Down to Earth: Bring the Outdoors In

By Shelby Deering | Photography by Martin Menocal, Menocal Pictures

Think back to the last time you went on a hike or sat in your garden. Did you ground yourself in the moment? Did it ease your nerves and lift your spirits? If so, it’s not all in your head.

In a study from the journal Mind, 95% of participants reported an improved mood after spending time outdoors. Another study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, cited that people start feeling these positive effects after only 15 minutes outside. It’s no wonder that during the pandemic and in these stressful times, many of us are craving nature more than ever before.

This desire to experience more of the outdoors has crossed over into our homes. It’s called biophilic design, and it’s quickly becoming a leading interior design trend.

Stemming from a Greek word for “love of living things,” Joy Pontrello, creator and principal designer of Madison-based Joy Interiors, specializes in this approach, and defines it as, “an evidence-based, revolutionary design movement that focuses on the human connection between nature and the built envi- ronment.” Biologist E.O. Wilson introduced the concept of biophilic design in 1984, and it is now widely accepted that our home and work spaces can significantly influence our physical and mental wellbeing.

And since we spend 90% of our time indoors, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, it only makes sense to bring nature in.

“Humans have evolved in the natural environment for millions of years and have lived in an urban industrial environment for only the past 200 years,” Pontrello points out. “Therefore, we are not well-adapted to our current environment.” On the flip side, the designer says that biophilic aesthetics can improve “creativity, productivity, happiness, health and wellbeing.”

If this sounds like a design approach you’d like to harness in your own home, read on for Pontrello’s top tips.


Pontrello recommends removing anything that obstructs the flow of natural light into your space. Remove heavy curtains and valances, move furniture away from windows and open your blinds. Install sheer curtains that bring in natural light but still provide privacy when needed. And don’t forget to clean your windows regularly.


“A key way to harness biophilic design and the power of nature is by utilizing natural materials,” Pontrello says. This means incorporating bamboo, cork, sustainable timber, stone and rattan into your home, which, as a bonus, are sustainable materials, too.


If you look around, nature is all about patterns, and you can weave them into your spaces. Pontrello says that hexagon or botanical leaf motifs evoke “a positive human reaction.” Fractal patterns, or series of patterns that can be seen in the veins of leaves and frost on a window, can be calming.

“You can emulate these patterns in your home with wall tiles, natural wood grain, wallpapers in geometric designs and décor and accessories that take inspiration from nature,” Pontrello says.


As one of Pontrello’s favorite design elements, she says that plants “instantly freshen and make a space feel alive.” She says that if you don’t have a green thumb, choose sturdy plants that are more forgiving, such as pothos, monstera, pilea and snake plants.

“Save the more demanding plants, such as the fiddle leaf fig and ficus, for when you gain experience,” Pontrello advises.


Color is an excellent way to connect to nature and it significantly influences our mood, says Pontrello. First, consider the function of the space. There are calming hues, and tones that can stimulate energy and excitement — and everything in between.

Fortunately, many colors found in nature are also very on-trend right now, such as earth tones that include sage, terra cotta and muted blues.

“I used to be a minimalist with color, but now I love bringing color into spaces,” explains Pontrello. “Start by experimenting with an accent wall. Another way I love bringing color in is with wallpaper — there are so many styles that are inspired by nature.”

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