What science, color psychology, and interior designers tell us about creating a comforting space
Avacation home is doing its job when you step inside and say, “Ahhh.” For a getaway in Montauk, New York, interior designer Robert McKinley achieved that sensibility to the letter. The McKinley Bungalow Fairview—a 1970s ranch house he transformed into an Airbnb rental—is defined by a serene open-plan living space with natural wood floors and a tall, exposed-beam ceiling painted white. The minimalist house is furnished with comfortable sofas, oiled-wood chairs and tables, thick rugs, tapestries, hand-formed ceramics, and antiques. It’s tailormade for rest and relaxation, to comfort and soothe. A sister property, the McKinley Bungalow Federal, uses a similar approach.
One room in each bungalow feels especially cozy compared to the rest of the space. McKinley created a retreat-within-the-retreat feeling by painting the walls and ceilings in dark, rich colors. In Federal, he chose a deep green. In Fairview, it’s a rich, earthy terra-cotta red hue; the floor is carpeted wall-to-wall in seagrass, a coarse natural fiber almost like jute, layered with a soft vintage Moroccan rug; and the built-in daybed is covered in off-white linen and earth-tone pillows.
“The rest of the house is white and bright and airy and beachy and fresh, and that’s relaxing in that way,” McKinley says. “But what if you’re not in that mood? What if you want to be cocooned in a color you feel comfortable in, that makes you warm?”
While no one is planning beach getaways at the moment, that desire for a warm feeling has never been stronger than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, there is a collective aching for comfort, for soothing coping mechanisms to alleviate anxiety, grief, and overwhelming emotions wrought by the new coronavirus and its ripple effects through society: comfort baking, comfort shopping, eating comfort foods, and to find more comfort at home through the objects that surround us, like the textiles and decor items at the McKinley bungalow.
We’ve always asked a lot from our homes—to provide shelter, to reflect our personality, to offer financial security, to give a sense of belonging—but the COVID-19 pandemic is demanding even more. Seemingly overnight, they’ve become makeshift offices, schools, gyms, and even nightclubs. Importantly, shelter-in-place and social-distancing orders have turned homes into medicine to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, affirming that housing is health care and amplifying the longstanding issues of chronic homelessness, the affordable housing shortage, and unsafe and overcrowded living conditions.
If you are fortunate enough to have a home, you might also be thinking about ways it can become a more potent source of mental health care during these particularly trying times. Creating a space that is truly comforting and soothing requires more than reaching for the quick fix of a cozy pillow and blanket, as helpful as they are; it’s about tapping into sensibilities that speak to our deepest and most essential needs on a physical and psychological level.
While trends change, designing man-made environments to positively impact health and wellbeing is far from new. The ancient Roman engineer Vitruvius theorized about ideal and harmonious proportions in architecture and these ideals were revived during the Renaissance. In the 1860s, the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale theorized that spaces that were very clean and had fresh air, bright sunlight, pure water, and sanitation infrastructure (which she called “drainage”) had nurturing and therapeutic effects on patients.
Today, the concept of “healing environments” is common parlance in health care. Meanwhile, scientific research on the bodily and psychological effects of interior design has backed up some of the theories of architects and health care workers like Nightingale.
“Most people think about aesthetic experience as amorphous and emotional,” says Sarah Williams Goldhagen, an architectural critic and historian, and author of the recent book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, which explores architecture through the lens of science. “What’s become clear is that even though it feels that way, science, psychology, and studies of behavior can tell us a lot of things about aesthetic experience.”
While everyone has their own taste, it’s human nature to want and need certain things in our living spaces. As Goldhagen explores in her book, and explains to Curbed, the way most people respond to their environments happens subconsciously. What we sense—through sight, hearing, touch, and smell—factors into this response. Our brains constantly process information, seek cognitive stimulation, look for patterns, and try to create order.
To understand what brings us comfort and puts us at ease in a room, Goldhagen offers a few guiding concepts: Too much emptiness causes stress levels to rise. Spaces that are disorganized or chaotic also cause stress. Organized complexity, like the fractal patterns often found in nature, are soothing. The right temperature of light at the right time of day is essential for regulating our circadian rhythms and helping us sleep better. Texture is very important to calming the mind since the act of looking at something stimulates the same sensations as interacting with it.
“We are imaginatively interacting with the environment at all times, and the richer those stimulations are, the better you’re going to feel,” she says.
This holds true in Robert McKinley’s bungalows. The layering of weathered antiques; natural materials like wood, marble, and linen; and handmade furnishings in the spaces he designs is about using texture to speak to our subconscious. There’s a visually enticing tactility to them.
“It’s things that make me feel comfortable—objects that you want to touch, that you want to be next to,” he says. “When things are too smooth and too slick, they don’t have as much soul and they’re not as comforting. As humans, we all have flaws and imperfections and when the things around us have that too, it feels relatable… We let our guard down.”
Texture is also one of the most important elements of a comforting space to Suchi Reddy, an architect based in New York. And right now, amid social-distancing and stay-at-home orders, she believes it’s even more important, as people are not able to have as much physical contact as they want.
She recently participated in a webinar for People in Places, a speaking series about the relationship between humans and space, about designing for solitude, recommending exploring texture to create feelings of comfort. “It could be something so smooth you want to touch it, something softly reflective that bounces light,” she says.
In her own home, a 375-square-foot Manhattan studio she calls her sanctuary, Reddy prioritized texture by layering shades of cream and white in different materials. “It’s not sterile,” she says. “The tone-on-tone feeling bounces light and makes me comfortable—and I have a comfortable sofa.”
Filling our homes with items that invite us to touch them is an intuitive reaction to the desire for comfort. It’s something people have done a lot in recent years. Rounder furniture and more haptic upholstery and fabrics were popular well before the pandemic.
ABC Carpet & Home, a furnishings store in New York, has seen more sales of textiles, sofas, and rugs since stay-at-home orders began to be issued (children’s toys and flatware had the highest increases in sales, and a spokesperson declined to offer exact statistics). Colleen Newell, ABC Carpet & Home’s, executive vice president, also suggests purchasing items that are ethically produced and sourced as a way to add another layer of comfort. If you must consume, at least do it consciously. “It’s important to feel good about the pieces you invest in for your home—that they’re good for the planet and also bring you personal joy,” she says.
Fernish, a furniture rental service, has seen a 30 percent jump in the number of orders that include home decor objects—like artwork, pillows, lamps, throws, and rugs—and orders that only have these types of items in them. Before the stay-at-home order, that was a rarity.
“Since customers are home all day, they’re looking to add the little things that make their spaces more comfortable,” says Michael Barlow, co-founder of Fernish. “People want to be happy at home, or as happy as they can be during this difficult period.”
Finding simple ways to enjoy their time at home more and create soothing rituals has been a focus for Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, founders of the New York-based design firm Roman & Williams. Since the stay-at-home order was issued, they have been tending to their plants, resoaping their wood furniture, lighting scented candles, and cooking more.
“Bring nature in, light a candle, cook something that smells good,” Standefer and Alesch advise. “The ritual of setting a beautiful table and having something nourishing is calming. It shows you have not given up, and it’s a salve against fear and anxiety.”
Diane Rogers, a San Francisco-based architect and a senior strategist at IA Interior Architects, specializes in workspace design, where a common challenge is making people feel like they are flourishing, which increases happiness and productivity. In order to do that, she looks at how our bodies and brains process sensory information. She frames the challenge of creating calming and relaxing interiors through the lens of safety.
“None of us feel safe right now,” she says. “If you’re looking at how to make an environment that’s calming, comforting, and relaxing, you’re looking to use the things that signal to our brains that we are safe.”
The way you trick your body into feeling like you’re safe, Rogers says, is to provide a connection to nature. Multiple studies have shown that nature promotes healing and has therapeutic effects on people. Being in natural landscapes has been shown to reduce stress and mental fatigue. One landmark paper from 1984, which catalyzed the contemporary healing environments movement, found that patients recovering from surgery healed faster when they faced a window looking into a nature scene than patients who had a view of a wall. Even houseplants have positive effects on mood; some doctors are now prescribing houseplants to treat anxiety. A recent study found that looking at houseplants for a little as three minutes can reduce stress levels. Listening to the sounds of water has also been shown to reduce stress.
Rogers often uses biophilic design techniques—meaning exposure to natural light, air, water, plants, and landscapes and using images of nature, natural colors, and naturalistic shapes in a space—to achieve that sensibility. One of the most important things? Mimicking the sunlight, which changes warmth during the day. It’s cooler and bluer in the morning and becomes warmer and more golden through the day, which helps set circadian rhythms that tell our bodies when to sleep. Typical artificial lighting doesn’t do that, and in fact often does the exact opposite, especially when it comes to light from phone and computer screens.
“We spend so much time on screens with the wrong intensity, the wrong color, and the wrong time of day,” Rogers says. “We’re sending mixed signals and surprise surprise, we can’t sleep.”
If you’re not in the market for houseplants or new lighting, there is a very effective fix you can do right now: organizing and cleaning. A clutter-free and orderly space is also important for creating a sense of calm, according to Rogers.
“Creating a sense of composition in your space visually dials into how your body and brain respond to your environment so you can see a sense of order,” she says. “Understanding what’s in your space quickly is what would make you survive in the past. If it was so visually complex that you couldn’t see the snake that would strike you, you wouldn’t survive. Giving your brain a break is a way to relax the body as well.”
Rogers has followed much of her own advice in her 600-square-foot studio apartment in San Francisco. The space is minimalist, with white walls, wood floors, and dark wood finishes, but she’s filled the interior with as many houseplants as possible—she’s even temporarily adopted all of her office’s plants due to stay-at-home orders—and has done the same with an outdoor courtyard her space opens into.
“We’re inundated with plants,” Rogers says. “For me, that combination makes sense: Have a relatively simple space and fill it with life.”
Bringing the qualities of nature indoors is a longstanding design technique that people have been increasingly gravitating toward, particularly where it relates to color. In January, the British paint company Farrow & Ball announced nature-based greens and browns as the key colors of 2020. While green is a perennially popular color, it has been selling more than usual for the past three years.
“Obviously we’ve had an interesting couple of years here in the EU,” says Patrick O’Donnell, International Brand Ambassador at Farrow & Ball. “I think just the world’s felt like it’s been in flux for quite a while, so everybody wants something a little bit nostalgic, a little bit comforting. [After the financial crisis of 2008], everybody was doing gray interiors and that felt too clinical, too formal. I think everybody wanted something that felt right and safe and nostalgic and that’s why you get these colors of nature coming into the thought process while decorating now.”
Over the past couple of decades, new fields of study have emerged that attempt to explain and understand human perception, like cognitive neuroscience. This type of research has been applied by academics and practitioners curious about the non-culturally constructed reasons why we like art—which includes performing arts, music, fine art, and architecture—in a field known as neuroaesthetics, a term coined in 1999 by the neuroscientist Semir Zeki. In 2003, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies formed the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture to study how humans respond to man-made environments.
While cognitive neuroscience, neuroaesthetics, and neuroarchitecture are still very experimental—and scientists still only know a tiny fraction of how the brain works—this research has led to a deeper understanding of how humans experience the natural and built environment. There is skepticism in the scientific community about how much of our aesthetic responses can really be biologically explained since we are acculturated since birth. According to some experts, however, there is a lot that neuroscience can explain about why certain environments make us feel calm.
Neuroaesthetics was the subject of an installation by Google and Suchi Reddy at the Milan Furniture Fair last year. Visitors to “A Space for Being” spent time exploring three rooms, all designed to be calming but with different visual expressions, while wearing sensors that measured heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, skin conductivity, and movement. “There are some basic things that happen in our brains and bodies when exposed to certain stimuli,” Reddy says. “Spaces that are detailed stimulate certain neurons.”
The first room was inspired by cave homes, with stucco walls, a ceiling that curves where it meets the walls, earth-toned furniture, warm lighting, wood floors, and a large tapestry woven from wool. The second room was done up in brighter pastel furniture, gradient wallpaper, and polished concrete floors. The third room was mostly black and white, but had marble-tile walls with a textured surface. Google didn’t save user data on which room was more soothing than the others, but the first room was intended to be more relaxing.
When Reddy designs a space, she uses an intuitive approach of “form follows feeling,” a sensibility she developed well before she first learned of neuroaesthetics 10 years ago and one that feels especially useful for us today.
“For me, ‘form follows feeling’ is a more authentic place to design from versus following a trend superficially,” she says. “It feels specious to run after things versus understanding how they are supposed to deliver an experience.”
While color trends and furniture trends come and go, we all know, on some level, how we want our homes to make us feel. Thinking of design as a means to an end versus and end in and of itself—ahem, the Instagram aesthetic—is timeless, especially when it comes to what makes us, as individuals, feel comfortable.