10 Minutes with Interior Designer Harleen Mclean

I recently had the pleasure of meeting London based interior designer Harleen. A remarkable woman who specialises in interiors for wellbeing. Known as a talented fabric artist, Harleen draws her inspiration from nature and the natural world. On a trip to the US she discovered that she was in fact a biophilia fabric designer.  I sat down with Harleen at her pop up workshop Awestruck, to find out more.

What is biophilia interior design?

Biophilia (meaning love of nature) focuses on a human’s innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings.

It is a term popularized by American psychologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980’s, when he observed how increasing rates of urbanisation were leading to a disconnection with the natural world. With high rates of migration to urban settings in the developed world and soaring rates in developing countries – Biophilia is of ever increasing importance to our health and well-being in the built environment.

It is an innovative way of focussing design around elements of the natural world, designing the places where we live, work, and learn improving human health and productivity.

What are the benefits of biophilic design in one’s home?

Biophilic Design uses human’s innate attraction to nature and natural processes to improve the many spaces we live and work in. Key aspects include improving natural light, improving views onto nature, incorporating natural materials, textures & patterns, ventilating spaces and creating restorative spaces.

Through strengthening the human connection with nature we can deliver significant benefits to the health and wellbeing of the many spaces we live and work in, with a research led approach and demonstrable results.

How do you incorporate biophilia when designing the interiors for one of your clients?

I find out what interests them in nature and I work with various boards [mood, sensory, fabrics] to see what lights them up.  I will pay attention to their need both spatially as well as their needs. I work with them to find out who uses what space and why. Then work on what their basic requirements are.  They get to work with me as I design bespoke.

Why is creating a sensorial connection to nature within our interior space so important to you?

The five senses are critical to designing, and impact our productivity and effectiveness in how we live.  There is evidence that we are neurally predisposed to prefer vast, expansive views from a position of refuge. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging test (fMRI) that measured neural activity as a response to a variety of pictures, researchers found that subjects who were shown images of prospect from a point of refuge experienced the most fMRI activity in a part of the brain associated with pleasure. Moreover, the test results showed that natural settings were generally preferred to man-made environments. Anthropologists attribute this phenomenon to our evolutionary connection with nature, and the preference for views of prospect to the basic human need to find the best location for a camp or village.

Our innate preference for open spaces does not extend to just any open space; physiological research indicates that our bodies react most positively to savanna-like settings with moderate to high depth and openness.

Spatial organization around us drives a major portion of our emotional and mental state. The design concepts of prospect and refuge—elevated views coupled with protected spaces—as well as enticement and peril—exploring unseen space and evoking pleasurable distress—are examples of Nature of the Space.

Where do you get your inspiration when working on a project?

I was born and raised in Africa on the Savana. Nature is part of how I design, colours, shapes and light I use. Nature is where I get all my inspiration. Nature of the Space, a similar concept, refers to the way humans respond psychologically and physiologically to different spatial configurations.

As mankind developed in the savannas of Africa, our species’ existence among low-growing grasses, clusters of shade trees, and broad vistas have yielded a modern-day affinity for similar landscapes in indoor and outdoor. In fact, our innate preference for open spaces does not extend to just any open space; physiological research indicates that our bodies react most positively to savanna-like settings with moderate to high depth and openness.

There is now evidence that Biophilic design can enhance the following areas of productivity.

  • Illness and absenteeism
  • Staff retention
  • Job performance (mental stress/fatigue)
  • Healing rates
  • Classroom learning rates
  • Retail sales
  • Violence statistics

You mentioned you were born and raised in Nairobi, how much of your design ascetic is influenced by your time in Kenya?

I would say the foundation of how I work is based on the biodiversity of plant and animal life in Kenya.  Having lived in Italy and the UK, I have been influenced by colour, materials, different light and style.  This has brought a first world approach and execution to how I now design.

Is Biophilia just the next big trend or do you think it is here to stay?

I would be hesitant to relate to Biophilia as a trend as our current lifestyles have had an impact on us mentally and physically and this now needs to be addressed.  I relate to this way of designing as a lifestyle choice.

Over the last quarter century, case studies have documented the advantages of biophilic experiences, including improved stress recovery rates, lower blood pressure, improved cognitive functions, enhanced mental stamina and focus, decreased violence and criminal activity, elevated moods, and increased learning rates.

Financially it is of benefit, by examining five of these sectors—workplaces, healthcare, retail stores, schools, and communities—we can begin to understand the fiscal implications of biophilic design across the economy. The numbers and percentages presented reflect powerful evidence that many traditional design strategies that ignore nature can lead to negative impacts on human health, child development, community safety, and worker satisfaction. These effects translate directly to increased profits.


                                                                 Awestruck tree hanging display

Tell me how you got the idea for your popup exhibition and wellbeing workshops Awestruck?

For a while now I have been working with various health and design practitioners and in addressing these thoughts and ideas it became obvious that the next thing would be to make people aware, rather than keep it to myself which would be a waste.


                                              Awestruck termite mound fabric and stool

What is next for you and Awestruck?

I would like to keep holding workshops with the intention of making people aware and eventually leading to projects that impact the lives of people and how we work and live.


To find out more about Harleen Mclean click on her website www.harleenmclean.com

Instagram: @harleenmcleaninteriors

Twitter: @bhabrabydesigns