One of the common misconceptions about the spaces we live in is that as long as you can do what you need to do in a building or room, it doesn’t really matter how it looks. There is perhaps an ideal in our minds that being surrounded by good aesthetics is simply a surface concern and how something looks doesn't really affect us on a deeper level. In my earlier days in engineering I certainly felt the push to eschew aesthetics in favor of a product that works and meets the budget.
Concerning architecture and interior design, there is sometimes a philosophy that we can make use of buildings and rooms for their intended purpose while paying no mind to their appearance and suffer no ill effects. As long as we can set up 100 desks in a building then our employees will be able to get their work done. If the room has a bed and some curtains on the windows then that should satisfy our need for sleep.
The bland, lifeless feeling I get from simply writing those two previous sentences tells me there’s something missing when we settle for function over beauty. R. Buckminster Fuller perhaps said it best, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty........ but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” There is more to our environment than simply functionality.
In 1944, while addressing a debate in Parliament about the reconstruction of London after the Second World War, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.” His keen observation brought into focus the idea that the environment we construct around us greatly influences how we feel, think, and act. The effect is mostly subconscious, but we have all experienced it. You may notice your mood turning anxious when you enter a cluttered basement or discouraged after spending 9 hours in a bland, beige cubicle farm or relaxed and happy in your friend's warm, cozy living room.
What evidence do we have that aesthetics affect our moods and outlook? Can an intentionally-designed, aesthetically-pleasing building, room or object help us to feel happier, more optimistic, or more connected to others?
Fortunately, some very insightful studies have been conducted which seek to answer our questions about how our surroundings influence us. One of the earliest and perhaps most influential came in 1956 when the positive psychologist Abraham Maslow studied whether a person’s surroundings affected their mental outlook.
In the study, he decorated three rooms in his university's lab in three distinctive styles. The first room was the Beautiful Room because it was carefully arranged and decorated to be as comfortable and aesthetically pleasing as possible. The second was designated the Average Room since it looked like an average university professor’s office. The third was coined the Ugly Room, and it was a poorly lit janitor’s supply room filled with cleaning supplies, trash, and broken furniture.
Each participant in the study was assigned to one of the three rooms. While in their assigned room, they were asked to rate a series of portrait photographs on a scale from positive to negative. A clear pattern emerged. Participants assigned to the Beautiful Room consistently gave more positive ratings to the portraits than those in the Ugly Room. That’s some amazing evidence!
We might ideally believe that our mood or judgement is immune to our environment, but we are in fact quite influenced by our surroundings. When we walk into a well-designed space that’s intentionally arranged and carefully appointed, we see others in a more positive light. In a well-designed space, our mood improves, we can think more clearly, be more productive, have more fun, and be happier. It pays to make your space look good.
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