Last updated March 11, 2022
With the world still healing from a global pandemic and over 40 million Americans living with anxiety, a new author has compelling ideas for calming the mind by inspiring readers to embark on a more conscious design of their own space.
Living most of her life with undiagnosed ADHD and generalized anxiety, acclaimed artist Susie Frazier wrote Designing For Wellness as a way to empower others to support their emotional well-being.
Before there was such a thing as the WELL Building Standard or even a wellness movement, Frazier spent 24 years reducing her racing thoughts by creating soul-soothing artwork and objects for interiors using raw materials from the earth.
She became a student of nature, visually observing the smallest of details in rocks, branches and leaves, noting how they made her feel when she integrated those details directly inside her home and workspace.
She was especially calmed by imperfect and distressed textures indicative of change and aging. The result of this biophilic relationship over two decades became a portfolio of mesmerizing art installations for hotels, hospitals, and corporations, plus a line of artifact quality home decor items.
Frazier’s earth-minded practices developed into aesthetic preferences and a set of beliefs that she claims (and now science has proved) can help us all live in a more comfortable manner with less mental angst.
Through her award-winning book, her self-taught philosophies are spelled out with spiritually-grounded prose and color-rich photographs, making them accessible to anyone looking to create a more soothing environment for themselves.
We had a virtual chat with Susie to better understand how our spaces influence our well-being and came away looking at our own space with fresh eyes.
Vacayou: How do our spaces contribute – or detract from – our mental and emotional health?
Susie: Whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds are constantly processing the visuals we see, the sounds we hear, and the textures we touch around us.
These sensory elements send signals to our nervous system deep in our brain where emotional health is regulated. What highly sensitive people like me have always known is that specific design elements of a space can either soothe our psyche or greatly agitate it.
We’re like bellwethers of comfort, quickly assessing the vibe of a place because we’re already having a physical reaction to it.
Working as a wellness artist for the past two decades, I know first-hand that the experience we stage in our homes, workplaces, and lobbies plays an influential role in the well-being of those who enter. This is why I spend a significant amount of time fussing intuitively over how my art feels and not just how it looks.
So what constitutes high-quality conscious design when it comes to supporting human health? A space that uses architecture, fixtures, and decor to nurture a biophilic relationship.
Vacayou: Can you explain biophilia for us?
Susie: Biophilia is the innate attraction humans have to other living things in the natural world. It’s the immediate care we feel towards another life form during a moment of connection, no matter how brief it is.
For me, biophilia is a healing practice based on the act of noticing natural patterns. It doesn’t matter if I’m walking deep in the woods or I’m standing on a city sidewalk.
Repeating organic forms becomes powerful medicine. These mesmerizing visuals take me out of my racing thoughts and into a state where everything is slowed down and satisfying.
The lessons of biophilia show us that life is incremental, resilient, but imperfect. By witnessing nature’s change up close at intimate levels, we learn to go easy because the breakdowns are just as beautiful as the blooms.
We see how fungus survives on decay and grass stalks bend to find light. It’s through these kinds of biophilic moments that nature teaches us to embrace these same qualities within ourselves, which is liberating for anyone who’s ever suffered from trauma or anxiety.
Vacayou: How has designing for wellness changed over the past 20 years?
Susie: I see wellness and conscious design as the evolutionary offspring of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese practice of energetically harmonizing people with their surrounding place. Many designers of the 1990s brought this method into popularity, focusing on the energy of a room and how to optimize its magnetic flow.
Some say Feng Shui is rooted more in metaphysics than science, but the notion of bringing health benefits to homeowners through design choices was an important starting point for the wellness movement.
By the early 2000s, interior designers took a growing interest in the Japanese Wabi-Sabi aesthetic and way of life, which is rooted in the unpretentious aspects of nature characterized by impurities and distressed finishes.
Wabi-Sabi became a vehicle for people to pursue an earth-minded lifestyle, even while they were indoors. In late 2017, the Danish and Norwegian concept of Hygge gained international popularity as another organic style.
This approach valued rustic, cozy settings, where overall comfort led to a direct correlation between feelings of wellness and contentment.
All of these trends have helped shaped the framework of wellness design as we know it today.
Vacayou: How did you get involved in this aspect of design?
Susie: As a child, I had always loved exploring the natural world and making something out of the objects I found.
My career as a professional artist began in 1997 with reclaiming wood and stone fragments and then transforming them into home accents like mirrors and benches and candle holders.
But in 2010, I developed an important art installation for Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center headquarters based on the premise, “When we connect with nature, healing begins.”
This was the first of many biophilic art commissions I created for hospitals, hotels, and corporations that embedded actual fragments of nature into artwork for a public place.
Many years later, I read about a global consortium of leading doctors and design professionals who were evaluating the latest research on human health and the relationships between nature and the built environment.
They ended up developing the WELL Building Standard, a set of markers for the global construction industry that proactively support the mental and emotional health of occupants inside a building, not just the sustainable features of the building itself.
This was fascinating to me because, in 2018, I learned that I had been living with ADHD and generalized anxiety unknowingly all my life.
As I poured over articles about these conditions and the ideas behind WELL Building, the studies all revealed that a significant reduction in stress could be achieved when people were offered connections to nature. It was so validating to learn that my intuitive coping tools had suddenly become backed by science.
It was then that I began to document all the other conscious design practices I instinctively pursued to calm my mind. Those ideas became the basis of my book, Designing For Wellness.
I wanted to make wellness and conscious design tips more accessible for anyone to try at home vs. remaining locked in technical terms that only industry professionals could understand.
Vacayou: What does the WELL Building Certification encompass?
Susie: It’s actually quite broad. Because many of the world’s physicists, neurologists, and environmental psychologists studied human health as it related to the earth, there were several core themes emerged.
The research asked questions like why do people feel peace from the natural world? Can that be measured as a physiological response? Is it only actual nature outside that has a positive effect on people, or can depictions of nature in the built environment yield the same response? What other factors of a built environment can influence well-being?
The WELL Building Standard is the culmination of many years of research, and according to their literature, is “the first global rating system to be focused exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise our health and wellness.”
It features hundreds of preconditions and optimizations for commercial and institutional projects, which fall under seven concept areas, including Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind. Projects can become WELL certified if a sufficient number of features are satisfied.
Vacayou: Can you offer a couple of things we can do in our homes today to bring greater peace and well-being into our lives?
Susie: There are many design features in our homes that can have an impact on our anxiety, including the vastness of the architecture, the comfort levels of our furniture, and the amount of overhead lighting. However, one aspect in which we can implement immediate change is through the home decor.
Our number one goal should be to bring more of the outside to our inside. This not only gives us a personal connection to the earth, but specific objects like loose rocks on tables, dried branches resting against walls, and living plants displayed in groups all provide soothing patterns and recurring textures that subconsciously please our brain.
If you’d like to go beyond the basics of conscious design, then I recommend turning your attention to what’s on the walls. Is it actual art, or is it a big-screen TV and a cluttered bookshelf?
The walls of any room are a prime opportunity to deliver healing signals directly to the neural pathways of your brain. Because of the emotional synapses art can trigger, it’s helpful when the work is handmade, it’s pleasing to see, it tells a story, and it somehow ties to a culture or place that matters deeply to you.
People often think fine art is deemed more valuable when the creator is someone famous or the provenance of the piece is historic, but the real investment you’re making is in yourself. If we’re going to foster wellness within our homes, we must evaluate whether the items we display actually feed our souls.
If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” then it’s time to make more conscious design choices and become an active curator of your own calm.
All art and installation images courtesy Susie Frazier. Pick up Designing For Wellness at SusieFrazier.com.