Before Covid, designer and artist Luke Edward Hall’s idea of a perfect Saturday was rummaging through junk shops for anything that caught his magpie eye. Today, confined at home like the rest of us, he has developed a serious eBay and online auction habit. Recently, he bought a 1930s plaster crown, a slightly frayed royal commemorative banner depicting St George and the dragon, and added to his collection of Italian L’Uomo Vogue covers from the 90s.
This is about more than just consumption, however. “It’s such a joyful thing,” Hall says. “I’m drawn to playful objects, such as theatrical props.” A pair of outsize, decorative lyres from a fairground grace his blush pink spare bedroom. “Often, I just grab them and find a home for them afterwards. These things always cheer me up.”
Anything that cheers us up has to be a good thing. But it’s only recently, after long months at home, that we have realised how much our domestic environments contribute to our happiness. Last summer, the Royal Institute of British Architects surveyed 1,500 homeowners, aged 24 to 64, from across the UK, on the impact of Covid on how people want to live and work at home: 70% of respondents agreed that the design of their home has affected their wellbeing during the pandemic.
Certainly, our homes have had to do some heavy lifting, serving as a sanctuary, school, office, even a gym. We have all been reassessing our four walls, wondering if that slate grey paint was a wise decision, how we’ve lived without houseplants for so long, and why we never got round to fixing that broken blind. For some, fresh flowers bring joy; for others, it’s a spotlessly tidy living room or a freezer full of batch cooking. But are there concrete ways we can make our homes happier places, ones that increase our own sense of wellbeing?
Absolutely, says Michelle Ogundehin, author of Happy Inside: How To Harness The Power Of Home For Health And Happiness, former editor of Elle Decoration and all-round interiors guru. “Your home is as fundamental to your wellbeing as nutrition and exercise. It sustains and supports you. For too long, it was somewhere you left in the morning and came back to at night. But the pandemic has been an awakening: people are now, finally, thinking about how their home makes them feel, rather than what it looks like.
“I think a lot of us stopped [last March] and noticed our home was a dumping ground,” she says. “Overnight, many of us had to work from home and realised we couldn’t focus in a messy room. So our first instinct was to declutter – it helped us take some control over what was happening, too. And then we started to look at what worked, and what didn’t.”
For Ogundehin, it was the door to her office – or lack of one – at home in Brighton. When she first moved in, she removed it. “I worked from home alone, while my son was at school, and I wanted to feel open to the rest of the house.” But with lockdown and home schooling, she craved privacy and had it rehung. “Now, I have the bliss of closing the door and hearing CBeebies fade away.”
Before we look at how to make our homes happier, more uplifting spaces, we need to discover what we like, she says. “Do a really deep dive into who you are: what are your favourite colours, what triggers your relaxation – it might be a process of trial and error.” And if you get it wrong? “I don’t think of it as mistakes, more about gaining experience.”
What made Ogundehin happy was a parquet floor. “For years, having a dark-stained parquet floor was the stuff of dreams,” she says. “I always thought, one day, when I’m a grownup, I’ll have one.” Its walnut-coloured chevrons flow from the front door and fill the ground floor. “I live in a 200-year-old house, and this floor will probably last another 200 years.”
People get nervous around home decoration because they feel they should be following trends, she says. “We need to change the narrative around interiors. It isn’t about what is the new grey, or whether ‘coastal’ is this summer’s look. It’s about what makes you feel good. If that’s a coffee table with a shiny orange lacquer top, then great.”
Wil Law, a home design stylist at John Lewis, agrees. “People are abandoning trends, and turning towards what pleases them.” Demand for his design advice has never been higher: before the pandemic, Law was meeting a couple of customers a week; since April, when John Lewis launched its home design service remotely, he has been seeing two or three customers online a day, dispensing advice from his colourful, exquisitely styled flat in Wakefield.
First, Law encourages customers to “step away from their room. I look at colours with them, ask them what they’re drawn to, and help them nail a palette that suits them,” he says. “What they come up with can be a revelation – they will often say, oh, I have a lot of that in my wardrobe.”
During the first lockdown, people were most interested in how to turn their living rooms into warmer, more interesting spaces, Law says. “People were staring at their walls, and often finding them too bare. I had a lot of conversations about how to create a gallery wall [of pictures].” Today, in lockdown 2021, they are investing in weighted blankets and candles, to aid sleep and ward off winter.
Beyond figuring out what we like, are there universal truths about decor that make us happier? “Yes,” Ogundehin says, “but most of it is intuitive. Views of nature, daylight, green space – either through a garden or indoor plants – have all been proven to lower blood pressure. Rounded forms are more nurturing. And texture is hugely important. I surround myself with knitted throws and natural materials.”
There is science to suport these design choices. “There is a lot of evidence that natural environments – parks, trees – are great healers,” says Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, who specialises in “restorative environments”. You can recreate this effect inside through plants and greenery, she says. “Looking at the sorts of shapes you find in nature, known as biophilic design, can have a calming effect. ‘Fractal’, repeated elements, such as you might find on a coiled fern, are easily processed [by our brains].” So get wallpapering.
Ratcliffe’s studies have also shown that people have strong attachments to places that remind them of happy times, so personalising our spaces with objects that carry those positive associations – a shell from a beach that reminds us of a good holiday, say – can increase our feelings of happiness. That becomes even more important as our homes have morphed into offices, she says, with all the ugly ephemera that goes with that. This is something Hall has discovered, too. “I’ve always loved displaying things from my trips. It feels even more important now we can’t travel,” he says. “I suppose I see my favourite objects almost as talismans: they bring me comfort and joy, particularly when storms are raging outside.””
There is less scientific evidence that colour has an impact on our wellbeing, Ratcliffe says, but there is a lot of perceived wisdom: that blue is cold, orange is warm, yellow is uplifting. Colour is simply a personal choice, says Hall, who is known for his bold use of it. His home – a rented cottage in Gloucestershire – features a mustard yellow dining room, an olive living room and a pale pink guest bedroom. “We just painted it our favourite colours,” he says. He finds pale colours “calming” and yellow is, well, sunny: the egg-yolk hallway of his London flat “makes me smile every time I come home.”
Materials have a huge impact on how we feel, says Ben Channon, a director at wellbeing design consultancy Ekkist, and author of Happy By Design: A Guide To Architecture And Mental Wellbeing. Natural materials can enhance our wellbeing, he adds. “Studies have shown that the aroma of timber causes heart rates to come down. Another experiment found that people in a timber-lined room had lower stress levels than those in a white-painted room. I think we forget that materials – some paints, sealants, vinyl flooring – release harmful chemicals, which we’re breathing in. We’re so conscious of, say, what goes into our food, but less so our homes. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Ekkist designed a concept house, Ori, intended as a template for how a home can boost wellbeing. The results aren’t rocket science: there is plenty of natural light, outdoor space and open-plan living for social interaction. The latter is hugely important to our wellbeing, Channon says. But you need to be able to retreat to your own corner, too. Channon suffered periods of anxiety during his 20s: “I was living in a shared house with lots of other people – so it was sociable, but I had little personal space. It was gloomy, too, as we never drew the curtains.” A home designed to increase wellbeing addresses these things, he says. “You maximise light, put the bedrooms on the quieter side, insulate against noise; studies have shown that loud, irregular noises lead to higher levels of stress hormones.”
If our homes are to help us heal, to bring us joy, they should be a retreat from the outside world, Ogundehin says.
But we should draw the line at turning them into sterile, sanitised spaces, as a reaction to the pandemic: “They should be nurturing. If we can’t touch anything out there, we have to be able to touch things at home.”
In the past year, “proximity to death has reminded us that this is our only life,” Ogundehin says. “So if you want to paint a wall bright yellow, then do it. We need to wake up and start living.”
• BBC Two’s Interior Design Masters, with Michelle Ogundehin, is on now.
Get the happy home look: easy ways to let the sunshine in