How Our Spaces Shape Us

Read the first part of this two-part blog post here.

The quality of our internal freedom, how free we are to respond to the realities of the present moment, is shaped and influenced by many and varied elements. The spaces and places we live and spend our time in are one of them. They can exert a powerful influence on our internal states. They can nourish and support us to thrive or they can introduce little stressors into our daily existence that take away from our capacity to respond fully and appropriately to the realities of the present moment.

In his book The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life, architect and theorist Christopher Alexander notes that all humans have an innate and natural capacity to freely “solve problems, to develop, to move toward objects of desire, to contribute to the well-being of others in society, to create value in the world, and to love, to be exhilarated, to enjoy.” Human beings are born with this capacity to thrive. But while this innate capacity does not need to be created within us, it does need to be supported or at the very least not inhibited in order to unfold naturally.

Alexander points out that our capacity for internal freedom, which impacts this innate ability to thrive, can be compromised by the extent to which unresolved conflicts “take up mental and physical space” in our daily lives. The degree to which we are free to invest our mental energy into those factors that lead to our thriving such as love, compassion, and joy, is constrained by the internal and external stressors that we experience on a daily basis. The more stressors we are exposed to, the higher our mental load, and the less mental energy we have free to devote to a meaningful and pleasurable existence.

When the environments we spend our time in are designed and configured in a way that supports and enhances the activates of our daily lives they can reduce our mental load and facilitate our internal freedom. But when our spaces use up our mental energy, by not meeting our functional, emotional, and aesthetic needs or conversely by encouraging us to think “obsessively about the image [or look] of the environment while ignoring everyday feelings and practical realties”, they leave us less free to engage fully with those aspects of life that contribute to our thriving.

Environments that are most nourishing to us are ones in which we feel deeply comfortable. They support us to execute the activities of daily life with ease and pleasure and connect us to a deep and stable sense of ourselves. In Alexander’s words, environments which are most nurturing are those environments which are able to “support our life as most of us hope to live it.”

There is no single magic formula to creating these kinds of environments. For many of us the process of creating deeply nourishing spaces will be a continuous process of slow and thoughtful modification that needs to be carried out over time. This process allows for a steady evolution of a space where each new introduction is assessed in terms of how it enhances the whole aesthetically as well as functionally.

This holistic way of thinking about design is an entirely different way of engaging with the design process to the dominant image-focused one most of us are used to. In much of modern design, a ‘look’ is defined, often prior to anyone spending considerable time in the space, and then executed as closely to this vision as possible. On the other hand, the more fluid and dynamic approach allows for the time and space for decisions to unfold slowly, intentionally and iteratively. It is based on the simultaneous consideration of function, configuration and ornament in a way that allows these seemingly disparate elements to contribute to and enhance one another.

This process also demands a commitment to seeking solutions to all three elements at the same time and only accepting as satisfactory solutions that satisfy all three. The starting point rests on moving away from the idea of design as a visual solution and toward design as a process that simultaneously addresses practical, emotional, and aesthetic needs, each aspect enhancing and contributing to the other. It is about becoming mindful of this multiplicity in all aspects of design and learning to view the design process from a vantage point that does not pit them against one another as trade-offs but seeks solutions that satisfy all at once.

This approach to design can be facilitated by keeping the following questions in mind:

  • What are the function and practical needs this space will need to fulfil? There will be ones that we are aware of from the very beginning, but others will emerge more slowly over time. What tasks of daily life do we plan to carry out in the space and how do we want those tasks to unfold? With time, what are the tasks that we did not plan for but that we ultimately find ourselves carrying out in this space?
  • What are the different ways that our spaces can meet our aesthetic needs? But more importantly how can aesthetic and functional design choices be married so that they are not a trade-off? How can we encourage an approach where the best functional choice is also the more beautiful one? Christopher Alexander illustrates this point in his book The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life by referencing the design work created by the 19th century Shakers. The Shakers cultivated an attitude toward design that was at once incredibly practical and incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Their approach to design was so thoughtful that it sacrificed neither and only accepted solutions that satisfied both. For this reason, Shaker designs have endured until today and have been highly influential in inspiring many later designers
  • What are the emotional needs that we need our spaces to satisfy? Emotional needs go beyond function in that they do not merely allow us to complete the tasks of daily life with ease but in addition allow us to feel deep satisfaction and comfort while carrying them out. Giving consideration to both function and form contributes to meeting many of our emotional needs. But being mindful of how we can add comfort, pleasure and joy into our designs above and beyond function and form will make the end result even more rewarding.
  • Finally, what are the elements within our spaces that contribute to increasing our mental load and what can we do about them? What tasks are difficult to do? How do our homes frustrate us? What activities that we would like to be doing do they stop us from doing and why?

This approach to design requires that we cultivate an appreciation of design as an ongoing process. Understanding the full scope of our needs within a space before we have spent considerable time in it is challenging. The most satisfying results are most likely to come about as a result of the kind of deep and intuitive understanding that comes from having experienced the problems and potentials first-hand.  

Instead of seeing design as an intense burst that results in a finished and stagnant result, we can begin to recognise the evolution of our homes as an ongoing process. One which we can commit to for as long as we live in that space. Within this approach to design, we can aim to initially address our basic needs but still allow for blank space. As our lives continue to unfold within our homes, we can stay mindful of the above questions and keep working on creating spaces that increasingly meet our needs and pleasures.

Our environments have the ability to contribute positively or negatively to how free we are to respond to life as it unfolds. Whether our limited energy resources are bound up in processing small environmental stressors or are freed up to engage with life fully is, in part, shaped by how our environments are designed and put together. If we allow ourselves to embrace the design of our homes as a process that will unfold slowly and iteratively, we can give ourselves the space to embrace only those solutions that satisfy and sustain our functional, emotional and aesthetic needs all at once.

Our spaces have the ability to enhance the way we live. By supporting us in our daily functions, by providing emotional and aesthetic sustenance, they can free up our mental load so that we can bring more of ourselves to those activities that will lead us to thriving and growth.  

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Images above show our Brass Coffee Pour Over Stand, Classic French Table Glasses, Kapok Safari Daybed Mattresses in Plain Stripes and Traditional Stripes, Shuro Palm Hand Broom, Handmade Fluted Side Plate, Stone Washed Baguette Flatware Set, Handmade Heavy Linen Napkin Set in Warm White, Firesand Crackle Glaze Dish and Bowl, Hand Carved Cutting Board in Black Walnut, Pallares Solsona Kitchen Knife in small, Hand Dyed Velvet Cushion Covers in Serpentine and Olivine Ore and Ilse Crawford’s book A Frame for Life.

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