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The life-changing impact of design

The possibility of a different kind of life: Colorful shoes outside a business in Kibera, a poor settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.
The possibility of a different kind of life: Colorful shoes outside a business in Kibera, a poor settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. The Washington Post

Fascinating studies have revealed just how much our surroundings create who we are. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman pointed readers to the astonishing effects of priming, or the way little cues in what we hear or see direct our thoughts. Before one experiment, some participants waited in a room with a subtle, unidentified cue to think about money, like a dollar-bill screensaver flashing on a peripheral computer. In the ensuing experiment, the participants became as much as twice as likely to exhibit behaviors associated with having a focus on money, both good and bad: perseverance in completing a task, resistance to sharing with other people. It’s well known that having office plants or an office window facing a nature scene boosts creativity; research suggests that even looking at a painting of plants creates a similar effect.

And yet most of us who aren’t interior decorators don’t truly prioritize creating surroundings for ourselves that inspire the kinds of behaviors – say, restfulness, excitement, even generosity – we want to exhibit. We choose the spaces we live in according to practical concerns. We fail to lighten dark rooms or change dull colors on the walls. We neglect the garden. We skimp on art. This year, concomitant to my move, I also decided to create a household budget. I perused many programs and apps. None of them came with a built-in line-item for “surroundings” or “art” or “decor,” presumably because they assumed that we pay for such things infrequently or they’re only important to very rich people who don’t need online budget programs.

Many people who aren’t rich know otherwise. In 2009, for about a year, I worked as a volunteer on an ambulance crew in the Cape Flats, an extremely poor neighborhood outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Most of the houses where we’d go were shacks: homemade huts built of corrugated aluminum siding, tarps, or even cardboard boxes. Unemployment in parts of the neighborhood is well over 50 percent.

And yet I was constantly amazed, ducking into the narrow doors, by the incredible interior design there. Most of the spaces were kept fastidiously neat. Many were painted. One was decorated with a kind of floor-to-ceiling honeycomb-like sculpture of empty Tupperware containers. The owner told me seeing a wall of the kind of containers he uses to bring food to neighbors constantly reminds him of the value of generosity. When I asked another woman why she had wallpapered her bedroom with brightly colored labels she’d steamed off of sardine cans, she answered, “For dignity.” The neat, geometric spaces powerfully resisted the disorder of the outside environment and suggested the possibility of a different kind of life.

Recently, I leased an apartment I hadn’t really looked at before I signed on it: The move was sudden, the need urgent, the spot convenient enough.

When I arrived with my things six weeks later and walked in the door, I experienced something strange: a sharp and sudden nostalgia for a particular point in my life in a totally different city. The sweet memories came in such a flood I had to sit down and savor them before I started to unpack. In that other city, I’d just left the United States for a stint overseas. The thrill of new foods and a new language, of trying out a different self that was half American and half as yet unformed, imbued daily life with exoticism. Everything had been a tantalizing mystery. I’d loved my work. A freelancer on my own schedule, I’d spent more time in nature than I ever had before, relishing long walks under old, spindly trees.

Inside the new apartment, I wondered what had suddenly brought back those memories, and I realized it was the color of the place. Both my new apartment and my old one happened to be lit by huge, west- and north-facing windows and painted a bright chalk-white. The interior seemed to glow during the day even when no lights were on, imparting to domestic routine a warm, even excitingly dramatic quality, as if life were taking place inside a floodlit exhibition space.

Oddly, the nostalgic effect persisted. It became motivating. I’d moved into the new apartment in a period of personal despair. The space itself seemed healing. Inside the apartment that was lit just like the one that had provided the stage for a certain, thrilling phase in my life, I felt persistently transported back. I acted more like the woman I’d been in that other apartment, organizing hikes, plunging into new books. It was amazing what that mere light had done.

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