What is Biophilic Design? This Nature-Based Interiors Trend Promises Wellness

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Last September, at the London Design Festival, participants were asked to craft a desk that would fit our current housebound lives. The eponymous studio of British architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick submitted a glass-and-maple-wood structure with undulating legs from which plants sprouted. “Exposure to natural environments…has very tangible improvements to brain functioning,” he said at the time. It’s a scientific statement underlined by common sense and freshly embraced by the design world: Biophilic design is good for you.

“There’s a reason why you have the aquarium at the dentist’s office,” says William D. Browning, co­­author of Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide, published in late 2020. The naming of the philosophy can be traced back to 1964, when German-​born thinker Erich Fromm coined the term bio (life) philia (lover) to describe mankind’s innate attraction to all things organic. “Even just a picture of nature, like a Hudson Valley landscape, will lower blood pressure and heart rate,” Browning says. In October 2019, Browning and his co­author Catie Ryan Balagtas helped publish a striking study: In a sixth-grade Baltimore classroom, they installed a carpet resembling prairie grass, wallpapered the ceiling with a palm-leaf print, and dressed the windows with silkscreened shades. After a year, the students performed an average of 3.3 times higher on test scores and showed greater stress resilience.

While indoor-plant sales have galloped along in the pandemic—the online nursery Bloomscape doubled its orders last March and April—these principles have made their way into more durable goods as well. Spanish rug company Nanimarquina crafts rugs with shags that reveal themselves to be little flowers; House of Hackney’s spring collection includes mushroom-shaped lamps; and Pakistan-​based Lél offers nesting tables with sinuous legs and floral-​inspired inlays. “In the early ’80s, this became a major discussion,” says Robin Standefer, of the design firm Roman and Williams. “It’s resurfaced in COVID because we are often cooped up and need to find ways to interact with nature—not only with plants but objects.” Biophilia, confirms Balagtas, “was already on the rise, but quarantine gave it a new life.”

Hard Furnishings 

References to nature both abstract and literal can enhance well-being. Be it a knotty-wooden stool that spirals like a shell from Commune, Lél’s art nouveau nesting tables with vine-like legs, or high-backed seating (like Opalhouse’s Brittana chair) that cocoons and cradles you. And the entire family of wicker, rattan, and cane will also do the trick. 

that looks like a palm tree by CB2, and even a vase hand-painted with clouds from Jonathan Hansen x Marie Daâge all make for biophilic interiors. Put it all together for a space that offers a bit of harmony.

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