Biophilic Design Series — with Dana J. LePere Interiors
This is a passion project of mine.
As a nature photographer I strive to bring the outdoors in through my fine art photography, but there are so many more ways we can do so. Through this series I’d like to share with you what I have learned about Biophilic Design, along with the perspectives of those in the design industry.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, Biophilic Design is all about designing nature back into the built environment. The term biophilia was first coined by Erich Fromm as “the passionate love of life and all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea or a social group.” and later the term was expanded on by naturalist E.O. Wilson, as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms — innate meaning its hereditary and ultimately part of human nature."
We are spending roughly 90% of our time indoors these days and are more stressed than ever. According to the WHO our stress has increased as we have become more urbanized and it is considered to be a health epidemic responsible for a significant amount of costs. It has been well documented that we respond better to stress in a natural environment, hence the need for design that responds to our human needs.
It is thought that by the middle of the century we could see 66% of the developed world living in urban areas, and more disconnected from nature than ever before.
As someone who spends a lot of time in nature, I can tell you I feel the negative effects of having to be indoors, from anxiety to depression and issues with focusing. I hope through this series we can both learn and implement a few things into our day to day spaces and become happier and healthier in the process.
For this first episode, I chat with interior designer Dana J. LePere of
Joanna Lentini: Dana and I met while cage diving with great white sharks off of Mexico’s Baja peninsula and I could immediately tell we were kindred spirits. We both very much love the natural world and know how important it is to preserve wild spaces.
Dana was born and raised in Washington, DC, went to Washington University in St. Louis for art school, but got a degree in International Studies with a focus on East Asia. Her first career ended up being in Account Management and Human Resources, but when she lost her father to cancer in 2014, she decided to change her career path.
She got back to her creative roots and went back to school. She obtained a Master’s degree in Interior Design from Marymount University in Northern Virginia and started her own company, Dana J. LePere Interiors, so she could work for herself after she graduated.
So to kick things off, can you tell listeners a bit about what led you into interior design and how it is operating during a pandemic...
Dana LePere — You could say many factors led me to interior design, but there are two that stand out for me. The first is my experience with my father’s illness. He had brain cancer that affected his mobility, so my parents had to make changes to their home in order for him to safely navigate and live in it on one floor while not making it feel like a hospital. This process married empathy, analysis, and creativity in a way that was extremely appealing to me. And the second is the way good design has the ability to positively impact people’s lives on an every-day basis.
I obviously can’t speak for all designers, but as long as clients can afford to make changes to their home, they are certainly making time for that now. Due to the need to quarantine and many office-workers switching to a work-from-home situation, many people are spending more time at home, which means they’re also staring at the things they want to fix or change all the time. There is literally a captive audience for the home improvement industry right now.
Dana LePere with her father in Positano, Italy
Joanna Lentini — With so many people working more from homes these days, including myself, I have definitely been encouraged to incorporate more nature into my home and workspace. As I spend a lot of time in the nature, it seems to come natural for me — whether I’m pressing flowers, creating terrariums or even using essential oils that smell like the forest. But biophilic design is a whole lot more complex than that... so can you talk to us about some of the different elements of Biophilic design and ones that you like to specifically work with and why?
Dana LePere — There are many complex aspects to biophilic design that are probably too deep to get into here, so if anyone is interested in learning more, I recommend starting with a paper from Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting firm (see link below).
In the paper they lay out different elements of Biophilic Design quite nicely, but essentially they break it down into three sections: Nature IN the Space, which is our physical connection with nature, be it visual, olfactory, tactile, auditory, etc – our sensory connection with nature in a space, Natural Analogues, which is using natural patterns, forms, textures, and arrangements in a space, and Nature OF the Space, which is how we experience a space – does it give us refuge, can we see into the distance in a way that makes us feel safe, are there obscured views that impart a sense of exploration or even a little excitement of the unknown or slight risk.
Joanna Lentini — it’s so fascinating to me to think about how our attraction to nature impacts design.…If you look at the evolution of our species, we have spent almost 100% of our time in nature. I think I am most intrigued by the nature of the space, which is broken down into prospect, refuge, mystery, and risk. Risk and mystery of course arouse the senses, while prospect and refuge make us feel grounded and safe.
It all goes back to our early days as a species. If you think about the winding path through a forest in terms of design it can be a curved corridor in a building. The concepts of prospect and refuge in design have been described as simply as choice of seating in a restaurant. If we have a choice of where to sit, tables in the open, or a booth along the edge, we usually choose the booth for its sense of comfort and for the view of the space that it provides us.
So Dana, what are some of the trends you are seeing? Have you personally seen an increase in Biophilic Design interest from clients?
Dana LePere — No one has come to me saying “Dana, I want to redesign my place with nature in mind.” What they have done is expressed a clear physiological need for respite and security during a time with so much uncertainty and anxiety.
Right now, for me personally, the biggest trend has been helping clients redesign their outdoor living space. Currently I’m working with four different clients who want to make their outdoor spaces more livable or functional or somehow blend them physically or visually with their indoor spaces.
Concept drawing by Dana LePere of an outdoor space based on four elements: air, earth, fire, and water
Joanna Lentini — I guess that’s a great point, biophilic design can also be brought into exteriors of homes and buildings. I lived in Singapore for some time and the city is a perfect example of biophilic urbanism. A beautiful balance between nature and the built environment. And it had a tremendous impact on how I felt - in a positive way of course.
But overall, Biophilic Design isn’t just about putting more plants in a room, or using natural textures, patterns, or materials in a space; it’s also about studying the physical and psychological impacts of nature on humans and then utilizing that knowledge in a way that positively impacts our wellbeing in the built environment.
For example, even just looking out a window at some green space can lower your blood pressure and heart rate and improve your mental engagement. So, designers can use that simple amount of information to inform us what type of window or how large of a window to specify and where it should be placed to maximize views to nature, or how to orient furniture in a space to face a nice view.
Or perhaps it’s creating a cozy nook you can lean your back against to feel safe and secure (supporting natural refuge-seeking behavior) while being able to look out into the rest of your space (supporting natural prospecting behavior). But overall, using Biophilic Design has measurable positive benefits on the human mind and body.
Going back to trends a little bit, I think this is why “California Casual” interiors are so popular – it uses earthy colors, natural materials and layered textures, organic materials and lots of plant life. There are a lot of natural elements in there that people feel a connection to and perhaps can’t explain why other than that it’s “just appealing” – but you can see why, when looking at the benefits of biophilic design, that style gives us a sense of relaxation.
Concept drawing by Dana LePere of a master bath shower with picture window overlooking a park
Joanna Lentini — Clearly you think it is important to make our indoor spaces resemble the natural world...for those that are just hearing about Biophilic Design, what advice would you give them on where to begin?
Dana LePere — I think it’s very important to use biophilia, even in minimal amounts, in order to really satisfy the human psyche in the built environment, especially considering people tend to spend more time indoors then outdoors these days.
In terms of resemblance, I don’t think people necessarily need to transform their spaces into literal jungles to feel their interior is connected to nature. You can do pretty simple things here and there to introduce biophilia into your home. For example, use natural stone tile in a bathroom, an earthy color-palette on the walls or upholstery, or use nature-inspired drawer and cabinet pulls. Create spaces in your home that give you physiological benefits, like a cozy corner nook by a window, give your home office or meditation spot good airflow and play with light diffusion or layers of light. You can also do things like replace abstract art with painted or photographed landscapes.
Office, educational, and healthcare spaces can seriously benefit from Biophilic Design – not only from mimicking biomorphic forms, textures, or patterns, but also from creating areas for that prospect-refuge behavior, using a lighting system that changes the light’s color temperature from cool to warm as the day goes into the evening to assist the occupants’ circadian rhythms, creating interesting pathways or hallways that induce a natural curiosity or unexpected (but pleasant) surprise around a corner, or using carpeting that has fractal patterns in it. Multiple occupancy studies have shown measurable benefits for buildings that utilized biophilic design.
Concept image of a tele-health/exam room by Dana LePere
Joanna Lentini — So with North Americans spending 93% of their time indoors, it is super important that we introduce more natural elements into those spaces. The research is there, we have the ability to recover from stress much more easily when we are surrounded by a natural environment. This whole movement to bring the outdoors in makes so much sense. And I am really excited to see where it leads...
So Dana do you offer online consultations for anyone that might want to chat more but isn’t based in D.C.?
Dana LePere — While it’s always better to be able to see a place in real life to get a better overall sense of the environment, yes I can consult and help plan or make suggestions for designs remotely.
Joanna Lentini — Thanks so much for chatting with me about Biophilic Design — it’s been fun. I really appreciate your input on the topic and for anyone interested learning more you can reach out to Dana at:Dana J. LePere Interiors — www.danajlepere.com
References: Terrapin Report: 14 Elements of Biophilic Design