Have you ever gazed at a canopy of leaves overhead, glowing in the sun’s rays, and felt a sense of calm fall over you? Or stood on a seashore listening to the waves as your worries melted away? It is well known that nature is good for the psyche. Simply looking at a forest—or even a single tree—can activate our body’s parasympathetic nervous system, making us feel more relaxed.
It follows, then, that bringing elements of the natural world into your home can help create a pleasant environment. “We are nature,” says Kelley Flynn of Kelley Flynn Interior Design in Oakland. “Natural things are soothing to human beings and [are not] separate from us.”
“We gravitate toward the outdoors, fresh air, greenery, living things, and flowing water,” says Yoko Oda of Walnut Creek’s Yoko Oda Interior Design. “The relationship between humans and nature is not only visual. It affects physical and mental health, fitness, and work productivity.”
Today, more and more architects are embracing biophilic design, which “impacts us in terms of our physiological, psychological or emotional, and cognitive health,” says Gail Brager, Ph.D., professor of architecture and associate director of the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley. “Research shows that people in hospitals who had views of nature had shorter hospital stays, faster healing times, and required less pain medication. And there are studies that have shown that connection to nature can lead to lower blood pressure, reduced stress, and increased positive emotional states.” Also, this connection improves short-term memory, mental engagement, and circadian health, which leads to better sleep.
The pandemic has made the design of our homes more important than ever. “I spend a whole lot more time in my home,” Brager says. “It’s both a home and a workplace now. What can I do to make myself feel better given that I spend 90 percent of my time in this one place?”
So, whether you’re designing a new house or simply refreshing your existing look, here are some of the many ways to experience nature indoors.
VISUALLY CONNECT TO THE OUTDOORS
Our modern indoor environments have, in many ways, separated us from the vibrancy and dyn amism of the natural world. In her research, Brager aims to understand why biophilic design has such a positive impact on humans. “I think this idea of variability is really key,” she says, “and experiential monotony can cause fatigue. Biophilic design is about connecting our love of nature to our affinity for variability in our environment. Visually, you could do that by having windows that give us the ability to see the sky and changes in weather on a daily or seasonal basis.” The more we’re exposed to the ever- changing qualities of natural light, rather than the relatively constant values of electric light, the better.
“Artificial lights are a necessary part of modern homes as they support our on-the-go lifestyles, but they can cause eyestrain and cause us to feel tired by messing with our natural biorhythms,” Oda says. “Be sure to choose window coverings that diffuse light from your windows instead of block it, so you can take advantage of natural daylight. This is very important in rooms where you spend a majority of your time. Home offices should always have a window to prevent headaches and keep us at our happiest.”
Another way to visually connect to nature is by maximizing views to the outdoors. In a recent project, for example, Oda opened up a small space by adding windows. “I also added a nice music system and, like I always do, lots of potted plants,” she says.
“Another way to do it is by having living room doors open to the patio, or repeating elements from the indoors into the outdoors,” says Flynn.
MIMIC NATURE INDOORS
In interior spaces, designers suggest incorporating elements of nature. “Use variations of color and texture,” Flynn suggests. “Nature has the most amazing color palettes. I grew up in the Midwest, and I find the colors of fields super soothing. Nature is one of the best teachers.”
“The sea, sky, clouds, and earth are all examples of color schemes that we can take inspiration from when deciding what palettes will create more natural living environments,” Oda says. “You can also get inspiration from the colors of fruits and vegetables or even your favorite animal.”
And make thoughtful decisions about materials. “Utilize textures that mimic the natural world—like fabrics such as linen, or materials like wood or stone,” Flynn says.
“The real thing is always better than the imitation,” Oda says, “and natural materials are often longer-lasting than their synthetic counterparts.”
Another idea is to incorporate shapes found in nature, such as shells and spirals, animal motifs, or botanical prints. “Organic shapes that occur in nature juxtaposed with perfectly straight angular pieces highlight the natural elements,” Oda says.
“I had a client who had a house in Piedmont with a view of a stand of established trees, and she wanted to mimic that,” Flynn says. “So we found a table with a tree trunk base and used mirrors to mimic it.” For another client’s bathroom, she used a beautiful graphic wallpaper with a tree motif.
You can also include treasures collected during your forays into the natural world, like driftwood, stones, or sea glass. “Bring natural objects into your home, even if it’s a vase of flowers,” Flynn says. “Anyone can do that.”
Oda is an enthusiastic advocate of filling a home with plant life. “There is a natural concept in Japanese design called nakaniwa, or a courtyard in the middle of a house,” she says. “I grew up in a household where there was always greenery in each room. Greenery, such as potted plants and arranged cut flowers, is visually beautiful and lightens up the mood of the space.”
ENGAGE ALL YOUR SENSES
Biophilic design ideally involves an experiential aesthetic that incorporates a range of sensory delights.
“We’ve been studying what is called alliesthesia,” Brager says. “That’s the idea that having some kind of variability or contrast—what gives us that thermal pleasure, that sense of awe. We know what it feels like if you’re outside and it’s really hot, and then you feel a breeze on your face, or if it’s cold and you’re near a campfire. We’re trying to bring that into the indoor environment.”
So, rather than closing up your home and heating or cooling all of the air to the same temperature—which creates thermal monotony—welcome the delicious variations of the great outdoors. “Open the windows and feel the breezes, hear the birds,” Brager suggests.
Brager also encourages people to avoid thinking in terms of a clear division between indoors and outdoors. “Think about having window seats or protective porches that allow you to be connected to the variability of the outdoor environment,” she recommends. “I think people’s instinct when it rains is to go inside and shut themselves off. But there are ways that you can have shelter and still have access to the pleasurable experiences of the rain’s sights, sounds, and smells.”
One way to achieve this is by adding human-made water features such as a bubbler, an indoor-outdoor fountain, or even recorded water sounds, which can help block out street noise and promote relaxation. “The sound of water is one of those primordial triggers for the mind,” Flynn says.
Scent is also a sensory stimulus that shouldn’t be overlooked. “Think about your garden, and plant fragrant plants near the entry to your home or windows, so there’s that smell upon entering your home,” Brager suggests.
CONSIDER SUNSETS AND SEASONS
“We tend to think about spaces in terms of their function— this is the kitchen, this is the bedroom,” Brager says. “But people can also think about how they occupy their homes based on time of day, season, or mood. Create your favorite dawn and dusk places, where you occupy the east- and west-facing rooms in the morning and the evening to enjoy the different color transitions around sunrise and sunset.”
Also consider making subtle decor changes to sync up with the change of the seasons. “Key furniture pieces tend to be neutral, so add some seasonal pops,” Oda says. “In addition, place seasonal flower arrangements on your dining table and coffee table.”
“I always bring in seasonal flowers in the spring and leaves with colors in the fall,” Flynn says.
In the architecture world, there’s a growing interest in biophilic design, with more homes and other buildings now being designed to reunite us with our natural surroundings. But even if you aren’t planning to build or remodel, there are myriad ways to bring nature’s calming influence into your home. “We’re increasingly aware of how the indoor environment can have a profound effect on our health and well-being,” Brager says. “A lot of it is just trusting our instincts. Be aware of what you like, look around your own space, and think about how you can create that connection to nature in multisensory ways.”
Living walls, which bring a healthy burst of lush rainforest to your home, have been gaining popularity. And lucky us, the East Bay is home to some of the most talented vegetation artists in the land.
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Founded by Bay Area resident and living-wall pioneer David Brenner, Habitat Horticulture created the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s extraordinary living wall, among other high-profile projects. In addition to its professionally designed walls, the company recently introduced Gromeo, a low-maintenance mini living-wall system for homes and personal spaces. habitathorticulture.com.
Planted Design | Emeryville
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