How to foster deeper social connections through home design
We don’t often think about it, but a key function of the roof over our head is to support social relationships and nurture intimacy. Designing with social function in mind is as old as architecture itself — the Victorian parlour and the triclinium (a room within the ancient Roman domus for elaborate dinner parties) — are just two examples.
Studies performed by Roger Ulrich within hospital healthcare settings demonstrate that interior design can significantly impact on the way we interact. For instance, comfy, flexible, movable seating and inviting spaces with attractive gardens encourage family members to socialise, while harsh lighting, uncomfortable chairs and draughty, cold rooms, discourage it.
It’s vital to have a comfy, cosy, semi-private place to engage in intimate conversation without distractions like noise, TV and clutter.
Regardless of whether you share with a horde or live alone and invite others into your inner sanctum, interior design can be tweaked to better promote social function. Fortunately, what works is largely intuitive. Anthony Ashworth, a holistic interior and building designer and feng shui, vastu shastra and Zen design expert, suggests we be guided by how the design of our home makes us feel. “In our modern world there’s a massive emphasis on the visual look of our home, but it’s more important how our home feels and how it supports the lifestyle we’re aspiring towards,” he says.
To get started, try conducting a social audit of your home, taking into account the elements below.
Somewhere to chat
Whether it’s a few chairs on a sunny balcony, a tiny sitting room closed off from the mess, a dedicated lounge room or multiple spots throughout your house, it’s vital to have a comfy, cosy, semi-private place to engage in intimate conversation without distractions like noise, TV and clutter, Ashworth says. Choose a comfortable lounge over something beautiful but more austere, Ashworth says. “If your lounge is on the drab side, dress it up with throws, a cover and lots of cushions. If you have mismatched furniture, use scatter cushions in the same colour that bring the whole mishmash together. It doesn’t have to look like it comes out of a design magazine to feel socially comfortable. Often the rooms that are most supportive energetically aren’t as visually impressive as what we see on social media and Pinterest.”
Get that yin feeling
Yin is the feminine principle of feng shui. A home with yin energy is more likely to be receptive, inviting and more open energetically, Ashworth says. “Yin tends to be more cosy; it tends to be softer and smaller; holding in its nature; it tends to have more texture and pattern. Rather than hard glass, we’re looking at curtains; rather than just hard, timber floors we’re looking at rugs on the floors. We’re looking at cosy lounges with throws and a womb-like, being held by your mother’s arms, atmosphere. It’s setting up a home that’s asking people to be in that space and be nurtured, as opposed to the yang home which is very noisy, hard, open and angular.”
Position, position, position
Furniture arrangements should promote inclusion. The research of Ulrich shows that seating positioned in circular clusters promotes social intimacy much better than side-by-side, along the wall furniture arrangements. Furniture that is moveable can be more readily positioned.
Ashworth also suggests side tables for people to put a drink on. “Social interaction of the older tradition is making somebody feel very comfortable in your home,” he explains.
And, if your social room is overly large, create a cosy furniture composition within it, he suggests.
Somewhere for everybody
Along with comfortable seating, you need to have an adequate amount of it so that no one is left standing or ostracised at the other end of the social chitchat. “There’s nothing wrong with having some plastic barbecue chairs outside you can bring in and put a cushion on,” Ashworth says. “You’re just having those facilities available so you can make people comfortable.” At the same time don’t over-furnish your room or it will feel like you’re sitting in a furniture jumble.
The dining room is back
If you’re designing your home from scratch or renovating, Ashworth recommends a combined dining, family room and kitchen hub as ideal for maintaining connection between the person(s) in the kitchen and the rest of the family. Regardless of whether you have this arrangement or not, a dedicated and inviting space for dining with family, housemates or invited guests, is essential. Dress it with beautiful placemats, flowers and so on to make dining a sacred experience. Work with what you’ve got — even a bench with stools in a sit-in kitchen can be lovely. Keep it free of clutter and ornament with a candle.
One of the most important places for interaction is over a meal. If you live alone, invite people over for dinner.
With tech blamed for a reduction in face-to-face social interaction, it’s important to have and preserve social rituals, like dining together. Half of Australians eat dinner, and a third consume breakfast, in front of the TV, suggests a recent study by YouGov.
Along with a dedicated dining space, Ashworth suggests setting up a technology-charging station in the family room or similar, where phones, tablets and laptops can be left to charge out of sight during imposed tech-free times, such as dinner. “It at least helps to contain it,” he says.
Fire it up
In place of screens, introduce fire. Ashworth says the element of fire creates a sense of passion, connectedness and intimacy. “The quintessential candle-lit dinner is famous for creating intimacy,” he says. “We actually light fire on the table. Only a few thousand years ago we were running around as hunters and gatherers and one of the things we used to do was sit around fires at night. It reminds us deeply, subconsciously and archetypally, that we gather around fire. Television is just mesmerising, flickering lights.”
Fire and candles also create ambient lighting that fosters a snug, intimate vibe. Research by Kisang Ryu on the restaurant industry found more intimate conversation happens under a softer light. Ashworth recommends table and floor lamps. “Overhead lighting tends to be overly bright, and harsh,” he says. “A uniformly lit room is not a comfortable light. I suggest beautiful warm pools of light around the house at night. Or install dimmers on your lights.”
A cosy temperature
Ryu also found that cold temperatures contribute to a negative mood. However, both high and low temperatures create guest discomfort.
Ashworth encourages people to have a fireplace to bring the element of fire, and the cheery sound of crackling wood, into social interactions in winter. Alternatively, he recommends heaters that glow and replicate fire, as opposed to air conditioning, or, having some background level of air conditioning with another heater. “The other issue I have with air conditioning is the background noise,” he says. “That continual hum creates a sense of tension.” Another idea is to bring throw rugs out in the colder weather.
Scent has a dramatic and instant impact on mood and thereby our social behaviour. Marketing research shows that people linger longer in a beautiful-smelling room. While scent preferences are highly individual, some smells, like vanilla, citrus, mint, coffee and baking bread, are universally enjoyed, according to marketing studies. Deal with any underlying issues behind bad odours like mould and mildew, plumbing problems, dirty dishes or pets.
Ashworth reminds us that scents should be nature-based from plant essential oils as opposed to aromatic oils that replicate the smell in a laboratory. “They’re toxic and bring about a sense of disquiet and anxiety,” he says. Anything containing “fragrance” as an ingredient is liable to be a mix of unhealthy chemicals.
The intimate bedroom
Mood, intimacy and sexual relationships actually start outside the bedroom, Ashworth reminds us. Thus, he suggests we create spaces for intimate conversations and connection in other parts of the home.
The bedroom itself should be very yin, with lovely soft textures, and very quiet — positioned away from street noise, Ashworth says. While you want muted colours to promote sleep, the use of some hot reds and purples can help bring forth a sense of passion, he says.
The type of artwork is important. “You shouldn’t have pictures of your kids and gurus in the bedroom,” Ashworth says. Also avoid lots of pictures of single people or dark, heavy or scary imagery. “It should be relationship-based and bring forth a sense of quietude; of you and your partner in a romantic setting to remind you that you love each other dearly.” While this won’t mend a broken relationship, it does contribute to background energy, he explains.
Also avoid having your workspace in your bedroom. Or if you must, have some way of hiding it discreetly.
On the other hand, photographs of your children, relatives, close friends and others important to you are entirely appropriate in other parts of the house and can help build a sense of connection, Ashworth says.
Redistribute the “man cave”, “she shed” and “teen cave” spaces
These can cause a sense of social isolation in the home. Ashworth suggests combining people’s hobby paraphernalia, such as gaming devices, sewing machines, computers and so on, within a communal space where members of the house can still be together in some sense.
Not having space to accommodate guests can limit your ability to socialise with those who live further away. If you lack options for a dedicated guest room, have a couch that doubles as a bed. Ashworth suggests putting forethought into cultivating whatever privacy and comfort you can for your guest: “Give them a little bedside table for their keys and put a little light on it so they can read at night.” He also makes up his own guest “welcome baskets”.
If you want a more social home, you may also need to re-think any hesitation around having people stay overnight. “One of the precepts of traditional societies were that guests were seen as something special,” Ashworth says. “It wasn’t about having to have it all pre-arranged: you offered hospitality to guests irrespective.”
A welcoming entrance
Guests should be able to find your home without trouble and feel welcomed and safe when entering. “Have a big, bright nice house number at the front of your house,” Ashworth states. “That’s saying to the universe, ‘Here I am. This is where I live. You can find me’. Because it’s really frustrating if someone can’t find you. You’re anxious because they’re late, and they can’t find you.”
Ensure your entrance is well lit at night and free of obstacles, including thorny vines. It should be beautiful, free of clutter and make people smile when they enter. A beautiful welcome mat can help set the tone of hospitality and also give visitors something to wipe their shoes on so they don’t feel embarrassed about walking dirt in.
Connecting with your neighbourhood
Ashworth suggests having a small table and chair somewhere outside, such as a front porch, or in the garden, where you can interact with your local community. “If ‘Mrs Smith’ comes down the road with her dog and sees you three or four times, on the fourth time she’s going to say good morning to you, or you can say good morning. That’s genuine social interaction,” he says.
If you live in a unit, gain permission to set up and nurture a communal garden or outdoor area.
Ditch home shame
You don’t have to have an Instagram-worthy home in order to have a social abode. However, 2015 British research suggests many of us in the developed world are letting self-imposed pressures rob of us social experiences at home. The study of 2000 Britons, by glue manufacturer Sugru, found 33 per cent of those surveyed were so ashamed of their living quarters they avoided letting anyone in.
Creating a socially friendly home doesn’t have to be a mammoth task. Ashworth suggests starting with one small area or room, or the dining table itself. “It doesn’t have to cost money,” he concludes. “It’s about a little bit of imagination, and a little bit of energy to create these pockets around our homes where we will go and sit and connect with each other. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don’t invite people to your home, you don’t have the furniture set up in order to have social interaction. And if you don’t have a place for social interaction [then] you don’t invite people around, because you can’t. Whether it’s within the family itself, or whether it’s bringing in people from the outside, you have to at least have some basics in place so that can happen. Build it and they will come.”
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