Perhaps the first thing one notices about a room is its size, especially in proportion to oneself. We notice how high and how wide it runs. We notice how big or how small it feels—which depends in part upon how one’s perception of scale is altered by light, color and materials. A narrow space can feel claustrophobic or pleasantly intimate; a very large volume may be inspiring or disquietingly vast. The proportions of a room can feel instinctively “right” or “wrong.” Ultimately, it is the amalgam of several variables that create our first impression and our more lasting experience as we inhabit and adapt to the space.
Few elements of design arouse emotion as much as the quality of light, whether streaming through an open window or falling from an overhead tube. Light has profound symbolic meaning, perhaps because vision is eclipsed in its absence. Research makes a strong case for the salutary effects of natural light on mind and body, but daylight is also inconstant and unpredictable, given the rhythm of day and night and vagaries of weather. Thus, in most interiors, artificial light is employed to meet functional needs and to create aesthetic effects, according to the nature of the space and the activities of its occupants.
Materiality plays a critical role in defining a space and influencing occupants as they interact with their surroundings. While the mental process may be somewhat unconscious, human beings translate the texture of materials from the visual to the tactile, enriching the sensory experience and amplifying meaning. One can create “warmth” with soft, plush textiles or “coolness” with glass and metal. Or, one can animate a space and create interest through contrast and the dualities of burlap and unfinished plywood paired with lustrous marble and supple leather.
Primo Orpilla, principal of San Francisco architectural firm Studio O+A, has noted that people in today’s tech-driven workplace have an “appetite for the tactile.” In an interview posted on ideapaint.com, he says, ”I’m talking about brick and steel, reclaimed wood, raw concrete, stone. When much of the work you do is virtual, when each day you send your work product into the cloud, there is something satisfying about retiring to a coffee bar clad in red oak and walnut or going down to another floor by way of a blackened steel staircase.”
Beyond a first impression, each feature of a space modifies one’s experience. The almost subliminal hum of the office becomes a distinct piece of sensory information, composed of the pings, beeps and tic, tic, tic of typing and texting—quite separate from the play of light or contrasts of color. While the volume of sound in today’s workplace may not approach that of a foundry or textile mill, the distraction of chatter, clatter and crunch is often a source of frustration.
Interior space contains all manner of shapes: the rectangular outlines of windows and doors, the figurative or free-form patterns of textiles and the linear or curved silhouettes of sofas and chairs. These shapes—round or angular, simple or complex, organic or geometric—are part of the visual grammar of a space and are often suggestive enough to influence one’s attitude and behavior.
Furniture always departs to some degree from pure utility, assuming endless variations of form that convey ideas through scale, material and shape—a formal symmetry or curvaceous embrace. Recognizing the expressive potential of furniture, office design today—especially in an entry or reception area—often incorporates softer, more inviting furniture shapes along with other elements that help to engage visitors in a state of comfort.
The simplest of objects, the smallest of details, carry a message with the potential to evoke an emotional response. When we sit down to work, we may feel affection for the way a task lamp anchors our desk and adjusts with the lightest touch. We derive pleasure from details like the grain in wood or the veins in stone. Details remind us to look and invite us to touch; they make objects and spaces more personal, intimate and relevant.
How then do architectural and design manipulations such as natural and reflected light, color and texture, volume and shape, become useful tools for creating a welcoming, inspiring, creative and empowering workplace?