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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is part of the book-to-blog initiative, that continues online the experience of 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!