a biophilic year: designing with contrast and cohesion

in a biophilic year

“nature masters the art of balance, combining contrast and cohesion to perfection”

cit. a biophilic year - #131

 
What makes a space interesting, pleasant, yet never too much?
Balance is a good part of the answer. So let’s explore how to tie together two opposites – contrast and cohesion – through biophilic design.

contrast and cohesion

To begin with, what are contrast and cohesion?

Contrast happens when pairing opposite qualities: smooth with rough, shiny with unpolished, light with dark. It catches the eye and makes a statement.
Cohesion is that sense of consistency and intention that turns a bunch of separate parts into one whole. It’s easy on the eye and calming on the mind.

Finding balance between contrast and cohesion is key when designing spaces, as too much of each feels wrong in its own way. Too much contrast feels restless, messy, and disjointed, asking a space to be too many things at once. Too much cohesion is flat, uninteresting, and sometimes even oppressive in its uniformity.

Stone sculpture with varying textures.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Carla Cascales Alimbau (opened in a new window/tab)

from nature to designed spaces

Natural scenes are full of variety, but they always manage to be harmonious. How? Through a balanced mix of contrast and cohesion, a dialogue between textures, shapes, colours, light reflections, movements, and more.

Learning from nature, let's then look into ways to balance contrast and cohesion in a biophilic design.

Marble doorway contrasting with a white smooth wall.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Il Granito (opened in a new window/tab)

colour

Colour is often the first thing that comes to mind when wanting to add contrast. Clear enough, different colours need to flow cohesively throughout a space, which is why setting a colour palette is a key step in any design project. Adding contrast through colour is not always the answer though...

Mainly white interior with dark brown accents throughout.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Olga Ashby (opened in a new window/tab)

textures and shapes

Rich textures add a lot to a space without being as loud as a stark colour contrast would. Monochrome interiors offer the ultimate example: since colour does not change at all in this case, richness and depth rely only on other elements – among which are textures.
Shapes also add interest. A statement piece is often enough to elevate a dull space. And the combination of interesting shapes and rich textures goes a long way.

Stone backsplash with rough edge.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Studio Author (opened in a new window/tab) - Photo: Niamh Barry
Stone coffee table with rough base.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: En Gold (opened in a new window/tab)

light

Textures and shapes become even more impactful when they start playing with light. Different degrees of reflection and opacity across finishes and materials introduce another layer of interest to the space, giving the eye something more to see and the mind something more to feel.

Layered textured wall with accent light highlighting the texture.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Zeling Art via ID (opened in a new window/tab) – Photo: Soar
Natural light highlighting the rich texture of a sofa.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Studio 11:11 (opened in a new window/tab)

elements

Air, water, earth and fire are a triumph of contrast. Designing with the four elements brings that richness into the space, while setting a clear reference to the natural world.

Wall mirror with wood and moss elements.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Acrea Design (opened in a new window/tab)
Fireplace with rough texture base.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Namo Interiors (opened in a new window/tab)

spatial qualities

Space layout also plays a role through the alternation of closed and open, refuge and prospect. Contrasting atmospheres that set the stage for different activities, yet all need to flow together.

Curved doorway enclosing a small area in a shop interior.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Snøetta (opened in a new window/tab)

Balancing contrast and cohesion is not only an aesthetic exercise. All the design solutions we’ve seen introduce diverse sensory elements that enrich the overall experience of the space, making it more interesting, stimulating, and intriguing.
The objective? Bridging the gap between being in nature and spending time inside a designed environment, letting the second tend towards the first.

This article draws on my book ’a biophilic year: 365 thoughts on the essence and practice of biophilic design’. If you have the book, you’re welcome to reach out and request which topic you'd like to see next in this series!

Biophilic interior design book cover: "a biophilic year: 365 thoughts on the essence and practice of biophilic design".<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>

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