This blog is a continuation on from last week’s blog post and I would recommend reading the previous entry first. Picking up from where we left off last week, I want to continue considering the various elements of our evolutionary heritage that have shaped our aesthetic preferences and how we can use these insights to design our surroundings into spaces that not only look beautiful but also make us feel comfortable and at ease.
Curiosity, Familiarity and Ordered Complexity
Our ability to process and organise complex information and our deep curiosity and yearning for novel stimuli are characteristic of precisely what made our species so successful. They also give some indication of the kind of complex environment full of challenging and novel stimuli that we have evolved to thrive in.
And yet, in spite of our need for both novelty and complexity, when we are presented with too much information without any organising principals, our brains become overwhelmed and we can become stressed. At the very least, being flooded with information without a means of making sense of it or organising it into a meaningful experience is not pleasant or pleasurable.
While we are delighted by novel information and experiences, we also have a need for this information to be balanced out by something familiar within the novelty that we can use to organise and make sense of new input. This need for a balance, familiarity and novelty is a key characteristic of the kinds of environments we find most appealing and naturally beautiful.
In addition to a balance between familiarity and novelty we also thrive on a balance between complexity and organisation. We don’t like spaces that are boring or sterile, but we also don’t like to be overwhelmed by visual information that does not have any organising principals. Lily Bernheimer points out that we love most is ‘ordered complexity’ which is a quality where complex elements are integrated into a coherent whole. She writes: “like a messy room, too much complexity can be disorienting. But as we’ve seen with sterile institutional buildings, too much order is boring, depriving us of the sensory stimulation we thrive on”.
We find spaces most beautiful when they have a sense of cohesion. Details, textures and ornaments need to be organised using principals such as symmetry, contrast, scale, repetition, leading lines and nesting to guide our attention through the space and to help our eyes and brains read what they are seeing (we will discuss how to implement these elements in the design of our homes in detail in a future blog post).
Beyond the use of organising principals, our love of organised complexity translates best into the design of our spaces through the implementation of a coherent theme or narrative within our design. We find homes aesthetically pleasing when they strike the right balance between familiarity and novelty, evoking curiosity and interest without overwhelming. We yearn for complexity but get stressed out by chaos. An environment rich in details has the ability to engage our senses and our mind for longer than a sterile one. But in order for this complexity to be perceived as pleasing rather than overwhelming it needs to be balanced with a sense of order and cohesion. The simplest way to introduce a sense of order into our spaces is to design them with a unified overarching theme or story in mind so that every element within the space works together to convey a mood or feeling. And as noted in a previous blog post, the story or theme of our homes will serve us best when this story is a reflection of our values.
Biophilia, time and the perfection in imperfection
Collin Ellard points out that we now have an entire arsenal of evidence for something that “most of us feel the truth of in our bones – that nature can soothe, buoy, and restore”. But while many of us are well aware of the benefits of the natural world for our wellbeing, the question still remains as to how we can begin to think about incorporating the character of nature into the design of our homes?
Lilly Bernheimer makes the point that early dwellings were inherently close to nature through the use of natural materials such as mud, stone and wood. These natural materials, used for new purposes and formed into new shapes, would nevertheless retain most of their natural characteristics. The natural patterns and surfaces within early dwellings meant that our ancestors did not have to break the contact to nature while spending time within their homes.
But beyond the connection with nature evoked by the use of natural materials within our homes, architect and theorist Christopher Alexander highlights a more philosophical reason why we thrive in environments that incorporate the character of nature within their design.
He argues that “to reach the quality without a name, a building must be made, in part, out of those materials which age and crumble. Soft tile and brick, soft plaster, fading coats of paint, canvas which has been bleached a little and torn by the wind...A building in which angles are all perfectly right angles, in which all windows are exactly the same size, and in which all columns are perfectly vertical, and all floors perfectly horizontal, can only reach its false perfection by ignoring its surroundings utterly. The apparent imperfections of a place which is alive are not imperfections at all.”
The use of untreated or minimally treated natural materials in the design of our homes is a direct counter to the insistence of Western culture on perfection. Raw, unvarnished natural materials resist this notion of perfection, frozen in time, with a rebellious attitude that serves to remind us of the natural order of life. An order where everything must age, tarnish, fade, weather, crack and wear and above all, where everything is in a constant state of change. The use of natural materials in our homes can remind us that signs of age are not flaws to be eradicated or fixed but a poetic and poignant reminder of the natural order of things in which everything is transient.
Homes that thoughtfully embrace imperfections within their design have the most soothing effect on us. We feel more comfortable and at ease when the spaces we inhabit don’t strive for an artificial perfection but instead humbly accept their place within the natural order of things. In part, this is the result of the fact that we have evolved in an imperfect world full of cracks and blemishes. But I think that on an unconscious level, an acceptance of imperfection within our homes sends an unconscious message to us and to those we invite into our spaces, that we have permission to accept the same within ourselves.
The main message I have tried to convey over this series of blog posts is that the most beautiful spaces will always be those spaces that help us to come alive. Spaces made with care and intention, slowly over time, inspired by elements of the natural world we have evolved to thrive in and designed to facilitate the life-giving activities of our everyday existence.
Lily Bernheimer writes that “beloved environments require a degree of complexity, depth, and variety that takes time to grow…we find this type of ordered complexity in coveted buildings and places around the world.” But modern man-made homes and buildings have been increasingly pushed towards a kind of sterility that is deprived of many of the key features that make natural environments stimulating and appealing.
We have evolved to thrive in rich and complex environments that stimulate our curiosity and engage all of our senses. And while complexity is essential for creating beautiful built environments, this complexity needs to be ordered using organising principals that help us to read and make sense of what we perceive.
At the root of so many of our aesthetic preferences is our craving for some form of resolution to the tensions created by the opposing forces that govern our lives. Alain De Botton writes that “beauty is a likely outcome whenever architects skilfully mediate between any number of oppositions, including the old and the new, the natural and the man-made, the luxurious and the modest”. For a creature of so many opposing needs it is no wonder that the environments we have evolved to feel most comfortable and content in are the ones that help us to find what we most yearn for: balance. For in our homes, as in our lives, balance is the governing force that allows our minds and hearts to thrive.
Images above show our Safari Daybed, Kapok Safari Daybed Mattresses in Soft Charcoal and Plain Stripes, Hand Dyed Velvet Cushion Covers in Lambent Light, Hand Formed Cake Plate in Off-White and Hand Formed Cup in Off-White, Stone Washed Baguette Flatware, Handmade Crushed Linen Blanket in Warm White (coming soon), Handmade Linen Napkin in Warm White (coming soon), Copper Kettle, Natural Shuro Palm Trivet, The Clerk Coffee Pour Over Stand, Stone Washed Cake And Pie Server, This is Home by Natalie Walton, Still by Natalie Walton, A Frame for Life by Ilse Crawford, Handwoven Textured and Tasselled Merino Wool Blankets.
The beautiful painting in this image is by Emily LaCour.