For in­te­rior de­signer Jes­sica Helps, bio­philic de­sign is the way for­ward.


In­te­rior de­signer Jes­sica Helps re­veals the pos­i­tive ef­fects of bio­philic de­sign

Health and well­ness are the new lux­ury item, it seems.

We’ve seen a change in our gro­cery carts, where or­ganic pro­duce, flax oil, and sprouted-seed breads are de rigeur. “The new lux­ury is a life of supreme health and well­ness, and the prod­ucts that support that,” says in­te­rior de­signer Jes­sica Helps of Toronto-based Wolfe ID. Helps is a pioneer in bio­philic de­sign, which fo­cuses on cre­at­ing spa­ces that en­cour­age a con­nec­tion with na­ture and pro­mote well-be­ing.

Personal health is not usu­ally on a ren­o­va­tion must-have list, but Helps is try­ing to change that. It seems an easy sell, too. Who wouldn’t make an im­prove­ment to their own health and happiness by choos­ing a nat­u­ral ma­te­rial, or even a na­ture-in­spired pattern over another? “It doesn’t have to be more ex­pen­sive ei­ther,” says Helps. This is in stark con­trast to many eco-con­scious de­signs, which of­ten do cost more. “I don’t dis­cour­age it, but you have to have deep pock­ets and deep morals…” Bio­philic de­sign, how­ever, im­me­di­ately af­fects the peo­ple liv­ing or work­ing in the space, light­en­ing moods and el­e­vat­ing spir­its.

Helps grew up in Van­cou­ver, where as a child she de­signed and re­designed the tiny rooms of her doll­house again and again. She moved to Toronto to study en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign at OCAD Univer­sity—a per­fect mashup of her two favourite sub­jects as a stu­dent, art and bi­ol­ogy. Fol­low­ing school, she went to work as a de­signer for CMID, then

later as vice pres­i­dent of de­sign for Street­car De­vel­op­ments in Toronto, be­fore launch­ing her own prac­tice eight years ago.

Helps wit­nessed first-hand the neck-jerk­ingly fast pace at which con­dos are go­ing up. “We aren’t build­ing these for peo­ple,” she says. In prob­lems rang­ing from air qual­ity down to the types of ce­ment or caulk­ing used, the is­sues re­ally hit home. “You see it on a grand scale. We are build­ing these things for a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in the city, but not for hu­man health and well­ness,” she says. “The condo mar­ket is a hard game,” she ad­mits. “It’s hard to make money. So it’s def­i­nitely a cost-ori­ented per­spec­tive, but also we aren’t ask­ing the ques­tions. How will the end user be af­fected by the de­sign?”

Through Wolfe ID, Helps and her team re­design spa­ces to achieve healthy and happy liv­ing through a de­lib­er­ate choice in ma­te­ri­als, lay­out, colour, fin­ishes, and light­ing that im­prove the owner’s life, of­ten bridg­ing the gap be­tween na­ture and the city dweller. Of­fices, it seems, are where the great­est strides are be­ing made. Em­ploy­ers are quickly re­al­iz­ing the ben­e­fits of a healthy staff.

“Its not rocket sci­ence,” says Helps. “Bio­philic de­sign rec­og­nizes the in­stinc­tive bond that hu­mans have with na­ture. We feel pro­foundly bet­ter when we are around nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, plants, wa­ter fea­tures, and im­ages of na­ture. It in­creases cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, im­proves cre­ativ­ity and pro­duc­tiv­ity, and at schools, chil­dren’s test scores go up.” The field has its own LEED equiv­a­lent called WELL, which awards build­ings that meet the high­est stan­dards of health and hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

The stu­dio’s res­i­den­tial, com­mer­cial, and re­tail spa­ces are laden with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, comforting to the touch and easy on the eyes. The light­ing has an awe fac­tor, too, with nat­u­ral light front and cen­tre, but also in the sculp­tural ap­peal of hang­ing fix­tures and the func­tion of warm task lights. Helps has a keen eye for art­ful spa­ces, ex­e­cuted with el­e­gance and a pal­pa­ble sense of lux­ury. It would be easy to for­get the un­der­ly­ing in­ten­tion of her de­signs be­cause of their sheer beauty. “There is a pattern to the things we grav­i­tate to­ward as a species,” she says.

While so­ci­ety is still fo­cused on the aes­thet­ics of decor, many com­pa­nies are em­brac­ing the trend and craft­ing health-pro­mot­ing prod­ucts with broad ap­peal. Sculp­tural high-tech air pu­ri­fiers are ev­ery­where now. Plants and liv­ing walls pro­lif­er­ate across the pages of de­sign mag­a­zines. It’s a good sign that we will all soon reap the re­wards of healthy, lux­u­ri­ous liv­ing.

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