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Interior design psychology

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Title: Interior design psychology  
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Subject: Interior design, Environmental psychology, Applied psychology
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Interior design psychology

Interior design psychology is a field within environmental psychology, which concerns the environmental conditions of the interior. It is a direct study of the relationship between an environment and how that environment affects the behaviour of its inhabitants, with the aim of maximising the positive affects of this relationship. Through interior design psychology the performance and efficiency of the space and the wellbeing of the individual are improved. Figures like Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, John B. Calhoun and Jean Baudrillard have shown that by incorporating this psychology into design one can control an environment and to an extent, the relationship and behaviour of its inhabitants. An example of this is seen through the rat experiments conducted by Calhoun in which he noted the aggression, killing and changed sexual tendencies amongst rats. This experiment created a stark behavioural analogy between the rat’s behaviour and inhabitation in high-rise building projects in the US after WWII, an example of which is the Pruitt-Igoe development in St Louis demolished in 1972 only 21 years after being erected.


Proxemics study the amount of space people feel necessary to have between themselves and others. Crowding and Personal Space In this field of study the phenomenon of territoriality is demonstrated continuously through unwritten indices and behaviours, which communicate, the conscious or subconscious notions of personal space and territoriality. This phenomenon is seen, for example, through the use of public seating and the empty seats on a crowded bus or train. “ Crowding occurs when the regulation of social interaction is unsuccessful and our desires for social interaction are exceeded by the actual amount of social interaction experienced.”[1] Studies observing social behaviours and psychology have indicated, such as in the case for commuters that people will seek to maximise personal space whether standing or sitting.

In a study conducted by Gary W. Evans and Richard E. Wene, (who work within the field of environmental design and human development) of 139 adult commuters, commuting between New Jersey and Manhattan, (54% male) saliva samples were taken to measure cortisol levels, a hormonal marker of stress. Their research accounts statistically for other possible stressors such as income and general life stress. “We find that a more proximal index of density is correlated with multiple indices of stress wherein a more distal index of density is not.”[1] Concerns arising from the results of this study suggest that small deviations in increased seat density, controlled against income stress, would elevate the log of cortisol (i.e. stress levels) and diminish task performance and mood.

Relationships between People

Closely related to the proxemics of space, in the area of privacy. In “Perspectives on Privacy” P. Brierley Newell[2] from the department of psychology at the University of Warwick, Coventry defines privacy as ‘a voluntary and temporary condition of separation from the public domain.’ The desire for privacy is often identified as a link between stress and distress. The ability to obtain privacy within an environment allows the individual to separate themselves physically and mentally from others and relax. This notion is of key importance in determining the behaviour and wellbeing of the individual. As above in the scenario of crowding and density on public transport, it is interesting to note that privacy dictates perception of comfort, in relation to crowding and personal space. Dissatisfaction with one’s environment can be related to the close proximity with others, leading to stress and as a result diminish mood and performance behaviours..

Defensible Space

This theory began development in 1962 when John B. Cahoun conducted a series of experiments on rats to study population density and social pathology. From these experiments a breeding utopia was established for the rats in which they only lacked space. “Unwanted social contact occurred with increasing frequency, leading to increased stress and aggression. Following the work of the physiologist, Hans Selye, it seemed that the adrenal system offered the standard binary solution: fight or flight. But in the sealed enclosure, flight was impossible. Violence quickly spiralled out of control. Cannibalism and infanticide followed. Males became hypersexual, pansexual and, an increasing proportion, homosexual. Calhoun called this vortex “a behavioural sink”. Their numbers fell into terminal decline and the population tailed off to extinction”[3]

This study linked population growth, environmental degradation and urban violence.[3] Similar behavioural tendencies became apparent within the poor housing conditions at the Pruitt-Igoe development in St Louis. This development is now used as a key study of inhabitation by architects and urban planners, Oscar Newman one of the main developers of this field, references the observations of inhabitation at this establishment in his book Creating Defensible Space.[4] He notes the stark difference between private space, which is clearly defined personal territory, and the public space in this development. He notes that public spaces shared by relatively few families compared to those shared by many were much more hygienic and well-looked after, whereas those shared by larger numbers were often vandalized and unhygienic. He comments that the anonymity created by these largely shared public corridors and spaces “evoked no feelings of identity or control”[4] This indicates our relationship with space affects our behaviour and use of space. In this example lack of feelings of ownership of the space led to negative behaviour within space and furthermore created a feedback with negative effects on the wellbeing of the inhabitants.

The Perception of Space

This perception can otherwise be termed as awareness between our bodies and the awareness of other bodies, organisms and bodies around us. Perceived beauty and personal involvement within an environment are key factors, which determine our perception of space.[5] As defined in the Measurement of Meaning by Osgood, Suci and Tannebaum the factors influencing the perception of space are: 1. Evaluation- including the aesthetic, affective and symbolic meaning of space 2. Power- the energy requirements to adapt to a space 3. Activity- links to the noise within a space and the worker’s relationship and satisfaction with job and task In “Effects of the self-schema on perception of space at work” by Gustave Nicolas Fischer, Cyril Tarquinio, Jacqueline C. Vischer,[6] the study conducted linking design and psychology in the workplace. In this study they proposed a theoretical model linking environmental perception, work satisfaction and sense of self in a feedback loop. This is shown below in Fig. 1, to illustrate their findings on the direct relationship the environment has with the inhabitant and how through psychology this affects behaviour.

(Awaiting copyright approval)

The System of Objects

Developed by Jean Baudrillard as part of his sociology doctorate thesis Le Système des objets (The System of Objects).[7] In this he proposed the 4 object valuing criteria, these being:

  1. Function – a pen is used to write
  2. Exchange or economic value- a piano being worth three chairs
  3. Symbolic- an amethyst symbolising a birth in February
  4. Sign- the branding or prestige of an object, with no added function being valued over another, it may be used to suggest social values such as class.

In this way the objects and human relationship with objects in the interior environment has significant psychological meaning and impact. In “Social Attributions Based on Domestic Interiors” by M.A. Wilson and N.E. Mackenzie it is proposed that: “people’s interactions with the environment are determined by the meanings they attribute to it, and both stress the impact of expectations on behaviour within a particular environment.”[8] The study they discuss further developed the theme, that objects and the way in which we classify them, in turn, allows us to classify the social attributes of the owner of the objects, in relation to age and social class according to the object valuing system. This system suggests that our relationship with objects affects both our behaviour as we use objects according to their function, but also how we are perceived in the eyes of other. This makes our relationship with objects and space pivotal to our psychology.[8]

Space-Time Relationships

Charles Rice references the thinking of Walter Benjamin, in The Emergence of the Interior,[9] on the study of interiorization and experience. He proposes that in our faster-paced modern society experiences are instantaneous and through this we are missing long experiences such as a connection with tradition and the accumulation of wisdom over time. To reforge a sense of this relationship and address the current lack he demonstrates that we might materially create such a relationship through inanimate objects in our environment. Giving the example: “that the hearth and the mantelpiece might materially encode the mythical fireside and the situation it provided for the telling of stories.” In this way one’s relationship with objects can embody a sense of experience, and fulfil the desire for a connection with tradition.

Brief Background

A greater awareness into this field has emerged since the 20th century, when the function and performance of the interior became of chief importance in designing habitations, the start of user-centred design, for example La Maison de Verre.[10] This modern idea of the interior- designing for the user from the inside to the outside has coincided with psychological analysis on the and effects on inhabitations.

In The Emergence of the Interior, Charles Rice rationalized the implications of the interior:[9] • Under context of modernity • Status of the experience • Presence of history and • Knowledge about subjectivity

The Importance of the development of this field is evident through the above areas of study

Understanding and implementation of interior design psychology has the ability to impact and improve the performance, efficiency and wellbeing of the individual inhabitant. As illustrated through the above categories this is an important and relevant developing field within design and planning.

See also


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