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Design & Designer: The Next Big Thing

Furniture World Magazine



Is the home furnishings industry on the verge of a new way of thinking about marketing and selling? The co-founders of Science in Design believe it is.

Furniture World recently spoke with Mike Peterson and Linda Kafka, co-founders of Science in Design, a company that advocates for a new design paradigm based on neuroaesthetics, biophilia and cognitive architecture. Many of us have heard the term biophilia, but most don’t know that at its core, biophilia is not a style, a trend or the incorporation into a space of a specific set of natural or sustainable materials.

Kafka noted that “the biggest problem many industry people have understanding the concept, especially designers, is they think that biophilia is putting a green plant or bamboo in a room. It’s not that at all. It’s not dependent on notions of sustainability or material. The industry has been skating around the concept of biophilia that is concerned with neuroscience and neuroaesthetics.”

Kafka has been active in the design industry since 2009, when as marketing and managing director of SOFA—Canada’s first design center—she focused on events, education and community building. In 2009, she first discovered neuroaesthetics at the exhibit “A Space for Being,” presented during the 2019 edition of Salone del Mobile. “It was a collaborative effort between Johns Hopkins, Google, Suchi Reddy Architects and the furniture manufacturer Muuto,” she recalled. “The exhibit’s revolutionary design message was that feeling follows function as opposed to form follows function. In other words, it focused on ways interior and exterior environments impact emotions.

“I started researching the topic then, at the October High Point Market, attended an event at Century’s Showroom called “Design Harmony” with Mike Peterson and a panel of designers. That ultimately led to the founding of Science in Design.”

Before founding Science in Design, Mike Peterson was an advertising executive at House Beautiful, Country Living and Colonial Homes Magazine. He spent 10 years in the furniture industry as CEO of LaBarge and at the furniture manufacturer Madison Square, which he founded. After that, he became the publisher of Luxe Magazine.

“In 2015, I had a business luncheon with an architect named Don Ruggles,” he recalled. “Truthfully, I just wanted to sell him a page of advertising. All he wanted to talk about was how beauty improves health. For the first 15 minutes, the concept went over my head. Then, a small light went on. The more he talked, the brighter that light became. I thought, if designers create beauty, and beauty improves health, then designers can improve health. It’s the old transitivity axiom: If a = b and b = c, a = c.” In other words, things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

Mike Peterson and Linda Kafka, co-founders of Science in Design

The Pretty Room Problem

“The perception of our industry,” Peterson continued, “is that we exist to help people create pretty rooms. Our view is that the more important value proposition, as measured by science, is that we provide an alternative health resource that’s game-changing and cutting-edge.

“The problem is that most of us who work in design and home furnishings don’t yet see ourselves that way.” Peterson observed that the furniture industry tends to be operations focused. “That reality is reflected in the products our industry produces and how we market products to customers. “I hope that furniture manufacturers and retailers who read this interview will realize that the products they sell and the rooms they help create initiate a sequence of events in our brains that can positively affect people’s health. It’s a concept that most furniture manufacturers and retailers are fundamentally unaware of.”

“Regarding Mike’s point,” Kafka added, “hospitals including Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic and others have validated through research what the interior design and architectural professions can do to improve health outcomes. Mike and I bring a lot of passion to our goal of bringing this realization to interior designers, manufacturers and retailers.”

Relevant Features

“Every time Mike and I walk a trade show, he turns to me and says, ‘There’s another sign that reads, We sell solid wood furniture. Solid wood is a great feature. It’s associated in consumers’ minds with durability, but it doesn’t address the aesthetics of how that furniture makes people feel. How will that feature impact someone’s life as a human being? In general, furniture manufacturers are not talking about this. We must ask ourselves how relevant the features we tell our customers about are to current customers and will be to people who purchase in the future.”

According to Kafka, the science and its application of biophilia and neuroaesthetics can provide fresh insight into how the design and home furnishings sectors might venture into a new marketing paradigm. “We need some ‘aha’ moments that can lead towards a different vocabulary. The result will be more traffic in showrooms at High Point and better retail sales. To me, failing to do that is the definition of insanity. We live in a competitive digital design world that craves new opportunities and more experiential stories.” Kafka believes that it’s important to engage people in a way that makes them say, ‘I absolutely love this space.’ She says that’s not happening often enough.

Another way of looking at it is to consider how a consumer thinks about a sofa they just purchased for their home. “They probably aren’t considering the value of solid hardwood frames and boucle cover that’s 17 percent wool,” Peterson suggested. “Instead, they are likely admiring its beauty. That perception is much more than an emotion. It’s a neurological activity that becomes physical. It causes the brain to light up and release a burst of serotonin. Beauty isn’t inherent in the physical form of any product. It resides in the brain. Ten years from now, I believe we will look back and recognize that the industry has flipped from a manufacturing-driven product focus to a design model where the human experience is the product we’ve manufactured.

“Linda and I look at this issue from a scientific perspective and also as marketers. We realize that the vast majority of furniture retailers and manufacturers think they are in the business of selling home furnishings. That’s just not true! They manufacture or buy furniture to sell, but they should be selling the emotional and physical benefits of those products.”

“We manufacture or buy furniture to sell, but should be selling the emotional and physical benefits of those products.”

Where Might Retailers Begin?

Kafka said a good place for retailers to start is with the designs of their showroom spaces.

“When they walk into a store,” Kafka said, “customers should feel relaxed or excited and want to engage with the space, its layout and aesthetics.”

15 Patterns of Biophilic Design: There are 15 Patterns of Biophilic Design, the first 14 of which were introduced in 2014 by Terrapin Bright Green. These are shown below.

15 Patterns of Biophilic Design

    Nature in the Space Patterns

  1. Visual Connection with Nature
  2. Non-Visual Connection with Nature
  3. Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli
  4. Thermal & Airflow Variability
  5. Presence of Water
  6. Dynamic & Diffuse Light
  7. Connection with Natural Systems

  8. Natural Analogues Patterns

  9. Biomorphic Forms & Patterns
  10. Material Connection with Nature
  11. Complexity & Order

  12. Nature of the Space Patterns

  13. Prospect
  14. Refuge
  15. Mystery
  16. Risk/Peril
  17. AWE


“I believe,” said Kafka, “that understanding the role of patterns such as Complexity & Order, Prospect and Refuge are really important. How does the furniture selection for a space support these principles? It’s not about putting nature in a space. It’s about the nature of a space! That requires more planning by retail merchandisers than just going to High Point Market and buying products. Contrary to what some in our industry believe, biophilic design is not just about having a raw live-edge table or incorporating plant patterns into every room. The process should begin by creating an environment that makes people feel great about being in a store and about receiving the benefits of biophilic design and neuroaesthetics supported by science.”

“It’s not about putting nature in a space but about the nature of a space! It’s a bigger discussion than just going out and buying furnishings to display at High Point Market.”

Editor’s Note: The Terrapin Bright Green study, referenced above, can be found at https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns. It defines the original 14 patterns, a few of which are: “Complexity & Order—Rich sensory information that adheres to a spatial hierarchy similar to those encountered in nature; Prospect—An unimpeded view over a distance—for surveillance and planning; Refuge—A place for withdrawal from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity, in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead.”


In the dining room above, biophilic elements are abundant sunlight, fractal patterning of the greenery, natural color tones and wood grain on the floor.

The sitting area has natural sunlight, fire, a fractal pattern in the carpet, fluid curviness in the chair, greenery and a window view characteristic of the biophilic property of prospect and refuge.

Movement: Retailers may be tempted to introduce biophilic design into their showrooms by choosing products and expanding into product categories such as plants, water features and other items that reflect the 15 principles. Peterson suggested that instead it should start with the merchandising of the space rather than looking for and placing specific products. “Retailers can visit Phillips Collection, Currey and Company, and others, but the starting point to effective neuroaesthetic design has to do with the movement inside of a space,” he advised.

“Imagine you are walking through the forest, come across and decide to follow a deer path. That’s the kind of sensory experience retailers might want to present to their guests. That can’t be accomplished by displaying products, even those with natural-looking elements in the same old way.”

“Imagine you are walking through the forest and come upon and follow a deer path. That’s the kind of experiential feeling a retailer might want to elicit from their guests."

Mystery: Peterson noted that product selection does have an important place in this discussion “Once a concept for a space is in place, additional elements can be added. These could include natural products such as bamboo and raw wood. A winding trail is a biophilic element. It creates a sense of mystery that encourages shoppers to ask, ‘What’s around the corner? Where am I going to end up? What’s at the end of the hallway?’ It is a fundamental biophilic element.”

Organized Complexity: “Organized complexity is another. Science now knows that our brains are the perfect example of organized complexity. We take in eleven million bits of information every second. Humans must organize that information overload to make sense of the world. We seek it out, that pursuit satisfies us. Examples of organized complexity are the image of the blue nautilus shown in this article near the top of page 26, a fern or a variety of patterns that may not be product-based in nature.

“Our brains seek out details,” Kafka interjected. “A lot of people will argue they prefer uncluttered modern design. Research demonstrates that being in that kind of sterile environment can negatively affect mood. That’s not to say that creating sterile-looking spaces is poor design; they might not be the best choice for everyone based on the research.”

Awe: “Another biophilic concept to consider is awe. A sunset is something in nature we often associate with the feeling of awe. Built environments can evoke a similar feeling. This concept is the 15th principle of biophilic design.”

Not Only for the High-End

People visit furniture stores for many reasons and with various agendas. Perhaps their “old green sofa” is past its prime, torn, soiled or uncomfortable. A shopper’s stated concerns when they first speak to a salesperson may be that they want their new purchase to fit, be affordable and delivered within a certain time frame.

Peterson believes, however, that everyone deserves to be offered and should be offered the benefits of products designed with neuroaesthetic research in mind, regardless of income.

“Most anyone can access beauty by just stepping outside and running through the grass in bare feet. That alone can contribute incrementally to improved health. There’s no reason why retail showrooms and displayed products at any price point cannot address the principles of neuroaesthetics. The benefit depends on how that customer’s mind and body react to the green replacement sofa mentioned earlier in this article. The physical reaction in the brain that results when someone perceives beauty is what we are talking about.”

The Research

“Over the last 30 years,” Peterson observed, “scientists have introduced a new word, neuroaesthetics, into our vocabulary. It’s important to note that the research tends to look at a broad interpretation of aesthetics that include built environments as well as nature and the arts. Those who study these relationships are convinced that exposure to beauty of any kind can improve health. That’s why Science in Design stresses the word beauty as a way to simplify the messaging. Some research examples are:

  • Susan Magsamen just authored the book, ‘Your Brain on Art.’ She writes about all elements of beauty, aesthetics and the arts—music, dance, acoustics, olfactory, tactile—all of them capable of producing pleasure and having the ability to reduce stress and thereby lower cortisol levels.

  • Magsamen also wrote a 2019 study published in Frontiers of Psychology confirming (her words) ‘that spending just 20 minutes in nature... significantly lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, explains, the act of looking at a horizon or a broad vista releases a mechanism in the brain stem that can reduce anxiety and the stress response by changing how you view and perceive your environment.’

  • A Chiba University study done in the early 1990s, found that 420 patients who spent time in the forest as a way to reduce stress showed an average decrease in their cortisol levels of 12.4 percent and a reduction in heart rate by six percent. I think what we are seeing is the calming influence of nature’s beauty and aesthetics that include: the fractal beauty of nature, bird sounds, water streams, the view of the sun filtering through the canopy and the pleasure of the moss beneath our feet. Forest bathing (Shnrin-yoku) is now a full-fledged medicine prescribed by Japanese doctors.”

Pictured is a heat map of the front of a furniture store’s exterior.

A Familiar Approach

When asked if Science in Design’s approach to marketing is similar to the way the ‘science of sleep’ is used to sell bedding, Peterson pointed out that selling the science of sleep has very little to do with beauty. However, Kafka did see a parallel. “As human beings, she said, we need restorative sleep environments that allow us to calm down, fall and stay asleep. The health benefits have been documented by years of scientific research in sleep labs. The sleep industry has tapped into this research to sell more mattresses, but the furnishings industry has not yet embraced science and the health benefits of neuroaesthetics in a meaningful way.”

IKEA, Etsy, Apple & RH

“IKEA, Etsy, Apple, and other companies in the furniture, cosmetics and food industry have already tapped into neuroscience as a way to affect the customer experience of their brands,” Kafka explained.

“Retailer RH has already incorporated these principals into their stores,” Peterson added. “Restoration Hardware totally gets it. They are 100% biophilic inside their West Palm Beach store, designed by Hobbs + Black Architects, and the store’s exterior uses principles of neuroaesthetics.

Restoration Hardware understands neuroaesthetics and biophilia. Store exteriors and interiors are designed and merchandised for the unconscious mind—the subliminal brain.

“IKEA, Etsy, Apple, and other companies in the furniture, cosmetics and food industry have already tapped into neuroscience as a way to affect the consumer’s experience of their brands.”

“The application of neuroaesthetics affects productivity and creativity within business organizations as well. That’s why Microsoft is now building conference rooms in treetops. Amazon created The Spheres at its headquarters in Seattle. Inside, there are 390 different species of plant life. Every workstation at Apple’s new headquarters has sunlight and greenery. Large companies have invested to create better work environments. Now it’s up to the home furnishings industry to provide nurturing home environments for its customers.”

Microsoft building treetop conference rooms and Etsy's 100% biophilic office spaces in Brooklyn, New York, that feature plants and hanging cocoon workstations.

Direct & Indirect Effects

Kafka explained that biophilic design elements can either be direct or indirect. “The direct experience of nature,” she said, “means bringing natural sunlight, greenery, fire features, running water and other real natural elements into interior environments. Science shows that indirect elements—which are representations of nature—are health-producing as well. Living plants hanging on a wall and fabric or wallpaper representations of those plants elicit similar biometric responses.”

When asked if decorating with photos of pets or elements that remind people of social and family connections that have also been shown to have health benefits could offer similar benefits, Kafka noted, “Humans are attracted to faces. It’s a behavior that begins at birth and is necessary for survival. Living with pets and having meaningful social relationships has been shown to yield health benefits as well.”

Continuing, she explained there are many indirect ways to incorporate biophilic design elements. “For example, Mohawk Carpets, with the guidance of Richard Taylor, a faculty member at Science in Design, have created a carpet that’s scientifically designed to induce a calming effect. We’re seeing companies, especially in the commercial sector tapping into this, and it won’t be long before products tested in this way are introduced in the residential sector.”

What People Want

“Most people don’t even know what the word neuroaesthetic means,” said Peterson. “Creating that awareness is an educational and a marketing process that we have to somehow learn, embrace and market as an industry. The idea of creating a beautiful home isn’t a new idea, but the fact that it’s actually good for health is.”

Pictured is a woman participating in an in-store study wearing portable eye tracking glasses. Also, an EEG headset used in a neuromarketing study. Photo credit - iMotions.

Amazing Retail Technology

Furniture World asked Kafka and Peterson how manufacturers and retailers might develop the necessary expertise.

“That’s a really good question,” Peterson replied. “There are many sources out there that can help. I don’t want to be self-serving, but they can call Linda or me as a first step. We’re not academics but we can certainly connect them with people who can help.”

Measuring Response: “Exciting technologies,” he continued, “are available that can help retailers measure the attractiveness of any space to the brain’s eye. The science is made possible because the subliminal brain anticipates by three or four seconds how a shopper will respond when entering any new environment. Visual Attention Software by 3M (https://vas.3m.com), for example, measures what visitors are likely to see when something new enters their visual field.” The software allows companies to measure response and then refine designs until visual goals have been met.

“We are attracted to edges, faces, color contrast and intensity,” Peterson added. “This attraction is rooted in our ancient brain. Heat mapping and hot spotting measure how different showroom designs are likely to play out in a store environment. Measuring is a great place to start and a much better idea than a strategy of jamming more products into a space. Instead, focus on hard edges and strong color contrasts, then measure the result with technology.

“We also use NIX sensors, which capture and identify the color of any surface. This allows designers to correctly identify colors and match them to various paint palettes globally. Why is this important? Color is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of interiors to get right. If done correctly, color has proven benefits to support health.

“Another software solution Linda and I are investigating is iMotions. The company says that ‘iMotions combines the full scope of consumer neuroscience tools in one platform; facial coding, eye tracking, and biometric data like heart rate, galvanic skin response (GSR), and EEG to measure brain activity.’ A headset worn by a test subject or shopper can measure the seven different primary emotions that may be experienced when entering a space.”

These kinds of tools are new to the home furnishings industry, but they’ve been around for a while. “Companies like Proctor & Gamble have used them to test and optimize packaging design,” Kafka noted. “Some of the bigger retail companies also use these tools to measure what positively attracts customer attention and influences purchase behaviors.”

Leading-edge methods assess consumer behavior and emotions in response to stimuli. This allows companies to make adjustments to improve showroom displays, packaging and marketing materials. Image credit - iMotions.

Product Selection

“I want to make it clear,” emphasized Peterson, “that the word ‘trend’ is not something we allow into our conversation of biophilic design, which is based on a growing awareness of our evolutionary inheritance. Style and color trends come and go. Biophilia is a different and fundamental principle of design. Although biophilia seems like an odd word to some, it simply means love of nature.

“On the product side, we’re working with manufacturers Furniture World readers are familiar with, who are developing collections based on science, neuroaesthetics and biophilia that will make it easier for retailers down the road to get started.”

The Future of Retail

“What’s really interesting for the future of brick-and-mortar,” Kafka added, “is that one day shoppers may be able to use wearables while shopping that measure their physical responses to biophilic design. This has the potential to take some of the subjectivity and doubt out of home furnishings purchase decisions.”

“At the 2019 Milan exhibition Linda referenced earlier,” Peterson recalled, “we walked through three rooms having different visual and experiential environments wearing wristbands that measured our physical responses. It turned out that people weren’t always as in touch with their biology as the wearable technology was.” In other words, their perceptions of how a room design affected their physical response didn’t always agree with the actual biometrics.


The biophilic duo agreed that there is a potential for companies and retailers to introduce these concepts in the wrong way, resulting in a kind of biophilic greenwashing.

“Last year, we held a series of Science in Design summits for interior designers and architects,” said Peterson. “A major request from attendees was for Science in Design to create an accredited certification program. This year, we consulted with our faculty members and universities to create course material that will have a soft launch in September 2023.

“The self-paced online course will include evidence-based case studies, contributed by interior designers who incorporate neuroaesthetic principles in their client work. There will be a biophilic color component and other modules to round out the program, making it useful to product designers, home furnishings manufacturers and retail merchandisers who want to be accredited and certified in the science and design.”

“Hooker Furnishings, Phillips Collection, Benjamin Moore and others have partnered with us to create the certification program,” added Kafka. And they are working with us to get the message out. It’s just a matter of time before retailers see companies making major product introductions. The pressing question for retailers is whether they will know how to create an experiential environment for those furniture lines and help customers understand the benefits.”


“We already mentioned some major brands that employ neuroaesthetics and biophilia to create healthy environments for their employees,” said Peterson. “Hospitals all around the world are doing the same. Some examples are the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore and the Maggie’s Centre in Leeds, United Kingdom. These institutions incorporate multiple patterns, fluidity, color tones and sunlight in their facilities. Major corporations and hospitals around the world are using neuroaesthetics and biophilia to improve the health of their clients and patients. The question is why wouldn’t our industry use the same principles? We believe that it’s really important for us to catch up, both for our customers’ sake and our own.”

Editor’s Note: Science in Design will produce the Science, Art & Design Symposium, a three-day event experience in High Point, NC, October 12-15, 2023. More details will be posted to www.scienceindesign.com soon.


Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.

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