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How Biophilia and Art Influence Interior Design

Embracing the natural influence of biophilia and art in interior design reduces the everyday traumas we experience in any settings.

03/22/2019 By Barry Svigals, FAIA and Julia McFadden, AIA

Beyond simply accommodating our needs, good design has the capacity to nurture and sustain. In fact, emerging evidence shows that by integrating the beauty of nature and art into interior environments, we as architects and designers even wield the power to heal.

Sustainable design elements such as daylighting and outdoor views are one toolset we commonly use to accomplish this, but new studies show that the A&D community can have an even greater influence on quality of life by embracing biophilia—our intrinsic human fondness for, and connection to, nature. Built environments that deprive occupants of this essential bond are flirting with premature obsolescence.

Social ecologist and author of “Biophilic Design” Stephen Kellert has gone so far as to call biophilia our “birthright” as human beings. At a recent talk about his documentary, “Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life,” he described the experience of walking from a 2,500-car garage into 55 Park Street, a new lab building in New Haven, Conn. adjoining and supporting a cancer treatment center. This transition—one that many people experience—can be jarring and unpleasant. Yet he described his sense of “calm and uplift” as he passed from the dark garage into a soaring atrium dappled with sun, plantings and colorful panels. That’s the power of biophilic design at work.

What is Biophilia?

At the heart of biophilia is a need, deeply encoded within our DNA, for connection to the natural world. That includes sunlight, trees and flowers, and natural materials like wood, sand, leaves and stone. But just as deeply encoded is our intrinsic response to representations of these elements.

Listen: 6 Biophilia Trends You Should Consider for Your Next Interior Project

New research in the field of evidence-based design (EBD) is revealing what could be called a biophilic response to figurative art that is as strong as the reaction we have to nature itself. For example, researchers Kathy Hathorn and Upali Nanda found that, regardless of race or other demographic factors, “responses to figurative art depicting caring faces and positive body language were the same”—and overwhelmingly positive. Patients also preferred representational art to abstract; children gravitate toward “nature images with bright colors, water features and non-threatening wildlife” to most artwork alternatives—even cartoons—in the studies reviewed.

It turns out that art, like a mirror, reminds us of our humanity and place in nature—especially figurative art depicting human forms or shapes culled from the natural world. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to incorporate figurative art into building designs and interior spaces. Figurative art allows the design team to establish explicit connections to the earth, as well as to the building’s mission and use. Like biophilic design, it can also be a critical element in environments built to nurture, support and protect, including hospitals, senior care facilities, veteran housing, and even schools and libraries.

Research also shows how natural imagery and figurative art contribute to the restoration of directed attention, a central modality of Attention Restoration Theory, which posits that people can concentrate better after being exposed to nature. Just as nature can transfix and fascinate people in a healing way, so too can representations of the natural world. For those confined indoors, artwork of this kind can also provide a “sense of extent,” or a relationship to the vastness of the outdoors. In this way—and like biophilic design—figurative art is a valuable antidote to our largely indoor existence.

Local and Regional Themes

An example of figurative art’s transformative effects can be found in Bridgeport, Conn.’s new Interdistrict Discovery Magnet School (IDMS), an earth sciences-themed school adjacent to a wetlands area and designed in consultation with staff of the nearby Discovery Museum. Drawing on the planned curriculum focusing on earth sciences and math, the walls are built with integrated “fossils”—tiles created by students and embedded into decorative bands of color reminiscent of geological strata. Such elements make IDMS a welcoming place and a “building that teaches, too,” to quote one educator.

For students from Bridgeport’s struggling inner city, the school is also a place of nurturing and respite. As many teachers know, this is critical today. “The insidious traumas in everyday life are often neglected or minimized, yet research tells us that the effects they generate can be serious,” says psychologist Doug Haldeman, who has studied the effects of bullying, discriminatory treatment and “micro-aggressions” triggered by one’s race or sexual orientation. In these contexts, figurative art provides an outlet and a means of reflection. Like biophilic elements and outdoor views, it becomes a positive distraction.

Figurative art can also be used to express local and regional themes in ways that help connect entire communities. For example, the recently opened Jonathan E. Reed School in Waterbury, Conn. features integrated art intended to connect children staff and visitors to nature and the local heritage. The imagery of bas relief panels and applied sculptures evoke natural cycles such as the seasons and day and night. Other artworks tie the school to its local history as a clock-making town, and reflect the importance of water in the development of this riverside city.

Likewise, at the Columbus Family Academy in New Haven, the school’s façade features sculptural panels depicting wave and wind patterns, and human forms that represent the “four winds.” Intermingled with shifting brick patterns, the sculptural patterns break down the building’s mass and function as a symbol of the surrounding ethnic diversity.

The Future Challenge of Interior Design

Moving forward, evidence-based healing principles must serve as the starting point for the design of spaces like clinics, schools, offices and community centers. Green building principles are a necessary component for any modern building, but in order to nurture and offer space for healing, restorative elements of beauty—as seen in the principles of biophilia and attention restoration—are essential. Biophilic stimuli and figurative artwork connect us to the earth and natural cycles—relationships that are essential to the healing process, even for those not occupying a hospital bed.

One could put it this way: Figurative art touches more of the self than the work itself. By saying something expressively rather than directly, layers of meaning are conveyed that defy words. Figurative works in interiors and architecture invite the occupant to become involved on any level that he or she is able to, and that is when true healing begins.

This article originally published on November 1, 2013

Barry Svigals, FAIA, is founding partner and Julia McFadden, AIA, is an associate principal for Svigals + Partners in New Haven, Conn., a full-service architecture and planning firm specializing in educational facilities, laboratories and the integration of art and architecture.

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