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    Neuroaesthetic Ingredients That create wellbeing

    For more than half a century, contemporary design has maintained an ethos of ‘form follows function’.

    As we ascend into an era of deeper understanding of the interconnection between body and mind through scientific research, we are beginning to recognize the profound effect of art, design and architecture on us – from the embracing shape of an armchair to an open office flooded in natural light.

    It begs the question: should we be giving more thought to ‘form follows feeling’?

    Susan Magsamen is a long-time collaborator and friend of Muuto, the executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University and
    co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint. Her research centers on the human experience of aesthetics – a field adequately dubbed neuroaesthetics – examining the impact of architecture, art and de- sign on our behavior and sense of wellbeing.

    Catching up with Susan, we spoke of design’s potential for producing wellbeing, the importance of expressing an authentic self in the places we work and live in, and how we can combine neuroaesthetic elements or universal truths about light, form and tactility to create more poignant spaces that truly make us flow.

    Susan — There's a lot of work right now in thinking about things like flourishing or thriving – really being your authentic self. Even though we all have the same biology, my conditioning, my experiences, my genetics, make me respond to arts and aesthetic experiences differently.

    susan magsamen The more adaptability is allowed, encouraged and honored, the more authentically whole we are, the more we bring ourselves into what we do.

    ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-EXPRESSION
    As we grow up, we are learning to better understand what we need. You might recall decorating your room with an over- whelming sense of urgency – a need to re-arrange, to transform. In these early ways, we are projecting our identity through our spaces, developing a sense of what we like and what we need around us to thrive.

    Susan — There really isn’t such a thing as good or bad taste – there is only self-expression. You cannot say, my essence is better than your essence. It is what it is, and we need to honor that. We will explore ourselves for the rest of our lives. We are such intricate beings, and to allow that into the spaces that we are in holds so much potential. What we like changes and as you change, every space you inhabit somehow changes.

     

    UNIVERSALLY APPEALING NEUROAESTHETIC INGREDIENTS
    While conditioning makes us gravitate towards particular objects and spaces which we experience in vastly different ways, research, like that of Anjan Chatterjee of University of Pennsylvania and Oshin Vartanian at University of Toronto, has demonstrated that there are more universal neuroaesthetic principles we can adhere to when forging holistic experiences of space and architecture – the way i.e. color, light or material can be combined in order to create a uniform belief around or experience of a room.

    Susan — Deep aesthetic experiences are not about taste. Beauty is totally in the eye of the beholder. Still, we know something about the effect of, let’s say, color and tactility, on us. The research reveals how these are neuroaesthetic ingredients that artists, architects, craftsmen, designers and other professionals can put together to create something elevated, in order to serve a purpose or solve a problem.

     ADAPTABILITY AS A TOOL TO MAKE OUR PERSONAL MARK
    A thing to remember about personal thumbprints in aesthetics and arts is that the same thing will not work for everybody. Frequently, we are designing spaces for a group of people that might be highly diverse and interchangeable, be it a home shared with family, a bustling restaurant, or an open office accommodating a varied range of tasks. Look to adaptability and modularity, two elements that enable us to impart a sense of identity on our immediate surroundings by bringing that authentic self to a space, even for the briefest of moments.

    Susan — If you did a study into people’s offices, you will find in every single one a piece of them – be it a pillow, plant or picture. We al- ways bring our identity into a room, no matter how generic the space is. The more that is allowed, encouraged and honored, the more authentically whole we are, the more we bring ourselves into what we do. When it is not the case, the energy to restrain simply takes away from creativity and productivity.

    LIGHT’S POTENTIAL TO EASE, INVIGORATE AND SHARPEN
    Susan emphasizes how spaces are really about purpose, an emotional or human component that brings a tangible vibrancy to a room. It is where ‘form follows function’ and ‘form follows feeling’ intersect, producing compelling results, transcendent spaces that can elevate well- being, work flow or learning.

    Susan — We are doing more research on and understanding why things such as light have such an impact on us. Like, why does up-lighting make us feel awe? We know that sunrises and sunsets affect us profoundly, and that there are certain hues throughout the day or even the year that greatly influence body and mind.
    Bringing our natural landscapes inside helps us stay on a circadian rhythm, to follow our physiological day and ultimately, stay in sync. For instance, if you want to promote a stimulating learning environment, you might consider ways to introduce elements shown to improve focus like more exposure to daylight.

    susan magsamen We create spaces and think these are the most important, but the reality is, in many ways, that we still find ourselves most authentically in nature.

    Encouraging and designing for adaptability allows us to adjust our surroundings to better express our identity. We adapt our surroundings to our needs in even the most generic space.

    An abundance of natural light keeps us in tune with our circadian rhythms, with the benefit of heightening our focus and learning in a space.

    We naturally gravitate towards certain shapes, in particular smooth, rounded curves. Combining this idea with a strong focus on tactility allows one to create impactful atmospheres and spaces.

    WEAVING NATURAL ELEMENTS INTO CONTEMPORARY INTERIORS
    We know that looking at nature lowers our cortisol levels, and it is still the natural environment that we feel the most profoundly calm in. Therefore it is essential to consider the many ways in which we can introduce this powerful concept to our interiors.

    Susan — Acknowledging that we are deeply connected and wired to the rhythm of nature, many human-built environments are starting to bring in biophilic elements.

    Susan — When you come inside, in some ways, you’re taking yourself out of the natural world that you were born into. We create spaces and think these are the most important, but the reality is, in many ways, that we still find ourselves most authentically in nature. For example, if you want to generate a feeling of healing and restorative quality, explore biophilic design that incorporates greenery as well as other natural elements and materials into the built environment. This could be a piece of furniture in warm oak wood, the use of earth tones, or even the humidity of air flowing through a building.

     

    OUR INCLINATION TOWARD SOFT SHAPES
    Research has shown that the smooth curves of modernist sculptor Jean Arp produce a pleasant sensation in the beholder – that we prefer rounded shapes to sharp angles. In a similar manner our hands naturally envelop the rotund shape of a cup or the arched frame of a chair.

    Susan — There are certain shapes we just gravitate towards, like the shape of the cup, because our hands have shaped it and they can embrace it, hold it. We have so many millions of synapses and nerves in our hands that connect to our brain and what feels intuitively right. Honoring these physiologies is really when I think design gets better. When we disregard them, it's also an aesthetic experience - everything's aesthetic. But I think there's a difference between what really moves you – peak aesthetic experiences – and things that are simply utilitarian.

    EMBRACING TACTILITY
    Of course, we not only perceive the world visually, but also sensorily, among others through touch. Tactility, or the haptic experience, is an essential part of the neuroaesthetic perception of an object or space. Through our hands, we can feel the essence of an object, deciphering its materiality and how it was made – knowing through our hands.

    Susan — Our skin is the biggest organ on our body and it's so responsive. So you cannot underestimate what texture does. We are not only about what something looks like. You might be drawn to a certain kind of texture, and how it feels when you are engaging with it is incredibly powerful. It is much more powerful than seeing it.

     

    DESIGNING WITH INTENTION
    We have an incredible toolbox at our disposal, working with color, light, objects, sound, scent, textures and more. How we wield these all depends on our intention.

    Susan — The science that we're doing is informing new ways of understanding how to use the same ingre- dients, but use them in different or new ways for an end purpose. I think we can get closer to understanding these ingredients by marrying science and the arts together.

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