Biophilic Design and the Role of Rustic Antiques


If given the choice between spending our indoor life in spaces that have: minimal or maximal natural daylight; negligible or plentiful views outside to trees, sky, and spacious vistas; concrete block or wooden walls; sounds of breezes, birds and babbling brooks vs. the background drone of machines and traffic; or some house plants, an aquarium and pets vs. only inanimate metal and plastic objects, most of us would gravitate to the indoor environments that have copious infusions of nature.

biophilic design of an atrium
(photo: Kellert, 2016)

That, in a nutshell, is the fundamental tenet of biophilic design, a set of principles that guides architects, builders and urban planners to create built environments that allow people to feel the presence of nature within the buildings they inhabit.

Thorncrown chapel
Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas is a well-known exemplar of biophilic design. (photo:

While “green” architecture seeks to design buildings whose construction materials and ongoing energy consumption have minimal environmental impact, biophilic design is concerned primarily with how buildings can promote human psychological and physical health through recreating the patterns, processes and organic presence of nature indoors. (Green and biophilic designs are complementary, however, and are often implemented together.)

Biophilic design is grounded in a concept from evolutionary biology called the “biophilia hypothesis” which asserts that all humans alive today have a hard-wired emotional affiliation with other living organisms due to the millions of years during which our bodies and minds adapted to surviving among the plants, animals and landscapes of pre-civilization environments. (See our Journal article “Nature is a Happy Pill” for more details on the scientifically-documented, beneficial effects that nature has on our physiology and mental health.)

The best way to understand biophilic design is to study buildings that enact its principles. One of its most inspiring recent manifestations is the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In response to the immense tragedy that the community experienced at the old school in 2012, a new elementary school was completed in 2016 which totally embodies the “healing and hopeful presence of nature.” (

the new Sandy Hook Elementary School

From its use of recurring shapes, patterns and colors that mimic organic forms, to the prioritization of natural building materials (e.g., wood cladding over steel safety doors), to its sunlight-washed interior spaces, to its landscaping that creates functioning natural habitats, the school affirms and celebrates life.

the new Sandy Hook Elementary School

Representations of Nature are the Next Best Thing: From Biophilic Design to Biophilic Decor

While a central goal of biophilic design is to create buildings that promote direct connections to nature (light, air, water, plants, animals, landscapes), its practitioners also advocate infusing representations of nature into architectural and interior design.

As antiques dealers, we’re particularly intrigued by those dimensions of the biophilic design framework that are not focused so much on the structure of a building and its landscape as on its interior décor. That subset of biophilic design principles promotes what we and our clients know to be true: it feels good to be surrounded by reminders of nature indoors.

moose antler chair
Moose antler chair (

A study of people’s behavior in a medical office waiting room illustrates the power of bringing representations of nature indoors (Ulrich, 2008). The first photo shows the original waiting room where researchers logged aggressive interactions and high levels of stress among visitors, patients and staff.  Clearly, the room is devoid of any inkling of nature.

waiting room

The researchers then redecorated the room with representations of nature—a mural of a savannah, house plants, earthy colors, floral patterns on fabrics, and furniture made of wood rather than metal (note the hickory chair in the right corner).

waiting room

They then observed and documented how people behaved and felt in the redecorated room, discovering that there was a significant reduction in conflict and stress for everyone working in and visiting the office.  Although it was still the same windowless room, the representations of nature created a more positive and calming effect on human emotions.

Rustic Antiques as Biophilic Décor

Here are five recommendations drawn from biophilic design frameworks (Kellert, 2018; that specify ways to infuse representations of nature inside the spaces we inhabit.

Each recommendation is accompanied by images from our past inventory to illustrate how rustic antiques provide indirect experiences of nature, and thus how they can contribute to biophilic design’s fundamental aim: creating human habitats that promote our health, performance and emotional well-being.

1) Use minimally processed natural materials that reflect the local ecology and create a distinct sense of place. The visual and tactile qualities of natural materials elicit aesthetic satisfaction.

Old Hickory hexagonal table
Old Hickory Table. Rustic furniture like this table is made with minimally processed bark-on hickory poles. The oak top and shelf show the wood’s natural grain.
rustic yellow birch table
Yellow Birch Table. This small table is made entirely of unprocessed, bark-on yellow birch, a tree that is native to many of the northern forests, mountains and lakes regions where people have built rustic retreats.

2) Display materials that show age and the patina of time. Since the natural world is never static, furnishings that show the effects of weathering and maturation reflect the realities of nature. (In contrast, artificial materials such as plastic are not dynamic—they are lifeless in space and time.) Also, caring for and keeping old objects bolsters environmental sustainability, reflecting another dimension of human/nature connection. Recycled elements add grace and beauty to our interior surroundings.

Penobscot birch bark log holder
Birch Bark Kindling Holder. This Penobscot-made kindling holder shows use and wear, enhancing its rustic appeal.
white birch rustic floor lamp
White Birch Tower Lamp. The white birch comprising the panels of this lamp weathered and darkened over time, and the sheepskin lamp shade adds additional organic texture.

3) Use furnishings that exhibit the richness of nature’s detail and diversity in pleasing designs.

masaic twig dressing table
Mosaic Twig Dressing Table. This dressing table incorporates twigs from tree species that have different bark colors and textures, as well as conifer cones and natural branches. The design is ornate yet earthy.
rustic daybed
Rustic Daybed. This daybed combines natural twigs, branches and root burls in an intricate yet agreeable design.
mosaic twig planter
Twig Planter. This rustic planter incorporates natural twigs, shaped twigs, burls, vines and branches. It showcases details from nature while creating an aesthetically successful and functional design.

4) Use naturalistic shapes and forms. This can include bringing actual organic pieces of nature indoors, as well as furnishing with representations of nature made from inorganic materials.

wave tile stand
Tile Stand. The ceramic tiles applied to the apron of this stand create images of waves, thus evoking one of earth’s fundamental elements: water.

faux bois birdbath
Faux Bois Bird Bath. This limestone birdbath is carved to represent the natural shape and bark texture of a tree trunk. Stone is also an earth element.

yellow birch floor lamp
Yellow Birch Lamp. This floor lamp is created from an entire yellow birch sapling. Bringing nature indoors does not get any more holistic than this.

5) Display images of nature, including plants, animals, water, landscapes and geological features. Researchers have documented that the more isolated from nature an interior environment is (e.g., a windowless office cubicle), the more people are compelled to adorn the space with representations of nature (e.g., posters and calendars featuring nature photography). Even in less stark environments, humans are inclined to choose décor that reminds them of the outdoors.

Seth Steward lake painting
Seth Steward Lake Painting. An oil-on-canvas depiction of a serene lake landscape.
wildlife painting
Wildlife Painting. An oil on canvas portrayal of a vibrant community of interacting species.

brook trout painting
Brook Trout Painting. A dynamic portrayal of a beautiful fish species.

moose carving
Moose Carving. Wood is the perfect material to transform this giant denizen of the wild into a sculpture scaled for home display.

Grenfell hooked mat
Grenfell Hooked Mat. The design of this mat featuring Newfoundland wildflowers is grounded in its creator’s profound sense of place.
Noah Weiss deer carving
Noah Weiss Relief-Carved Deer. This doe is both life-like and stylized. It is rendered in a dramatic scale that infuses the peaceable beauty of nature into any room where it’s displayed.

From Biophilia to Human Ingenuity

Biophilic design, whether applied to creating buildings or decorating interiors, harmonizes with our most primitive selves, namely our instinctual responses to nature. But as a field of practice, biophilic design also enlists our most highly evolved human traits, namely our intellect and creativity.

Collectors of rustic antiques respond emotionally and aesthetically to the nature-invoking creations that artists and artisans produced decades and centuries ago.  They then apply their own creative vision to choose elements of antique rustic décor that speak to them, as well as to arrange those selections within their homes.

animal sculptures

Choosing and decorating with rustic antiques creates a synergy between our primal biological affiliation with nature and our more advanced, creative selves. The happy result is a home that enhances connectivity to the natural environment while nurturing personal expression.

Sprucewold built-ins


14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. (undated,

Kellert, Stephen R. 2018. Nature by design: The practice of biophilic design. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kellert, Stephen R. 2015. What is and is not biophilic design. Metropolis Magazine, October 26th.

Kellert Stephen R. & Calabrese, Elizabeth F. The practice of biophilic design. (undated,

Svigals + Partners Architects. 2016. Sandy Hook School (

Ulrich, Roger S. 2008. Biophilic theory and research for healthcare design. Pp. 87-106 in Biophilic Design, Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, & Martin L. Mador (Eds.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.