Living with Pattern: Ingrid Fetell Lee
Author of Joyful and interior designer, Ingrid Fetell Lee, talks to us about how to incorporate more joy into our lives through design.
RA: Tell us a bit about yourself.
IFL: I’m a designer and author who studies the emotion joy and in particular, how our physical surroundings can influence our joy and well-being.
RA: How can the physical world impact our inner joy?
A lot of us have been raised to believe that material things are incidental to our happiness. But research shows that physical objects influence our emotions in both conscious and unconscious ways. Looking at a family heirloom or souvenirs from your travels can recall to mind joyful memories. Or if you have a coat in a favorite color or an artwork by an artist you love, these things affirm your identity and remind you of what you value. That’s the conscious piece.
But there’s also a much more subtle relationship between your surroundings and your emotions, which is where my research focuses. Having plants in a space can reduce anxiety and stress, and increase generosity. Looking at round shapes (vs. sharp angles) leads to less activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with unconscious fear and anxiety — when we put round shapes in our space, we literally set our brains at ease. In one study, nurses working on wards with better lighting had lower stress levels and were more likely to laugh than those on dimly lit wards. Workers with desks that get more natural light get more and better sleep at night, and are more active than those with shadier desks.
In sum, the sensory qualities of our spaces can influence our emotions without us even realizing it. And the more we know about how to create spaces that support our well-being, the easier it will be for us to thrive.
It's been a few years since your book Joyful came out, but I still vividly remember the story you tell about Tirana, Albania and how the mayor painted city buildings in vibrant colors and it had an amazing, joyful impact on the city. It's a story I think anyone decorating their home should read. Can you tell me a little more about how you think about color’s impact in the home?
I love this story, about a mayor of a depressed city who started painting giant areas of the downtown in vibrant color. Not just a few murals here or there, but an entire town square, for example. As a result, people stopped littering in the streets, and he was able to triple the number of businesses in Tirana and increase tax revenue sixfold.
This story has always seemed fantastical to me, but it aligns with two key pieces of research. First, a study conducted in four different countries has shown that people who work in more colorful offices are more alert, confident, friendly, and joyful than people in drab spaces. Color enlivens. It wakes us up and helps energize us, no caffeine required.
Even more surprising, a study done in Vancouver asked people to stand next to either a rainbow crosswalk or a plain black and white one, and asked them, “If you dropped your wallet here, how likely is it that someone would return it to you?” People standing near the rainbow crosswalk were significantly more likely to believe they’d get their wallet back. Color somehow influences our sense of trust in the people around us, perhaps because we unconsciously believe that a colorful environment is one that others have invested in and care about.
Another strong memory from reading your book is about the power of round shapes and circles to bring more joy -- from how you walk through your home to the shapes of your furniture. The idea of play is often overlooked in our interiors. What are some ways you recommend bringing more in?
Round shapes are a powerful source of playfulness. If you look at the objects associated with childhood, you’ll see so many circles and spheres: bubbles and balloons, hula hoops and merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and beach balls. As I already mentioned, round shapes set the unconscious mind at ease.
What I love about round shapes — whether circles or waves or squiggly lines — is that they can bring a sense of play into an interior, without making it look like a kindergarten. Using a more sophisticated palette with round shapes makes a space feel both adult and playful at the same time.
What are some quick ideas that can be achieved in a few hours and bring more joy into your home?
One of my favorite quick ways to add joy to a home is to paint the front door. The front door is the last thing you see when you leave in the morning, the first thing you see when you get home, and because it’s external-facing, it can also be a gift of joy to the neighborhood.
I always say that it’s better to shop your home and see what you can find before going out to buy anything new. Try grouping objects together by color (a vase, a few books, a candle) to create little vignettes. You can also organize your books by color. This is very controversial — some people are very particular about how their books are organized. But if you are happy to see your books this way, it creates a sense of joyful order in your home.
Adding plants is an easy way to create more joy. You can start slowly with a small succulent or fern, and build a collection as you get more confident. Even easier? Bring home fresh flowers or just greenery from the market. Any living, natural elements immediately transform a space.
What are a few ways to bring more joy into a client relationship?
The way I’d approach this is to think about what takes the joy out of a client relationship. Are clients anxious, because they feel like they don’t have control or visibility into the process, or because they feel like they don’t understand the language you’re speaking? Are they fearful, afraid of taking risks?
The best client relationships I’ve had have been where the client and my team are aligned in curiosity, where we’re working together and we don’t even know whose idea the final product is. Often joy can break down those initial barriers of anxiety or distrust and put us on the same side of the table. I once took a very skeptical client to play trampoline dodgeball. It was a very silly hour and I was really nervous about how he’d react, but we all laughed so hard, and by the end of it, he was advocating for our work to be adopted at a large scale.
So, a moment of play at the beginning can be super-important for breaking the ice. I also think building in moments of celebration is really important to heighten the joy of the wins. This builds a reservoir of good vibes that you can tap into when things (inevitably) don’t go to plan at some point.
What tips do you have for encouraging people to embrace more color, pattern, and joy in their home?
A lot of people fear color and pattern because they believe they’ll get tired of it quickly. So it’s helpful to know that research shows just the opposite. When people choose a neutral-toned object, they get bored of it more quickly than when they choose one in a bold color or pattern. If your heart longs for color, go for it — you’re less likely to regret the mustard yellow sofa than the beige one!
What are you working on now that's bringing you joy?
For a few years now, I’ve been working on a School of Joy — a place to learn about the power of small moments of joy to create radical changes in our lives and our communities. And this year, the School of Joy finally has its own new, beautiful home. We have workshops for creatives, businesses, and anyone who wants to find more joy in life through design. I hope you’ll come visit us and take a class!