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Matt Gibberd on the importance of nature in design

TS Eliot declared April the cruellest month but, looking out our window at the leaves bursting into bud, we have to disagree. And so, with the natural world springing into life in the coming weeks, what better theme for our upcoming content? To get us in the mood, we’re republishing an excerpt of Matt’s writing, in which he extolls the glory of green and the value of bringing the outdoors in

Matt Gibberd
Matt Gibberd on the importance of nature in design

It’s a commonly held belief in the Inigo offices that good design can be broken down into five simple tenets: space, light, materials, nature and decoration. It’s an idea we’ve adopted from our co-founder Matt Gibberd, who even wrote a book on the subject, ‘A Modern Way to Live’, published by Penguin. His focus in that book might have been on more recent classics, but where do you think those architects got the ideas from? Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that… It turns out such principles are, in fact, timeless. 

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a man of intense habit. He gets up at 4am, spends all morning writing, goes for a run in the afternoon, listens to music in the evening and takes himself off to bed at 9pm sharp. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he explains. “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Without ever wishing to bracket myself with one of my literary heroes, I can certainly relate to what he says. When I was writing my new book, disgorging 70,000 words onto an intimidatingly empty page was only possible with a rigorous routine of early mornings and spirited exercise. I would make a point of getting out of bed before the children, spend five hours or so at my desk, then go for a jog in the countryside before lunch. What amazed me was how being outside in nature allowed the morning’s thoughts to crystallise. In the same way the chess prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit would visualise moves on the ceiling of her bedroom, I found that narratives and sentence structures revealed themselves with great clarity amidst the flourishing fields and hirsute hedgerows of the local valley.

Instinctively, we all know that nature stimulates our minds and makes us feel good, and indeed the Japanese prescribe ‘forest bathing’ (the simple act of taking a walk among the trees) as a legitimate form of physical and mental healing. Despite this, however, we are at the mercy of convenience, spending approximately 90 per cent of our lives indoors. Day after day, we segue from hermetically sealed houses to climate-controlled vehicles to airless offices, without interacting with a single sign of nature along the way. Most children in the UK spend less time outside than prison inmates. As a result, our homes must work incredibly hard to provide us with some semblance of a connection to the landscape.

The good news is that there are ways of achieving this, even in densely built-up cities. When looking for a place to buy or rent, nature should always be at the top of the list of criteria, regardless of budget. This might mean finding a flat that overlooks a communal garden, windows with ledges deep enough for plants or a location within walking distance of a park. The first flat that my wife Faye and I bought together was adjacent to one of London’s busiest railway lines, but it was the only place we could afford that had a garden. We cultivated great jungles of bamboo to block out the noise, and woody fingers of rosemary that were thrown into hearty Sunday stews; we experimented with ferns in shadowy corners, and clematis up against sunlit stucco. Admittedly, we killed quite a few things through ineptitude and neglect, but overall our little sliver of urban greenery brought us a lot of joy.

More than one in five households in London has no access to a garden, but physically bringing nature inside has been proven to positively impact our wellbeing, reducing blood pressure and increasing attentiveness. Indoor plants also serve a practical purpose, by helping to demarcate space, provide screening, or regulate the temperature.

Photographer Steph Wilson shares her Brixton home with an extended family of pot plants, parrots and Pomeranians. This whimsical urban menagerie serves to remedy the anxieties of city life, as she explains: “Having a nice space is so integral to mental health. It makes me happy to sit in the living room with the sun moving across the plants, knowing it’s keeping them alive; my blue parrotlet, Tomato, is doing his thing and I’m watching the birds. Then, in the summer, the plants come to life and start flowering. It’s the most joyous thing. Any work of art is very secondary.”

Most fruits start their development as flowers, so our brains have been preconditioned by evolution to find them attractive, because they tell us that a food source is nearby. In our house, we plant amaryllis bulbs in antique lusterware bowls, their pink-and-white petals complementing the iridescent metallic glaze on the pottery. We cut stems from the magnolia tree in spring, while in summer, sweet peas are dropped into expectant jugs. Often, we keep things until they are long past their best. Sunflowers, for example, look much better when they rust and wither, and artichokes have a sculptural beauty post-mortem.

In 1964, the German-born American psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm coined the term ‘biophilia’, which comes from the Greek and means ‘love of life and living things’; it was popularised by Edward O. Wilson with his book of the same name 20 years later. Wilson’s ‘biophilia hypothesis’ asserts that human beings have an instinctive sense of affinity with nature, and that we require contact with it in the same way that we need air to breathe.

One of the principles of biophilia is that rounded forms make us feel calm, because they reflect the shapes found in nature. Objects with jagged edges stimulate the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with fear. Faye and I live with many of her curvaceous furniture prototypes: the ‘Roly Poly’ chair, which was conceived during her first pregnancy, has the stout ankles and swollen belly of an expectant mother, while the ‘Fudge’ chair has a meltingly smooth silhouette. In my experience, living with soft edges rather than sharp corners is a lot less anxiety-inducing as the kids fly past like whirling dervishes.

Simply looking out at nature through a window has proven health benefits: an experiment with post-operative patients in a Pennsylvania hospital found that those who were able to recuperate in a room with leafy views took fewer potent painkillers and were released earlier than those with windows facing a brick wall. If a building doesn’t have the privilege of a good view, the next best thing is to replicate it using imagery. At our office in London, our marketing team work alongside a huge photograph of mountains in Ladakh by my friend Tobias Harvey, while in the space next door, the sales team have a painted canvas by Andreas Eriksson, an abstracted patchwork of rock formations and trees inspired by the Swedish landscape.

When choosing paint colours, consider using those that are found in the landscape and build upon our biophilic preferences: the green of the sea on an overcast day; the grey of a craggy rockface; the quiet yellow of sand. Put shells, pinecones and pebbles on the mantelpiece. In the end, we should grasp every opportunity we can to take inspiration from the natural world. As Frank Lloyd Wright so persuasively put it: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

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