Blurring Boundaries in Interior Design

A new emphasis on health and well-being

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As NASA releases images and even sounds of Mars—testing and pushing the boundaries of space travel—it seems extraordinary that in this same period humanity has suffered physical restrictions on a scale that few ever imagined. The extreme limitations of the COVID-19 world were perfectly captured by a solitary dancer in Valencia’s first lockdown, Albert García, who performed in the empty street below his apartment, a rubbish bag in his hand, while neighbors applauded from their balconies. Before the pandemic we could not have envisaged such a narrowing of parameters. But creativity and warmth can also be the outcome of crisis.

Social isolation and physical withdrawal into our interior worlds have meant that COVID-19 has transformed our experience of boundaries, forcing our homes to take on multiple roles (from refuge to workplace to school); and this extreme compression of our lives, particularly for those living in high-density urban environments, has resulted in increased concern for mental as well as physical health. The ways in which we compartmentalize our spaces, and by extension our minds and emotions, have been disrupted and challenged. We have lost definitions. But COVID-19 has taught us something too.

As lockdown began, people reported that nature became brighter and more audible: birdsong was louder, the color of trees and sky more vivid as air pollution dropped. There has been a reconnection to nature, and people have filled their sanitized homes with plants, reporting an increase in positive feelings, concentration and productivity. For those without private outdoor space, interior gardens have been a way to bring the outside in, to clean the air and create small sanctuaries of green for the mind and senses.

Interior design in Japan Aroma Environment Association, Tokyo.
Japan Aroma Environment Association base facility, Tokyo, due 2021, Kengo Kuma & Associates. Image courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates

Interior design has ventured outside fashion and into the realms of medicine. But not for the first time. And in looking at precedents both ancient and modern, it is perhaps possible to imagine how the future will be changed by COVID-19.

Echoes from the past

The experience of 2020-21 has forced us to think about health and hygiene with a new intensity, just as the Spanish flu did a century ago. The loss of 50 million lives to the postwar pandemic in 1918-19 had a profound influence on the development of modernism, blurring the boundaries between design and physical health. There was a new emphasis on movement, dance and sport, as interiors filled with sunlight, aerodynamic forms and streamlined furnishings that collected less dust and dirt. Blending with this pragmatism and machine aesthetic was the utopian vision expressed by Le Corbusier, of roof gardens and long windows “through which light and air can come flooding in.” In our own century, as we move past 2.5 million COVID deaths—many in the most deprived inner-city areas—and as scientists study the inhibiting effects of light on germs and bacteria, these familiar words have a new meaning.

The design of the sanitorium also became a modernist focus in the 1920s and 30s, and its influence filtered through to other building types and interiors. Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanitorium (1932) featured long balconies, roof terraces and sun-infused interiors. But having grown up in the Finnish forests Aalto also believed in nature’s healing properties, turning to the warmth of wood rather than the cold reflections of steel to create his ergonomic bentwood chairs. He studied the psychological responses to natural materials and contours, and analyzed the effects of light, color and sound on the nervous system, softening the machine aesthetic and calling his building “a medical instrument.”

A detail of an interior design project in Tokyo.
Japan Aroma Environment Association base facility, Tokyo, due 2021, Kengo Kuma & Associates. Image courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates

Aalto’s influence still echoes in projects today, by designers at the forefront of innovation and sustainability, who balance natural materials with technology to create peaceful, productive environments. Among these pioneers are Japanese architects Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma, whose understanding and respect for organic materials such as paper, wood and bamboo, rooted in ancient Japanese traditions, is accompanied by the dissolving of borders and material transformations. Through handcraft and advanced technologies, a lightness is achieved that becomes a form of visual poetry, with textures experienced without touch—an important consideration as we move forwards. In a current project, Kuma is even using the scent of trees as a design instrument.

Designing for the mind and body

We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so can only begin to picture the health-oriented interiors, both private and shared, of the new 20s and 30s, which will also be shaped by climate change. But what is clear from the COVID-19 experience is that the design solutions for both crises will overlap, and that what is needed by nature is also needed by us. Perhaps a glimpse of this future can be found in the healthcare interiors that have opened or developed during the pandemic.

Interior design of the Moorfields Eye Hospital, London.
The Oriel, Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, due 2025-26, White Arkitekter. Image courtesy White Arkitekter

These include Heatherwick Studio’s Maggie’s Centre in Leeds, The Oriel (Moorfields Eye Hospital) in London and the Borås Psychiatric Clinic in Sweden, designed using evidence-based research by White Arkitekter, who hosted a fascinating webinar on design and mental health in February 2021. In all these multifunctional spaces, there is a heightened connection to nature, and a new warmth, empathy and blurring of boundaries, to balance clinical necessity with well-being.

Perhaps too, as Aalto believed and scientists are now confirming, individual elements in interior design—light, materials (especially wood), colours, textures, acoustics, and the intersection points with the outside world—can be reinvented as “medical tools” (to use the Finnish architect’s phrase) in both a healing and preventative sense, for the mind as well as the body.

Main image: Maggie’s Centre, Leeds, UK, June 2020, Heatherwick Studio. Photo © Hufton+Crow

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