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Dissertation Christmas (section 2) Paper

Words: 2243, Paragraphs: 25, Pages: 8

Paper type: Dissertation , Subject: Psychology


The Interior and its Inhabitants

The layout of an interior depends on the inhabitant, their culture and their social habits, with the functions of the room changing with each. The placement of doors, windows, walls and screens can alleviate or increase the difficulty of social interaction, for example, and particularly between cultures an interior’s layout can drastically change. An example of this is the difference between a western and African culture’s social habits; when the Algiers became independent, many moved into the high-rise buildings that had been built by the French beforehand. After just a few weeks in these buildings, the families had removed all of the doors and broken down many of the walls. They did this to open up their living spaces, as whereas the western culture promotes individuality, security and personal life, the Algerians have a much more community focused outlook on life and couldn’t cope with being locked away in such cramped apartments; they’d open them up to neighbours and spent a lot more time with their families. As such, the building had to change.

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Different genders also have different experiences in their environments. Women evolved to encourage camaraderie over competition, and as a result have social norms that suit this. Women have smaller personal space bubbles than men and have much lower cortisol levels than men after spending an afternoon at a shopping centre vs the same amount of time on a university campus.

It is interesting to note that introverts and extroverts have different spacial preferences, because spaces can complement our personalities (explained in the following paragraphs). Mountain lovers, for example, are in general more introverted than ocean-lovers. Because Introverts are less tolerant of outside stimulation, within an interior they prefer cooler colours, more space, and furnishings closer to the edge with open space in the middle. Extroverts on the other hand prefer risk and stimulation from the environment, introduced through bold colours, memorabilia and more central furniture.


‘Identity process theory’ describes how humans rely on a number of props to support and make up our identities. These props include our self-esteems, abilities and a sense of belonging, and are essential in defining how we identify ourselves, and we often anchor our identities in physical manifestations of these props, using our surroundings and possessions to define ourselves. A particularly clear example of this is how old people confined to hospice care commonly hoard household possessions such as kitchen utensils, where “the only value these things have for them is that they are not part of the house-issued clothing and furnishings. These things belong to them, and taken together they symbolise a kind of home.” The patients need to keep their individuality, and one of their ways of doing so is in the physical objects they surround themselves with. Because of this phenomenon, it makes sense that we can, to some extent, change our surroundings to change ourselves. If you have an untidy bedroom, for example, you may feel, to some extent, like your life is a mess. If you tidy your bedroom on the other hand, then maybe as a person you will feel more organised because of it, and your organisational skills may flourish as you strive to be who you think you are. One of the appeals of a good design is its ability to portray an image to us of who we’d ideally want to be. It carries values that we aspire to, and thus we can admire it, and we tend to change ourselves, for the better or worse, to line up with those values. The reason that a large proportion of classical art has characters drawn blemish free is not to make them seem otherworldly, but to present an ideal that we can aspire to and work towards in our day to day lives. Our interiors talk to us about the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. And thus, this effect can be used and manipulated. A relaxed environment and design can make its occupants feel at ease.

Empathy for our Furniture

Any piece of furniture will have personality or character, reflected in its shape and structure. This means that with careful consideration, not only can a room be calming in nature, but it can also project the idea of relaxation to those in the room, inspiring them and calling on them to slow down and feel calm themselves. We put across a message with our furniture, to ourselves and to others, of who we are and what we want to be. The objects and furniture that make up the interior express themselves to us. They may not look like people, yet it is still easy to imagine what personalities an object might have, take, for example, these lines:

Although just lines, they are immensely successful at putting across a personality; one being undomineering and soft, and the other more violent and aggressive. You can see the effect that a single line can have, so when an entire interior is in the works, it is easy to see what’s at stake.

The reason we can label abstract forms with sentiment and emotion is due to our ability to find similarities to living forms in them. A large portion of the human brain is designed to recognise faces and their expressions in our peers, however this ability even extends to the non-living furniture and forms around us; the part of the brain designed to recognise facial features remains active even when looking about an environment with no one else present. And so, even in something as unhuman like as a line, or a table, we still see expression and emotion conveyed, and well-developed personalities come through.

20002586360Simple, sturdy, rough, honest

00Simple, sturdy, rough, honest

314325086360Elegant, flamboyant, sophisticated

00Elegant, flamboyant, sophisticated

We can distinguish the personality of an object from seemingly minute details, such as changing the angle of a wine glass by a few degrees. We first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we like to judge, giving us the perfect toolkit to decipher the interiors surrounding us. We learn biases from a young age, relating angular features to strict and cruel personalities, and round faces to generous and kind-hearted ones, and this translates into our perception of furniture.

Making Up for What We Miss

Wilhelm Worringer published ‘Abstraction and Empathy’ in 1908, suggesting that there were two main styles of interior repeated throughout history; one of ‘abstraction’ and one of ‘realism’. The abstract style is one governed by symmetry and order, and has the effect of creating a tranquil atmosphere, free from any reference to the living world. Realistic art on the other hand gives an expression of real experience with its detail and vibrancy. Worringer believed that we used design and art to make up for what we lack in life; it may be nice to enter an uncluttered room to relax after a busy, chaotic day at work, for example. Abstract tended to be more popular in societies and cultures desiring calm, whereas people with predictable and more mundane, ordered lifestyles would steer towards realistic art in d?cor.

We like to call something beautiful when it represents something that there is shortage of in our lives; something in which we are deficient. In order to make up for the lack of calm in our lives, and create a calm environment, it may be sensible to design in an abstract manner; unrepresentative of our lives and opposing what we may be familiar with. The reason Worringer believed this worked was that we can use abstract art as an escape from our busy lives. As it is unfamiliar with anything we know, it pulls us away from the stresses and worries of modern life, allowing us to relax in a different world, free of worry.

The increased prevalence of abstract art in our society has become very noticeable. Life has become more rule-bound than older societies and cultures, with a constant police presence and strict ruling. It has become materialistically abundant, with mass-produced materials and objects causing clutter and being available everywhere. And as such, our streets and buildings have become clean and well-charted; a distinction which is not applicable to many of the older societies. We are also tending towards more naturalistic, unfussy designs for these reasons. We want to escape the order and the sterile nature of it. We are losing touch with nature. And so we look towards plants and nature, towards bare walls and breeze blocks. This is not the same attitude that the Ancient Greeks had, who spent most of their lives outdoors, with small cities ringed by forests and seas, and so did not often feel the need to include the natural world in their art. “Since the Greeks had not lost nature in themselves, they had no great desire to create objects external to them in which they could recover it”. If we can make up for what we miss in life through our interiors, we can be made to feel at ease; without having frustration or stress induced from something that we need to be happy missing from our lives.

A good illustration of this principle comes from Le Corbusier, who in 1923 built housing for manual workers. In this project, Le Corbusier built modern, functional housing for the factory workers in the industrial style. This was far from ideal however, as the workers, spending most of their days in an industrial environment, didn’t want to come home to the same style of bricks and ironwork. They quickly got sick of it, and within a few years, the housing had completely changed. The inhabitants, who couldn’t cope with the constant industrial surroundings, had transformed their little homes with the addition of pitched roofs, shutters, flowered wallpaper, picket fences, ornamental fountains and gnomes, doing everything possible to cover up any signs of industry.


An important aspect of the interior is through the thoughts and memories it can trigger with its furnishings. Seeing objects can trigger memories of the contexts in which they were previously seen, or of something that they represent. This also means that perceptions can change over time, an interior style you were familiar with as a child could bring back nostalgic memories or disgust at its immaturity; memories and encounters can change. In many ways, it can have the same memory triggering effect as smells do. It is easy to see how objects triggering memories of an unhappy childhood or of unfamiliar styles would make us feel uneasy, however memories of good times and past security can make us feel more relaxed in our environment. If we can feel happy and loved, looking at photographs and relics from happy times, we are less likely to feel down, and a soothing effect can be had. They also aid in reminding us of who we are, which is important for the reasons mentioned previously. Personalisation and collection is important, and can put us to ease in our interiors.


The mechanisms I have covered are all relevant, but only if the interior does, indeed, speak to us. Why do interiors which make the wrong implications negatively affect us? Our openness and sensitivity to our surroundings is likely caused by a different aspect of human psychology; the fact that we operate as a collection of different ‘selves’, which do not always feel a lot like ‘us’. Depending on our mood and situation however, the ‘self’ that takes hold of us at a given moment is not under our control. Our access to these versions of us are determined by the context and events of a day, but also by the environment we are in.

If we were to find ourselves in a desolate grey city of run-down tower blocks and rubble, it would be unlikely that our optimism and sense of purpose would be at their peaks; they would be very prone to draining away. We rely on our environments to present to us ideas and conditions to aspire to and to remind us of what is important to us. The interiors around us form a sort of metaphorical mould, to change our moods for the better, and as part of that, to put us at ease.

The effect that an interior can have on us is particularly well illustrated by religious buildings; large, awe-inspiring places that help to determine identity in their d?cor and layout, and to line you up with the morals of the establishment. They are designed for worship, not sleep, and thus they have that exact influence.

Our environment directly influences our beliefs and behaviours, and the only way to remain continually devoted to these is to mould our own environment around us to put us in line with them. And in the case of our goal, to feel at ease, it is important that we mould the environment in a way that reflects ease and relaxation.

Stress is a big problem in today’s world. Workdays are long, pressure is high, and our attention spans are decreasing as the amount of information thrown at us increases. This in turn has a huge impact, increasing the number of mental health problems and suicide rates. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed. If we can change the way we think and feel in an environment, using the interiors around us, at home or at work, then maybe we can begin to tackle the increasing stress problem in a significant way.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”.

About the author

This sample paper is done by Joseph, whose major is Psychology at Arizona State University. All the content of this work is his research and thoughts on Dissertation Christmas (section 2) and can be used only as a source of ideas for a similar topic.

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