Creating a happy home

Decorating your way to a happy home by Phil

The pursuit of happiness is frequently discussed, contemplated and embarked upon. And I learnt recently, it’s something that is being incorporated into a new sphere of interior design. The fact is that most of the things we do, strive for, own or invent are done so in the hope that they will somehow bring us happiness and the feeling that we are safe, calm and contented.

The irony is however most of the things that we attribute to being the key to happiness – the pursuit of wealth, possessions and status – are often the very things that undermine our sense of wellbeing. However, an event I went to recently explored ‘Biophilic Design’ – a new kind of ‘natural interior design’ that can help those who would like to improve their wellbeing.

In general, we fret over keeping up with the Joneses; we feel terrible pressure to earn more, to own more, to be more; we suffer from constant FOMO, (fear of missing out). We invent and spend small fortunes on gadgets and activities designed to make our lives easier; computers, ipads, iphones, massive TVs, online shopping, virtual realities and computer games – but an easy life doesn’t necessarily mean a better life.

The consequence is that these days the average person spends 90% of their life indoors. A lot has been written about pollution outside but a lot is now being learnt about internal pollution within the home from the cleaning products and gadgets we use to the paints and furniture we choose. And as we continue to find ways of “enjoying” ourselves that often involve turning our backs on the fundamental factors that instinctively give us a sense of wellbeing – nature, fresh air, sunlight – mental health issues seem to be ever-increasing.

It’s not just our homes that can benefit from an element of biophilic design. There is evidence to suggest that productivity in the work place can be increased by up to 16% through creating a natural, calming environment. It’s no coincidence that companies such as Google and, interestingly, Amazon are incorporating biophilic design into their buildings to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

We can’t reverse progress; we can’t suddenly return to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of life where everyone spends their days working a plot of land to bring home a turnip and a potato for the pot each evening. We must continue to evolve. But if we are going to spend so much time inside buildings – and many people now work from home – then surely we must stop and think about the interior environment we are creating for ourselves.

Historically people have associated interior design with grandeur and finesse. The common perception being that to engage an interior designer to help with the refurbishment and decoration of a property is done to ensure that everything is slick and smart. That there are no terrible faux pas: the curtains match the cushions, the carpet goes with the wall colour, the furniture all ties in beautifully and there’s no clash of styles. Nothing insults the eye and the whole ensemble looks impressive. However biophilic design adds an extra dimension as it incorporates nature into the design and decoration of a property in order to enhance the wellbeing and mental health of its occupants.

Its principles are rooted in revisiting the primal things that made us feel happy long before iPhones were invented and bringing them back into our lives by getting them into our buildings. In a trilogy of fascinating lectures given in Buckinghamshire by Petina Julius (of Julius Interior Design) Blue Bamboo Design’s Michaela Springford and Claire Truman from Heritage Revival we were taken through the different aspects of biophlic design.

They included the fundamental, ‘open the windows to let fresh air and unfiltered daylight in’, to the more in-depth idea of using wallpaper with configurations of calming patterns that replicate the repetition of pattern we find in nature a pine cone or shape of a flower.

I learnt that there is a level of complexity of pattern, up to which we find calming, but after that it becomes overwhelming and has a counter-effect. As Springford explains:

“One of the challenges for designers is striking the balance between an information rich environment that is interesting and restorative and one where there is a surplus of information which is overwhelming and stressful.

It is important to strike a balance. Getting the correct balance helps stimulate the alpha and beta waves in our brains.  Alpha brain waves are dominate during quiet times and is the resting state of the brains.  They stimulate creativity, help mental co-ordination and learning.    Beta brain waves dominate our daily lives and help with logical thinking, decision making and problem solving.”

There is evidence to suggest that 40,000 years ago, cavemen were creating pattern repeats with hand prints on the walls of their caves. Regular repeated patterns are something we as humans find calming. I chuckled at the irony of this as some of my most stressful moments as a decorator have been caused by tricky pattern repeats in wallpaper I’ve been trying to hang, but let’s not spoil the moment with that!

As Bono famously sang: “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside”. He may have just been complaining about a lack of road signage but I’m sure we can all empathise with the sentiment of feeling cooped up in a building. According to Julius, Springford and Truman, ideally our internal environment should ensure we are able to engage with the outside from inside and this is achieved in several ways. They include:

Viewing nature outside from as much of the property as possible by having large glazed areas looking out onto plants

Ensuring that views can be seen from seated areas so our subconscious is acknowledging nature when we are sitting there; positioning chairs with their backs to the window somewhat negates the point of having the window there at all

Having plants inside is a massively calming influence when done in the correct proportion and in keeping with everything else. A small pot plant hidden away in the corner is unlikely to cure chronic depression but a degree of plant-life incorporated sympathetically to the design of a room can have a very positive impact on mental health

As Petina Julius says:

“Indoor plants transcend trends and are no longer just an object of decor. Plants have health benefits and should be considered as one of the necessities in creating a healthy environment. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants absorb the carbon dioxide and releases oxygen increasing the oxygen levels which our bodies appreciate. Plants are purifying. The leaves and roots remove toxic vapours from sealed environments. Studies have shown patients that have access to plants have a lower rating of pain, less anxiety and ,fatigue and recover quicker.”

Claire Truman showed a fascinating image during her talk that clearly illustrated the key aspects of biophilic design she had talked about. It was of a room with one side totally glazed with a curved ceiling clad in slats of natural timber that undulated in an upward curve until it met the glazed wall, thus drawing the eye up and out to the exterior. Within the room the furniture was curved and arrange in such a way that it created a safe “nest-like” environment.

Suffice to say that the biophilic guide to colour choices recommends using vibrant, natural colours. The psychology of colour has been covered in a blog interview with renowned colour psychologist Karen Haller

Biophilic design incorporates colours that trigger the senses and connect with the palette of the garden. Principles of soporific tones in the bedroom and more invigorating shades in the living spaces apply, but the basic tenet of, “if you wouldn’t find it in the garden, don’t use it in the house” would be a good starting point for those choosing colours using the biophilic approach.

So maybe the key to happiness isn’t possessions, gadgets, status and wealth. Perhaps happiness really does begin at home, where we can create a space that makes us feel safe, calm and contented. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.