Whether sophisticated about design or indifferent, most people whether sophisticated about design or indifferent, most people would agree that some spaces feel good and in others we experience discomfort and unease. Writers have explored the lived experience of architecture and its various idioms in works of literature and philosophy. Neuroscientists and psychologists contribute evidence-based data to the discussion of how interior spaces can affect mood, behaviour and decisions. Architects and designers bring theory and real-world experience to the process of design. Yet even intuitively, we know that the way light falls in a room can charm and delight; we feel that some colors are cheerful and others are grave.
In his book “The Architecture of Happiness,” Alain de Botton eloquently expresses our susceptibility to architecture and design: “Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined. We seek …metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs and an air of honesty and forth-rightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn stone steps that hint at wisdom….”
Verda Alexander, principal of Studio O+A, also refers to the symbolic function of design in an interview in Interiors magazine. She notes that Studio O+A’s design of the Uber headquarters in San Francisco was driven by the company’s “ethos of populist luxury,” the intent to provide a broad demographic with access to the luxury of a private driver. The concept becomes tangible in rich materials like walnut, copper and leather balanced by “economy class” concrete and raw steel; a cool onyx wall in “dialogue” with the warmth of an Eames lounge chair; a stretch of open workbenches mixed with niches for private work. The design tells the story of collective creativity, a narrative that engages those who visit and those who inhabit the Uber space.
Given the expressive potential of buildings and our human tendency to associate ideas and feelings with the settings we encounter and inhabit, designers must consider what combination of volumes and planes, colors and textures, will elicit the desired response. What materials speak to the appropriate virtues and values? What sort of spaces can help to make people at work more creative, productive, healthy and happy?
There is a general consensus that fresh air and a pleasant view through a window are good things—and research supports that belief with data about the myriad benefits of airy, sunlit rooms. Other research amends our assumptions and we have gained new knowledge about human perception. There is, for example, the evidence that human beings crave the visual complexity of nature and, further, that complex fractal patterns can trigger positive behaviors. Lorraine Francis, Regional Director of Hospitality Interiors at Gensler reports that, based on recent studies, designers are now incorporating patterns that replicate or echo nature, not only to create a more “pleasant experience, but also trigger a deeper affinity to certain brands.”
As yet, no one can systematically correlate patterns, colors and textures with specific responses—and be always and everywhere accurate. Each person brings his or her own memories, dreams and reflections to the encounter with edifices and spaces. It is, however, a subject worth our consideration. But first, what are the elements of an interior that we perceive and respond to either consciously or unconsciously? What formal and material features of an environment have an impact on how we feel, think and behave?