let there be light

earlier this week i went along to a talk by architectural and interior designer oliver heath at the new hillarys showroom in bristol, which posed the question: how we can improve happiness and health in the home through design?

it’s certainly a question i’ve been considering myself a lot lately, given that i have a new blank canvas of a home, where i not only live but also work. i could certainly relate when the opening line of heath’s presentation stated, ‘we spend 90% of our time indoors, so inevitably the way we design and decorate our spaces will have a big impact.’

heath believes that we are moving away from personal expression towards a movement of positive human experience, which will be less about the need and desire to express your identity through your home and much more about how your home can enhance your sense of experience and enrich your life. a human-centred form of sustainability is being seen more in all areas of interior design, from office and schools, to hospitals, hospitality and the home, where the quality of design and the user experience can enhance both health and wellbeing.

heath has devised a list of what he terms ’13 principles to create a healthier, happier home’ which fall nicely under 3 alliterative headers: social (social spaces, private spaces and community), sensory (biophilia, colour, light, sleep, acoustics and air quality) and sensible (warmth, storage, workspaces and security).

the sensory aspects of heath’s presentation held the most relevance for me at this stage in the setup of my new home, as i’ve been focusing on zoning within my open-plan living  space to create a defined workspace, living space and dining space, as well as considering the necessary components for creating a sanctuary for relaxation in the bedroom and bathroom. heath’s talk was also really thought-provoking when it came to consideration of the wider community around us, especially as it is estimated that 61% of us don’t know our neighbours – crazy really but becoming increasingly the norm.

i thought i’d focus in on 3 of my main takeaways from heath’s 13 principles here but i’m sure i’ll touch upon many of the others in later posts..

1. biophilia

biophilic design, which means a love of nature, was popularised in the 1980s by american psychologist edward osborne wilson when he observed how increasing rates of urbanisation were leading to a disconnection with the natural world.

when you think about it, people have only been living in cities since the industrial revolution, and had been living in and around nature throughout human evolution in the millennia before, which explains why we naturally gravitate to the beach or the countryside whenever we want to take a moment out and recharge our batteries.

the world health organisation expects stress related illness, such as mental health disorders and cardio-vascular disease, to be the two largest contributors to disease by 2020.  with a diminished connection to nature, the increasing pressure on urban space & the ubiquitous  technological presence we have less opportunity to recuperate our mental and physical energy. ~ oliver heath

biophilic design is about using the relaxing, uplifting and empowering experience you have whilst in nature and bringing it into your home to reduce stress levels. numerous research studies have demonstrated that improving our connection to nature and natural processes can help to reduce stress, aid recuperation, improve air quality, energy levels and even your sleep.

biophilia can be achieved in a number of ways. most literally, bringing plants, natural light and water features into the home, but you can also consider natural analogues; materials, patterns, colours, scents and textures that mimic those found in nature. incorporating direct or indirect elements of nature into the built environment have been demonstrated to reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, whilst increasing productivity, creativity and self reported rates of wellbeing.

heath suggests that having surface material contrasts on the floor, so you can step from hard to soft, helps in delineating zones and connect you with your senses. this can be particularly effective in the bedroom when waking; stepping out of bed to feel a soft tactile surface underfoot before moving off onto the cooler, harder wood of the floorboards can help ground you in the here and now.

interestingly, he also mentioned that research has demonstrated that when you sleep in a real timber bed it can dramatically reduce your resting blood pressure and heart rate – who knew? i’m certainly happy to have invested in a solid pine timber framed bed now!

2. colour

it was fascinating to hear heath talk about schloss and palmer’s ecological valence theory, which proposes that we react positively to colours we have had positive experiences of. calm relaxed spaces are often rooted in nature – by the water, surrounded by grass, forests and flowers – and the theory proposes that colour in the home should be used in the same sparing way that it is in nature. in other words, our experience of nature should shape our proportional use of colour in order to be calming and beneficial. when i think about the natural spaces in which i find the most contentment i am always by the water, an influence clearly seen in my tendency to use shades of grey and blue in my decor scheme!

3. light

the first thing most people say when asked what they want most for their home is a light and airy space; we all understand that increased access to natural light will have a positive effect on our wellbeing.

there are, of course, both beneficial and damaging aspects to having an abundance of natural light in the home, particularly if you live in a built up urban zone where light pollution from street lamps and other people’s homes can be a real nuisance. one of the first things i purchased for my new bedroom was a blackout blind to layer behind the flimsy white vertical blinds, so i wasn’t being woken pre-6am by the morning sunrise filtering in!

finding ways to layer up window coverings helps us control light and especially in the bedroom it can be prudent to have both blinds and curtains. these not only effectively help you to regulate the intensity of natural light in the room but to also add extra insulation and help keep your room cosier during the winter months.

it’s shocking to think that not only do we generally spend 90% of our time indoors, 60% of uk workers spend their whole working day under the cool blue glare of artificial lighting, away from a natural light source of any kind. its been well documented that long-term exposure to a single colour temperature of light can be hugely damaging to the circadian rhythms of the body, affecting mood, behaviour and hormone release and often causing sleep deprivation.

for those of us lucky enough to work from home and have an element of control over our daily working conditions, its important to consider the role that natural light can have in aiding concentration and focus and create a workspace that will enhance your cognitive ability to focus on the task at hand during the workday and then, ideally, step away from at the end of the working day.

heath recommends incorporating biophilic elements, particularly plants and other natural objects where possible, to help facilitate effortless concentration when your direct focus on a task begins to wane. taking a few minutes out to connect with a pet, gaze out at the garden or focus on the flicker of a candle can help your mind to free associate and make those important leaps in understanding that too much focused attention can inhibit.

all of hillarys new season blinds incorporate elements from oliver heath’s 13 principals and celebrate the benefits of creating a serene and tranquil space that’s bursting with positive energy and wellbeing. my favourite is zen, a range of contemporary roman and curtain fabrics infused with japanese cultural references and design aesthetics, from intricate skeleton leaves and silhouette embroidery to soothing stripes reminiscent of washi paper. i’m also drawn to designs from transformations – a contemporary collection of roller blinds in dusky pastel shades with a subtle blend of opaque and transparent elements – while the new sheer voile roman blinds, in a sophisticated palette of whites, creams and greys,  banish all notions of the hideous net curtains of old, to offer a modern alternative that allows light to shine through whilst still providing much-desired privacy.


this post is written in collaboration with hillarys, but all thoughts and experiences mentioned are my own.images of oliver heath’s home feature hillarys tatum beige recycled cotton roller blinds (living room) and thermoshade mist pleated blind (bedroom). all other imagery from the hillarys ss17 collection. 


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  1. Carole King

    3 April

    Wish I’d been able to go to this hun. Lot’s of food for thought. And isn’t Oliver Heath’s home lovely?

  2. This is so interesting, Kate. I grew up around a lot of trees and greenery and in a house which let in an expanse of light with only a handful of other houses around. It’s probably why I love really light rooms with wood and lots of greenery … it makes me feel at home. And probably why I feel like I’m surviving rather than living whenever I’m in a city for too long. I’m seriously coveting Oliver Heath’s home now.

  3. Lovely post, Kate. Really interesting to start reading about these thirteen principles. Really drawn to Biophilia as a concept… and how it ties in so nicely with mindfulness and slow living. Sounds like it was a great event!

  4. Wow, this is fascinating stuff. I do believe our surroundings impact on us greatly and our wellbeing. I bet it was so interesting attending this event! I remember reading a while back that Oliver Heath had an Eco home, so it’s lovely to have a glimpse – looks so peaceful. The blinds from Hillarys looks really great and I like that this new collection incorporates Oliver’s 13 principals.

  5. Fascinating discussion – sounds like a really thought-provoking event. Completely agree that bringing in natural items have a restful quality. I wonder sometimes if the big trend to bring the outdoors in is partially due to the amount of technology we consume on a daily basis. There’s a real need to reconnect to nature. And glad to see that having pets will help – god knows they are an all-day distraction but I suppose I shouldn’t be too ungrateful for that ;) xx

  6. Cate

    3 April

    Wow that is really fascinating! It’s fairly straightforward to integrate some of these principles into the home but I really think office environments have a long way to go. I am so much more productive when I work from home, can look out of a window, have natural light and plants around me, compared to the artificial light and oppressive environment of my office. It’s amazing the effect spaces can have on our wellbeing. I really need to disconnect a bit more from technology too. And get a pet now!! x

  7. Great post Kate, sounds like it was a really insightful and thought-provoking event! I really like the sound of Biophilia as a concept. Growing up in the country side, beside the sea, I am definitely drawn to greens and blues and I feel that these colours definitely help me to relax and create a sense of calm at home. The need to reconnect with nature is definitely linked with our over dependence on technology these days. I really love the look of those voile roman blinds. I’m currently trying to work out what to do with window treatments in my livingroom and bedroom. There are so many options, I am really confused!

  8. Jane

    6 April

    Great decorating tips and hints – thanks for sharing! Keeping rooms simple and minimalistic is always a great approach, and adding just a dash of a colour like soft pink, is a perfect way to inject some character!

  9. Janine

    7 April

    That’s really interesting. I think that scandinavian style is good in all three aspects you’ve mentioned. It gives a lot of light into the space, for sure. Calming, neutral colors are used (greys, whites, everything which does not cause you sensory overload) ;) Also it is a little bit biophilic. Maybe that’s why I always loved that style – I generally feel better in such environments.

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