The Nature of Design: Bringing the Outdoors In

The calm sound of water, the smell of firewood burning, and being surrounded by plants and other elements–it sounds like the great outdoors. But what if all of these details described an indoor space? Is that a place you would want to be? If so, you’re in luck because design is going green–and not in the way that you think.

Companies of all shapes and sizes are turning to nature to create rich experiences and deepen how they convey their brand identity through physical spaces. Apple’s shifting its Genius Bar model to Genius Groves, an open and tree-filled space that encourages patrons to sit and stay awhile longer. The tech giant went as far as to call the unveiling of its new design concept its “largest product.”

The great outdoors is easily overwhelming territory to digest, and it’s easy to write off infusing nature-driven approaches into a space strategy because you may think these design tactics strip businesses of their greenbacks. But hang with us, because we’re about to explore less-expected nods to nature that might be just the inspiration you need.

“The feeling of being outside among nature really evokes a feeling of nostalgia and community, and there are so many ways to incorporate elements of nature into a design,” says Sheena Mayfield, project designer at Baskervill.

First stop, the office park

Nimble businesses are quick to take advantage of areas with booming economic development. That’s why it was no surprise when Marriott wanted to make a bold hospitality statement in a young, growing area of Richmond. Ideally, interior designers seek to tell the story of the locale through their work. “In developing areas like Short Pump there might not be a lot of history to draw upon,” explains Laura Plasberg, senior interior designer at Baskervill, who decided to find the poetry within the hotel’s surroundings: an office park.

The park’s sweeping lakes, lush green spaces and duck families strutting about were inspiration points, which the team used to reflect a refined, rustic feel.

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Rich tactile materials like wood, concrete and glass, combined with natural textures in fabrics and accents, contrast with the modern aesthetic of the hotel to create a harmonious balance throughout the space. Subtle carpet patterns reminiscent of wood and water add modernity to the space, tricking the mind into making those connections to nature. For example, blue carpet mimics the waves and ripples in a reflecting pond while neutral furniture and walls resemble stone. Add a large fireplace, accents of greens and browns, and you create a cozy, woodsy vibe, all indoors.

“We wanted to use elements that resembled the hotel’s surroundings but in a softer way. The design incorporates a lot of bold references to nature in places like the artwork in the guest rooms and the textures and colors of the carpet and walls in the corridors,” says Senior Interior Designer Patricia Lopez.

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Art is a critical component, tying together the sophisticated nature theme of the space. The ‘outdoors inside’ method doesn’t have to be taken literally. Look closely and you’ll notice an enlarged image of a feather inspired by the families of ducks that reside in the nearby lake. The light touch is achieved via smart choices. Instead of displaying an image of an entire duck, the art zooms in to magnify the bold color stripe and feature texture that offers elegance to the room instead of making it a literal animal kingdom suite. This project excels at conveying the importance of simplicity and careful decision-making to achieve balance.

A front porch gathering

More than towering trees and wildlife, the natural approach is also about highlighting a space’s essential or inherent features. So when Bon Secours wanted to create its Center for Healthy Communities in a former gas station, our design team sought to take cues from the existing structure to strengthen and support that community feel. With a goal of designing an environment where people feel safe and can quickly grow from strangers into neighbors, we sought inspiration from the familiar front porch.

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For a truly authentic feel the gas station’s original canopies are being retained to attract and inspire passersby to gather. “We wanted to really capture that feeling that you are hanging out with your family and friends on the front porch,” says Sheena Mayfield. “Elements like a porch swing, tons of exposed and distressed wood, cedar shake walls and some very cool accents like banisters and barn lights make the inside of the space as cozy and inviting as it would be if it were a true front porch.”

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Bright, playful colors are broken up with artwork inspired by porch banisters and large steel drums. Carefully placed windows provide a sense of privacy inside, while still allowing natural light to billow through and keep the area welcoming and open. When the weather’s right, the building’s original garage doors open to literally allow the outdoors in.

Every day nature

At this point you may be thinking: Sure, it’s easy to be creative in the design of spaces like hotels or community centers, but what about nature in every-day places like offices or banks? A huge chunk of daily life can be spent on solo-missions such as getting to work and tackling errands. And if we’re honest, cranking out work on deadlines and stocking up on groceries can be stressful. According to the American Institute of Stress, 44 percent of Americans feel more overwhelmed in everyday life than they did only five years ago. That’s a big reason why nature has an important role to place in any environment: it’s proven to positively affect the potential and performance of people.

Did you know that simply seeing things like green grass, water and natural light makes people happier? Just looking at nature-driven elements for as little as 10 seconds can calm a person down physically and increase their mental awareness.

Knowing that finances can be highly stressful, DuPont Community Credit Union made simple adjustments to alleviate the every-day stresses of members and workers alike.  Murals of forests and trees are a key focal point in its member centers’ private meeting rooms, while new member centers in the credit union’s Harrisonburg and Lexington, Virginia, locations prioritize light and transparency to the outdoors with substantial storefront glass, literally letting the sun shine in.

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A comprehensive landscape

While we’d all love water features, open air doors and fireplaces in our spaces, big moves like that aren’t the right fit for every space. Ask yourself: What does nature mean to you? Better yet, what does it mean to your customers, clients, colleagues and for your business in general? Think about your brand. Regardless of the size of your project or the industry you’re in, it’s important to be deliberate about how you incorporate nature into physical spaces. Take a minimal approach and build on it. Done well, bringing the outdoors into your design can improve your well-being and that of everyone around you.

Okay, you can now step away from your computer. Go outside! And make sure to check back this fall for an upcoming project feature on an adventurous new brewery that demanded an outdoor experience to complement its liquid assets.

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