One of the latest design trends taps into something many people intuit quite, ahem, naturally. Biophilic design is spreading through homes and businesses in Western Europe like the rampant kudzu it imitates. The name comes from biophilia, the idea that humans are intrinsically linked to the natural world, informed by its elements and affected by its shifts. In fact, some argue that our connection to nature is one of the deepest roots of human evolution, as it has persisted over millennia, shaping human health and development. 

These days, people spend roughly 90% of their time indoors. Outdoor time is recreational, something special and outside the norm that needs to be scheduled and sought out. Biophilic design seeks to change that by bringing outdoor elements inside. The aim is to improve both physical and mental health. In business settings, this effort carries the added bonus of enhanced productivity.

The distinguishing characteristic of the trend is that it is not singular, but all-encompassing. In other words, a sad succulent on a desk is a great start, but doesn’t get to the heart of the concept. As an interior design —and sometimes architectural — movement, biophilic design alters a space from top to bottom.  A well-planned space will incorporate the walls, the furniture, the décor. Everything will connect and complement — much as it does in the actual great outdoors. 

The trend can also be seen as a moment on the continuum of the green movement. For years now, people have sought to make small but meaningful changes to the environment, and to their daily lives. Many have traded in SUVs in favor of bikes or low-emission vehicles. Phones now carry built-in apps to help limit screen time and encourage us to look up, go outside and gulp fresh air. And many health-conscious eaters have shifted to keto or vegetarian lifestyles. As disillusionment has grown, people seek out traditional routes to good health. Forget what people ate 50 years ago. People are asking what diets looked like in ancient times. It’s only natural that the same process would eventually reach our living and working spaces. 

So, what does biophilic design look like? Anyone who’s ever been to a hip restaurant with an indoor garden, or to a parking garage with a living green wall has seen hints of this at play. Some of the main elements that are often incorporated are wide open views to the outside world, natural lighting, water features, and of course, plants and vegetation.

The trend, which was already gaining major traction overseas and in urban centers in the US, took a major leap forward in 2020. Pandemic-related quarantine forced people to spend even more time inside, in their home spaces that may be small, or that may not have been given proper attention when they were simply seen as the place one begins and ends their day. Hours on end spent in a bedroom, or at a kitchen table can certainly inspire a design reckoning. 

Most people started simply — cue that sad succulent. But that wilted little cactus was the start of something bigger. Often without realizing it, people began to introduce more and more elements of biophilic design into their spaces. As most of us aren’t at liberty to start knocking out walls for new windows, this lovely oxygen-filled trend manifested itself simply, in the form of houseplants, natural fibers and muted color palettes. 

By now, the concept is nicely ingrained in mainstream design, allowing most everyone to make modest adaptations to their spaces. Feeling stifled? Buy some plants. Feeling claustrophobic? Lose the curtains, open those windows. Feeling beaten down by the monotony of endless days in front of a computer? OK, well there may not be a quick fix for that. But perhaps a breath of actual fresh air may help. Until you’re able to fully bring the great outdoors inside, just step outside, one breath, one step, at a time.

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Erin gets to flex her creative muscle as Artistic Director of the Studios of Key West but has also completed a graduate degree at Harvard, served as a National Park Service Search and Rescue volunteer, visited all 50 states, rescued a 300lb sea turtle, nabbed the title of Key West Ms. Gay Pride, and gotten involved with Special Olympics. She says yes to pretty much everything. Luckily her wife, daughter and crazed terrier put up with this.