Nicola Holden Designs – Contemporary Interior Designer, London.

The past year has given us all plenty of time to reflect and recalibrate, and now more than ever, we are placing a greater emphasis on our own well-being.  Wellness may start from within, yet the spaces around us play a vital supporting role.  Being forced to stay indoors for much of the past year, when our interior spaces are all we’ve had to keep us safe, has shown us that our homes have a profound influence on our daily joy and wellness.  When our homes feel calm, uplifting, and stimulating, it makes it easier to feel this way as we move through the routines of everyday life.  The subtleties of interior design can have huge impacts on our mental health, often in ways we don’t fully understand.  Having a space that supports us emotionally enables us to continue to lead a successful life in challenging times.

So what is it about a space that makes us feel comfortable?  According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of our most fundamental needs is for shelter.  However, beyond that we also seek solace, beauty, and a sense of belonging.  And many of our responses to the design of spaces are unconscious – hard-wired into us as human beings.  For example, when children are asked to draw a home, they commonly draw houses with steeply pitched roofs, symbolising shelter and security, even when they themselves live in flats.  We all need our homes to feel like a place of refuge from the rest of the world, as though we are, at some level, still warding off ancestral fears of attacks by a predator.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Within our homes, we also intuitively respond to different types of interior space.  Here we need a combination of small, intimate rooms and as well as more open-plan areas.  In biophilic design these concepts are known as prospect and refuge.  Small rooms provide us with refuge, giving us a sense of safety, retreat and withdrawal.  We all need zones where we can do the things that are important to us.  On the other hand, open-plan spaces give us a sense of freedom and connection.  And having a view to a garden space, however small, helps us to feel connected with the outside world, and to create a sense of possibility beyond the space we’re actually in.

Biophilic design brings our innate biological connection with nature into our spaces.  I’m sure that most people are well aware of the benefits of houseplants and plenty of daylight, but there are less obvious aspects of biophilia that can help us to feel more connected to nature. Using organic materials, colours, shapes and patterns helps us to feel more grounded in our environment.  After all, memories of home are often associated with the things in it, which you can touch and smell, rather than the building itself. 

Which brings me onto another important consideration to ensure our homes bring us happiness, and that is to make them personal to us.  We need to stir our senses and bring more awareness to what feels good and brings us joy.  Collections are a way to reflect your own taste and personality more intimately than anything else, whether it be art, shells found on far-flung beaches, or antique crockery.  These items add sensorial richness to a space and help to elicit the deep, emotional responses that give rise to the feeling of joy.  If our surroundings lack energy, abundance and harmony, then no matter how beautiful our homes might be, they will not make us feel truly alive. 

Colour is another important factor in how our interior spaces make us feel.  There is nowhere that colour doesn’t exist.  We are constantly influenced by it, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to when we go to bed at night.  Although we see colour with our eyes, each different wavelength of coloured light stimulates a distinct part of our physical being, evoking a specific physiological response, which in turn produces a psychological reaction.

But there is more to colour than merely hue (the attribute of colour which enables us to classify it as red, blue, etc).  Our colour personalities echo the patterns and natural order of the seasons, and so it is important to choose colours that match your own tonal family – spring, summer, autumn or winter.  Surrounding yourself with colours at odds with your own natural pattern is, in the long run, stressful.

And finally, there is lighting, which not only interacts with the colours we choose, but also influences our circadian rhythms and the way we feel.  As well as bright light for carrying out tasks, we need darkness and cosiness to help us relax at the end of the day.  Clever combinations of lighting which include ceiling lights, table and task lamps, as well as flickering candles, allow us to mimic the changes in natural light as the sun moves through the sky over the course of the day.  This enables our bodies to harmonise with our environment.

While the impact of our interiors on our wellbeing may ultimately be a deeply personal thing, it is worth considering how these fundamental principles of interior design have the capacity to affect how you feel, rather than paying too much attention to what you think you like.  How we design our homes is as fundamental to our happiness and well-being as nutrition, sleep and exercise.

Contact us to book your free 30-minute consultation call with Nicola Holden Designs.



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Paint is one of the most transformative changes you can make to your home.  However, choosing paint for your home that is safe for your family and indoor air quality can seem like a mystifying quest.  And, if you choose the safest kind of paint, will it stand the test of time?

Like all products that are marketed as “environmentally friendly”, it’s important to understand exactly what it is you’re getting and whether or not the product is as “green” as it claims to be.  Choosing which paint to decorate your home with is no exception!

Although lead was phased out as an additive in ordinary paint meant for the general public in the 1960s, lead is not the only paint additive that is bad for your health.  Most paints today contain chemicals — known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that can negatively affect your health.  When you enjoy that “new paint” smell, ironically you are inhaling dangerous VOCs. 

VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature.  They can include fungicides, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, and benzene.  Although the majority of VOCs leave the paint as the wall dries, not all of them do. In fact, paint can release VOCs into the air for years following the initial painting, a process known as off-gassing, putting your family at risk.

The end result is that the average indoor air quality of our homes becomes more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health and well-being.  Indoor air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental threats to public health. 

Harmful VOCs are not always acutely toxic, but they have compounding long-term health effects. 

They have been proven to contribute to conditions including cancer, breathing difficulties, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and blurred vision. In addition, the VOC-rich air in your home over subsequent years can put you or a family member at a higher risk of developing asthma, sinusitis or allergies.  Pretty nasty stuff! 

Thankfully, due to stricter government regulation and more awareness on the part of the consumer, nearly all household paints are water-based meaning that they have lower VOCs.  This means that they off-gas much less than traditional paints.  The EU limit on VOCs in emulsion paint is 30g/L.  However, there are many paints available on the market today that contain lower, or no VOCs.  And from a health perspective, the fewer chemicals, the less off-gassing, the better!

Like many healthier alternatives, no- and low-VOC paint usually costs more than regular paint, but is definitely worth the added expense.  This additional cost is due to the increased content of natural pigments in the paint, which are more expensive to extract from the earth than petrochemicals.  But it is this increased pigment content that gives walls a real depth of colour, absorbing light so that the colour appears to glow from behind.  In addition, higher-quality paint will go on smoother, take longer to dry (meaning brush strokes are less visible), and last longer, demanding fewer retouches down the line. 

An inexpensive brand of paint might make sense in the short term, but we have to ask what is being sacrificed to produce this cheaper paint, and is it worth the so-called saving when our health and our planet is at stake?

Here are some of the paint companies whose products I specify for my client projects, based on their eco-friendly credentials.

(VOC figures extracted from the companies paint charts / websites)

One more tip – don’t overbuy! Paint can be difficult to dispose of properly and this ensures that you won’t end up with too much extra paint to get rid of.

I hope I have helped to clear up any confusion?  Happy painting!

“Colour is what gives jewels their worth”
Christian Dior