilic interior design?
You’ve read in various parts of this guide about the healing ways of even just looking at nature in a photograph. So yes, nature-based artwork can, and in a development that shocks absolutely no one I believe it should, play a role in your interior design.
To be clear: Why one piece of art speaks to us more than another will forever be a wonderfully personal and oftentimes irrational thing. But Biophilia and Biophilic interior design do help to explain why landscape art in general has always been one of the most popular art forms.
Master artists like van Gogh and Monet didn’t just paint beautiful natural scenes. We now understand much better how they spoke to us on a primal level — the extraordinary beauty and unparalleled artistry of their work is ultimately simply the expression of a longing for connection with nature, captured in the masterful use of colors, shapes and representations of light (art critics, please don’t yell at me. Thanks).
Let’s state the most obvious fact of all time: I am no van Gogh. I am no Monet. But I believe I see the world in somewhat similar ways, and their works certainly influence my own artistic vision of nature, of channelling moments of awe and serenity into a timeless piece of photographic art that invites you on a journey to your happy place.
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From the moment interior designer Paula Kennedy walked into my West Seattle photography gallery, she was fixated on my image FOREST FLOWER. “This piece invites me to step right into these woods,” she said, “I want to create a reading nook around this piece where I can sit and meditate.” Miles and miles from the depth of the Redwood forest, an instant connection was forged that morning.
“Biophilic art challenges our perceived separation from nature,” write the authors of the Biophilic Cities Project report. “It helps us to experience a connection with our natural selves. By summoning up the senses and becoming present in and with nature, a pause moment is created, which develops into a more discerning emotional awareness of our wellbeing.”
There it is again, the idea of the micro-break. Time to take a breath. Time to refocus on what we value most, and to unlock unknown depths of energy. Art and nature are both a refuge for exhausted and overstimulated minds.
Remember when I was talking about fractals earlier, those repetitive, self-similar natural patterns we see in the leaf of a fern or the branches of a tree and a thousand other places? Researchers now know that looking at these fractals in a piece of art leads to as much as a whopping 60 percent reduction in stress levels. These effects are real, and they are powerful. So powerful actually that NASA employed them to help the psyche of astronauts living in windowless rooms in outer space. They learnt that looking at images of fractals for for as little as 10 seconds was enough to trigger the desired effect of greatly reduced stress levels. Your dentist does a similar thing, if you’ve ever noticed it: Just before they zonk you out and go to town with the drill, they have you look at a screen with a calming nature scene.
If it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for our homes, don’t you think?
But creating your dream space — a room with a view — is not just about measurable scientific facts and benefits, thank God. There’s the immeasurable worth, too, the sense of wonder and curiosity and awe, which, romantic as they are, all still happen to be rooted in Biophilia. The artwork you choose is an expression of your values and your belief system, of the places you love and the things you cherish. Art is a window into your happy place.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you do so for a reason, right? You likely feel a visceral connection to this beautiful and wild place, right? Chances are you believe in wellness, in sustainability, in the virtues of challenging yourself, of exploration, immersion and appreciating a beautiful moment when you see it. All of that influences the kind of artwork you choose for your home and the things you surround yourself with on a daily basis. All of that is rooted in connection to the natural world. All of that is Biophilia. Or, as the talented painter Sarah Griffith so beautifully put it, “A passion for art is a passion for life itself.”
Biophilia is the love of life, remember? That, right there, is the art of Biophilic interior design.
Knowing all of this, it’s maybe less surprising then that researchers in Korea have found that looking at images of nature makes us more empathic, too. And so I want to leave you with this thought: What kind of a beautiful world could we live in if only we re-introduced more empathy into our lives, toward each other, toward ourselves and this beautiful planet we call home? Empathy is in our nature. It is about time we find it again.
“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” — John Ruskin
Recommended Reading List:
Florence Williams — The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier And More Creative
Sally Coulthard — Biophilia: You + Nature + Home
Sarah Williams Goldhagen — Welcome To Your World: How The Built Environment Shapes Our Lives
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