The brief moment in time we are gifted on this planet is deeply coloured by the perpetual tension of opposing forces we strain and struggle to balance within our lives. We are creatures of many and varied needs. And yet our ability to thrive is confined only to a very narrow range of conditions. Physically, we can survive with neither too little nor too much, entirely reliant on our body’s ability to maintain its homeostatic equilibrium. Mentally, our thriving rests on our ability to preserve the delicate balance between the many opposing forces and needs that pull us in divergent directions. This tension begins from the moment we are born with our deep but opposing needs for both attachment and independence.
The longing to find balance between the pull of opposing forces is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human. But one interesting observation is that it also seems to underpin many of our innate aesthetic preferences and our preferences for the environments and spaces we find most beautiful and feel most comfortable in. What we yearn for aesthetically, much like in our lives, is balance.
When we peel back the notions of beauty that are imposed on us by culture, we are left with a set of more primal, innate preferences that are rooted in our evolutionary origins. Research has begun to tease apart the different aesthetic preferences that can be traced back to the kinds of environments that helped our ancestors to survive and thrive. What we are naturally drawn to is what protected our ancestors from threat and helped them to thrive. And even though these threats and rewards are no longer crucial for survival in urban landscapes, the remnants of their influence are still coded into our bodies and minds, shaping our aesthetic preferences and our preferences for the kinds of places we feel comfortable in.
The ideas I am about to discuss are largely based on insights from three fascinating books. These books consider not only the influence we have had on our environments but more importantly the influence they have on us. Christopher Alexander’s ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, Lily Bernheimer’s ‘The Shaping of Us’ and Colin Ellard’s ‘Places of the Heart’ offer thoughts on what it means to shape and be shaped by our environments. Though the insights offered in their texts are many and varied, all three books consider the idea that many of our preferences are rooted within what Christopher Alexander calls ‘the character of nature’. What we like aesthetically, comes in part, from the natural world we have evolved to thrive in.
And there is a further point nestled within the idea that our aesthetic preferences are rooted in the character of nature; so much of what we find pleasing, comforting and beautiful comes from the sensation that a balance has been achieved between the opposing forces that tug at our life.
I want to consider here (and in our next blog post) the various elements of our evolutionary heritage that have shaped our aesthetic preferences and begin to consider how we can use these insights to shape our surroundings into spaces that not only look beautiful but also make us feel comfortable and at ease.
Repetition and Variety
Christopher Alexander pointed out that ‘the character of nature’ is never modular. While nature is full of repeating elements that are almost exactly alike, each one is also unique. From individual leaves to blades of grass, mountains to snowflakes, nature is comprised of similar units that are very much alike in their broad structure but where the individual detail of each is never exactly the same.
In Alexander’s view, this repetition of patterns that preserve an element of variety within the individual units is what allows us to remain endlessly fascinated by nature. We can watch waves wash up on the beach for hours because no two waves are ever identical in spite of their repeating rhythmic pattern. As Alexander put it, in “all the sameness we never feel oppressed by the sameness. In all this variety, we never feel lost, as we do in the presence of variety we cannot understand.” From Alexander’s viewpoint, nature has an indefinable relaxedness that comes from the right balance of variety with familiar patterns. This balance makes us feel stimulated yet at ease because the familiar patterns are easy to process and understand while the novelty and variety offer enough to keep us captivated.
One very common way that nature balances variety and repetition is through the frequent appearance of fractals in nature. Fractals are repeating patterns that replicate on different scales. They are found everywhere in nature and create interest, in part, because their complexity is revealed gradually; as we look closer we discover ever more layers of repeating patterns at once novel and familiar.
The idea of repeating patterns but introducing variety through scale has been skilfully deployed by craftsmen, artisans and architects in the design of traditional objects and buildings for centuries. Floors, walls, cornicing and door and window frames were all decorated with repeating patterns of intricate detailing that had that wonderful natural appeal that results from the balance of repetition and variety. Repeating patterns on mouldings and cornicing or the fractal-like patterns on traditional tapestries such as Persian rugs, are examples of how the innate appeal of the familiar balanced with the novel has been harnessed in built environments for centuries.
In many ways, much of the complexity added to our homes through ornament and detailing was lost when modernist architecture overtook traditional building styles. An unfortunate consequence of this shift has left many modern environments stripped of the complex visual repetition and variety we have evolved to thrive on and feel comfortable in. Lily Bernheimer writes “mouldings may seem like boring features of stuffy buildings, which have little to do with nature. But the generous use of small-scale features creates a ‘cascade of detail’, which can display fractal characteristics in their relative scale without being identical in form.”
While not every home needs cornicing or mouldings to be appealing, the notion that we thrive within the balance of repetition and variety can nevertheless be skillfully applied to create more naturally appealing spaces. The repetition of detail on different scales unified by an overarching theme creates the kind of interesting interiors we are naturally drawn to. From using the same natural material like wood in a variety of well-balanced elements like flooring and decorative objects to the implementation of repeating patterns on walls, floors and door frames, the idea is to always consider how a larger narrative or pattern can be applied at various levels and how each can be varied slightly so that none are identical while all working to contribute towards a greater whole. It is through the skilful use of a balance between variety and repetition that we can begin to create rich and appealing environments.
Prospect and Refuge
Imagine you are entering your favourite café or restaurant and all of the seats are available. Which will you choose?
If given the choice most us will sit next to a window with our backs against a wall. Almost all humans have a near universal preference for spaces where we can see but not be seen. We feel most comfortable in places that offer the opportunity of looking out while at the same time offering shelter from being too exposed.
In ‘Places of the Heart – the Psychogeography of Everyday Life’ Colin Ellard reminds us that “we are innately attracted to places that for our forbearers might have made the difference between life and death. Our most expensive real estate often sits on hilltops or on the sides of cliffs facing expanses of water”.
Referencing the work of American geographer Jay Appleton (who in turn got his insights from the work of German ethologist Niko Tinbergen), Ellard writes that most animals have a preference for spending time in places where they can see but not be seen. The preference for places that offer a good outlook while allowing oneself not to be detected, Ellard argues, is crucial for the survival of both hunter and hunted and is, therefore, one of the essential criteria for habitat selection in animals. “Arguing for evolutionary continuity between us humans and other animals, [Appleton] suggest that the same basic principle, reworked in his argument as the concept of prospect and refuge, might help to account for our aesthetic preferences for particular kinds of natural landscapes”.
Our instinctive desire for spaces that offer both prospect and refuge is a beautiful guide for how to create cosy spaces we feel particularly comfortable and at ease in. Ellard points out that the wide appeal of architect Frank Lloyd Write’s domestic designs may be “related to his having had a remarkable, intuitive grasp of the important role that the geometry of prospect and refuge plays in shaping human comfort”.
Whether seen in children’s (and adults for that matter) love of treehouses or in our near-universal preference for the window seat in a restaurant, our desire for a balance between prospect and refuge is universal. Creating spaces with a good vantage point that also allow us to feel sheltered is a key component of creating spaces we feel comfortable in. From creating a reading nook that allows us to feel sheltered and secure while also offering a good view of either the life inside our home or the world outside, to designing a home with window seats that offer the kind of protected vantage point we love to spend time in, understanding just how much prospect and refuge shape our comfort is essential for designing homes that make us feel at ease.
In next week’s blog post we will continue to consider some of the forces from our evolutionary heritage that have shaped our aesthetic preferences and how we can begin to use these in the design our homes.
Images above show our Handmade Linen Tablecloth in Warm White and Handmade Linen Napkins in Warm White and Off-White, Handmade Fluted Dinner and Side Plates and Soup Bowls, Natural Shuro Palm Trivets, Stone Washed Baguette Flatware Set, Pallares Solsona Kitchen Knife in medium, Hand Carved Curly Maple Cutting Board, Hand Carved Cooking Spoon and Spatula in Sweet Gum and Black Walnut, Handmade Waffle Linen Kitchen Towel in Warm White, Handwoven WaffleTowel in Organic Unbleached Cotton, Various Natural Dish Brushes, The Clerk Coffee Pour Over Stand, Copper Tea and Coffee Canisters, Copper Kettle, Classic French Table Glasses, Handmade Crushed Linen Blanket in Warm White (coming soon), Firesand Snowflake Crackle Glaze Bowl and Dish and Hand Formed Cake Plate in Off-White.