Nicola Holden Designs – Contemporary Interior Designer, London.

The 21st March was the spring equinox – the day each year where day and night are of approximately equal duration all over the planet.  And it is this relationship between light and dark which also marks International Colour Day, because without light, there is no colour.

As Karen Haller says, colour “is around us all the time and influences everything we do – though we are barely aware that this is happening. In fact, we are only around 20 per cent conscious of the colour decisions that we make, though we are making them all the time: about what we wear, what we eat, what we buy, how we relax, right down to how we take our morning cup of coffee.”  The ability to see colour literally guides us through our lives, helping us in our decision-making processes.

As Swiss painter Johannes Itten says, “Colour is life; for a world without colours appears to us as dead.”

Image: David Hockney, “Garden,” 2015. Photo by Richard Schmidt

And in her book Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee observes that “the liveliest places and objects all have one thing in common: bright, vivid colour.”  Across every culture in the world, bright colours are universally understood to be associated with joy.

Image: Nicola Holden

These days we’re also very aware of the importance of incorporating biophilia – our innate connection to nature, into our homes.  Colour is everywhere in nature, from sunrise to sunset, in the flowers, birds and insects.  Colour here is a sign of the richness of our surroundings.

Image: Nicola Holden

So if colour really is such a powerful force of positivity and optimism, why don’t we use more of it in our homes?  Fetell Lee suggests that this is due to ‘chromophobia’ – a fear of colour.  It seems we automatically default to beige or grey rather than risk making the wrong choice about colour, and then having to live with it.

Image: Nicola Holden

As colour psychologist Haller says, “Colour is an increasingly important topic of consideration for neuroscientists, biologists, physicists, philosophers and psychologists; and research is continually expanding our knowledge of how we take colour in and how we emotionally respond to it.”  And at a time like this, when so many of us are feeling increased levels of anxiety due to the Covid pandemic, surrounding ourselves with colours that instil feelings of positivity and joy is now more important than ever.  It is time to put our own wellbeing at the forefront of how we design our homes, and to create spaces that nurture the feelings and behaviours that we want for ourselves and our families.

Colour is one of the elements that helps us to emotionally connect with our spaces.  It makes our homes feel alive.  After all, what are our homes, if not designed for us as human beings?  As an interior designer, I use colour to influence and impact the experience of home that people have in a positive way.  Using the right colour, or combination of colours, will have a positive impact on the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of the people who work, live and move through the spaces that I create.

Image: Fiona Walker-Arnott

If you suspect that you are suffering from chromophobia and have no idea what colours to choose, please get in touch and I would be happy to offer a colour consultation. Contact us to book your consultation with Nicola Holden Designs.



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It turns out that March is National Bed Month, and so I thought I would talk about how to get your sleep environment right.  We spend a third of our lives in bed and yet all too often we overlook the importance of the role your bedroom plays in terms of getting great sleep.  And as we all know, getting a good night’s sleep is vital to maintaining our health and wellbeing.  In fact, according to Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his 4 Pillar Plan, the potential benefits of a good night’s sleep include:

  • Increased energy
  • Improved concentration
  • Better memory
  • Improved immune system function
  • Reduced risk of developing chronic diseases
  • Increased life expectancy
  • Reduced stress levels

So let’s look at some of the factors that will influence your sleep, and how having a well designed space can make the world of difference.

The Bed

Your bed is by far the most significant element of a good night’s rest, and so it’s worth buying the best mattress that you can afford.  As everyone of us is made differently, choosing the right mattress for you and your partner is a very personal thing, and I always advise clients to choose their own mattress. 

When choosing your mattress, it should not be too soft so that it causes you to slouch whilst you’re asleep, but also not too firm that it applies pressure to your hips and shoulders.  The most important element is that your spine must be straight when you lie on your side.  When you lie on your back you should be able to slide a hand between the small of your back and the mattress.

If you share a bed, make sure it’s big enough for two people, so you can sleep without disturbing each other.  Another good point to note is that pocket sprung mattresses allow one person to toss and turn without the other really noticing as each spring is individual, so you only affect what you touch. 

The National Bed Federation recommend replacing your mattress every 7-8 years. During this time a mattress has been subjected to over 20,000 hours of wear and tear, in addition to which we lose 300ml of fluid each night and shed almost half a kilogram of dead skin cells a year!

Mattresses lacking the right comfort, space and support are likely to leave you waking tired and achy.

Colour

What colour, or combination of colours, we chose to use in each room directly affects how we feel, think and behave, and the bedroom is no exception to this.  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.

When choosing colours to create a calming sanctuary for your bedroom, think about using pinks, soft peach or apricot, greens, light blues, or even purple.  Red stimulates a physical response, so it is great for invoking feelings of passion, but not so good for relaxation.  And definitely avoid using yellow which, over time, is likely to have you waking up feeling irritable.

Temperature

It’s important to specify the right amount of heating for the size of your bedroom, as well as being able to thermostatically control the temperature.  An ideal bedroom temperature is around 16-18°C.  Hot, cold or draughty rooms can seriously impact on your sleep, in particular REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. A bedroom that’s too warm is likely to cause restlessness, whilst a cold room can make it difficult to drop off.

It’s also worth having a range of bedding, depending on the season.  An extra quilt or a hot water bottle for when it is cold, and a lower tog duvet for when the weather is hotter.  Linen bedding is around 30% heavier than cotton yet allows better breathability.  Organic cotton is another excellent choice and will keep you warm throughout the winter whilst also wicking away sweat in the summer.

Having the ability to open your bedroom windows allows you to maximise air circulation.

Lighting

Lighting plays a hugely important part in our sleep patterns.  Our circadian rhythms are controlled by the 24-hour cycle of the earth’s rotation.  When we see light, our bodies assume it’s time to be awake and alert, but as it starts to get dark, we release melatonin (the sleepy hormone), which relaxes the body and helps us to drift off.  Introducing artificial light in the evenings disrupts our circadian rhythms – making us feel less sleepy.  Even small amounts of light from an alarm clock or TV standby button can have an impact on your sleep. And when you’re sleeping, light can still be detected through your eyelids, so we need complete darkness to stay fast asleep.

It’s important to chose window treatments that keep out street lights or the early morning light.  I do then find it very difficult to wake up whilst it’s still dark, and so I have a Lumi light, which slowly gets bright over the course of half an hour, waking me gently with the feeling of daylight.

When designing a lighting scheme for a bedroom, it’s important to have your lighting on different circuits, and on dimmer switches, to give you complete control on your lighting.  And if a nightlight is required to help navigate trips to the loo or a child’s bedroom, opt for red bulbs rather than white ones as they don’t interrupt melatonin secretion.

Noise

Unwanted noise is another factor that can disrupt our sleep.  So when furnishing your bedroom, it’s important to choose enough sound absorbing materials – a large rug or carpet on the floor, and curtains rather than shutters at the windows.

While certain noises cause interrupted sleep, soft, steady sounds can be soothing. I have recently downloaded the White Noise app, and find that the sound of crashing waves can be helpful for drifting off. 

Clutter

A messy, cluttered bedroom can affect you more than you might think, especially when it comes to bedtime.  You may not be able to see the clutter once your eyes are closed, but as it’s the last thing you look at before you close your eyes, it may lead to worrying thoughts.  In fact, a study, conducted by New York’s St. Lawrence University, revealed that a messy bedroom can lead to a poor night’s sleep and increased anxiety.

It is important that your bedroom is a space where you can rest and relax, so ensure that you have enough storage to enable you to keep it tidy.

And, if you’re still having trouble sleeping after all of this, then I can highly recommend Dr Chatterjee’s book, which looks at how your lifestyle can affect your sleep too.

“Happiness consists of getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

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.

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

It is difficult to escape the current calls to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.  David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have seen to that!  And this topic has been amplified through the Covid pandemic.  As the world shut down, so nature came back to life.  Birdsong became sweeter and softer as the birds no longer had to sing above the city’s background noise. And satellite images showed a dramatic decrease in air pollution around the world.

But how can we become more sustainable in our interiors choices?  This is a huge topic to delve into, and I can only scratch the surface in this blog post, because becoming truly sustainable involves looking into a materials’ intended application, aesthetic qualities, environmental and health impacts, availability, ease of instalment and maintenance and initial and life cycle costs.  And more often than not, this information is not readily available. 

Early industries relied on a seemingly endless supply of natural resources.  For all its good, the industrial revolution has also resulted in billions of tonnes of toxic material being expelled into the air, water, and soil, requiring thousands of complex regulations to keep people from being poisoned too quickly, as well as eroding the diversity of species and cultural practices. 

Many of the raw materials used in modern manufactured products are actually harmful to humans, and the off-gassing from these products (appliances, carpets, wallpaper adhesives, paints, building materials, etc) results in the average indoor air quality being more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health.  Indoor air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental threats to public health!

Today our understanding of the natural environment has changed dramatically, but modern industries still operate according to early models, with a cradle-to-grave mind-set.  Resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold, and eventually disposed of in a ‘grave’ of some kind, usually landfill or incinerator.

Now more than ever I am finding that my clients want to be part of the design journey.  They want the pieces within their homes to reflect their own belief system, to have integrity and narrative and, most importantly, to be sustainable.  And as a result, our homes are becoming safer places for us to live in too!

The mentality of discarding products as soon as they go out of style and replacing them with those that are currently trendy is no longer justifiable.  Instead of discarding ‘’old-fashioned’’ objects while they are still functional, we can (and should) come up with creative ways to give them a new life.

Here are a few suggestions about how you can sustainably give your home a fresh look:

REUSE AND RECYCLE

Go through what you already have in your home and ask yourself if it can be repaired or renewed before you specify something new.  Can a sofa be reupholstered rather than buying a brand new one?  Can furniture be painted, or sanded and refinished?  Shop your house, moving things between rooms.  And if there is furniture that is still useful but that is no longer needed, donate it to a second-hand store.

This sofa was recovered for my client

BUY SECOND-HAND

If you need to source additional items, start by looking at second-hand stores or flea markets. Visit your local auction houses and seek out hidden treasures.  Vintage pieces add a historic presence to a space that new objects cannot, giving a home warmth and complexity.  They are imbued with nostalgia and memory.  Look at websites that sell used items, where you can easily search for exactly what you are looking for without having to go to many stores.

Vintage chairs from second-hand site Vinterior

BUY CONSCIOUSLY

If you need to buy new items, make it conscious.  Ask the supplier what materials have been used?  Have they been extracted in an environmentally responsible way?  Where is the item produced and how?  What manufacturing methods are used?  How long will the item last, and is the item repairable?

Choose materials and products with the lowest environmental impact.  Products made using renewable resources are those that belong to the natural environment and are replaced by the natural processes that occur in that environment as part of an ecosystem.  Biodegradable products can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms, thereby avoiding pollution.  Try to avoid using materials that come from non-renewable resources, where there is a risk of depleting these natural resources.  And be sure to check the certifications!

Sustainable lighting by Tom Raffield

BUY RECYCLED

There has been a recent surge in the availability of products that are made from recycled waste or that can be renewed/recycled at the end of their life cycle.  When waste becomes the raw material for new products, a circular loop of manufacturing is formed, effectively minimising or even eliminating waste all together.

Claire Gaudion creates rugs made from 100% Recycled (PET) plastic

Let’s hope that 2021 will mark a more permanent move away from the quick fix of instant interiors fashion to a sense of longevity and considered consumerism.  A move towards the handcrafted and personal; of investing in pieces that will grow with you and become a part of our home’s life story over time.

I am constantly updating my library of sustainable products. Contact me if you’d like to discuss creating a more sustainable home for your family.

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”
Albert Einstein

So, 2021 is here!  After a lovely Christmas with my family in Ireland (following a period in quarantine in a portacabin on my sister’s farm, and a negative Covid test), it was back to London and the New Year with a bump. 

So here we are, in yet another lockdown.  How are you all doing?  I definitely have my moments!  Towards the end of last year  The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen published a report on Wellbeing in the age of COVID-19.   In producing this report, The Happiness Research Institute concluded that “It does not take big data and a team of happiness researchers to understand that the pandemic has undermined our wellbeing.”

Their report ended with a list of key activities to focus on to increase your wellbeing throughout the remainder of this pandemic.  I thought I’d share these with you, as well as ways to create a home environment that supports these activities.

SPEND MORE TIME OUTSIDE

Spending even just 15 minutes per day outside was associated with the largest positive impact on life satisfaction.  And for regular readers of my blog, this should be no surprise given how often I stress the importance of having a connection to nature on our mental and emotional health.  A previous blog post that I wrote outlined how to introduce this connection to nature, otherwise known as biophilic design, into your home.  You can read that post here.

ENGAGE IN ARTS AND CRAFTS OR DIY PROJECTS

The happiness report suggests that “Knitting, painting, baking, gardening, and renovating are all useful activities to try out during lockdown”.  I have certainly engaged in a lot of different DIY projects in my own home throughout lockdown, and it is very satisfying to look back and see what I have accomplished.  But not all of us are designed to do DIY (which I’m very grateful for, otherwise I might be out of a job!). 

I inlaid these Turkish tiles I bought 8 years ago into the top of a chest of drawers.

I’ve been thinking about this though, and remembered a quote by David Hume, who said that “Anticipation of pleasure is, in itself, a very considerable pleasure”.  Research has found that we enjoy an experience more when we wait for it, probably because we create detailed mental simulations filled with rich sensations and exciting possibilities.  Ingrid Fetell Lee says that “Anticipation lets us bring our future joy into the present, and the longer we plan ahead, the more time we have to enjoy it.”  So why not use this time during lockdown to start planning a future renovation of your home.  Renovations are always much less stressful if everything is decided up front, and I’m here to help you every step of the way!

MEDITATE

Meditation practices, such as mindfulness, teach us to be present in the moment and meet challenges with openness, acceptance, and curiosity.  I have to admit that this is one thing I am not very good at!  Possibly because I don’t have anything purple in my house – the colour which is psychologically associated with contemplation and the search for higher truth.  But if meditation is your thing, then carving out a quiet space where you can practice this, and incorporating some purple, be it lilac, violet, aubergine lavender, mauve, or whatever shade takes your fancy, will help you to get in the zone.

STAY FIT

This recommendation definitely goes without saying.  We all know that keeping fit is good for our health and wellbeing!  So, if you’re trying to carve out a space in your home for exercise, then red is a good colour to use in this space.  Red lies at the opposite end of the visible colour spectrum to purple, and having the longest wavelength, it is the colour that makes us pay attention.  Red affects us physically, raising our heart rate.  It is the colour associated with energy, excitement, physical strength and stamina, so is the perfect colour to get your fitness training off on the right foot!

Image: bestgymequipment.co.uk

The other recommendations from the Happiness Research Institute are to lend a helping hand to friends and family, and to keep in touch with those close to you.  If you would like to read the full report you can access it here.

Creating a home that makes these positive choices easy, natural and enjoyable is not frivolous.  It is fundamental to our health and happiness, and therefore to our wellbeing!  Get in touch if you need help creating your own personal sanctuary.