Interior Designer Jessica Helps On The Healing Benefits of Biophilic Design

Health and wellness are the new luxury item, it seems. We’ve seen a change in our grocery carts, where organic produce, flax oil, and sprouted-seed breads are de rigeur. “The new luxury is a life of supreme health and wellness, and the products that support that,” says interior designer Jessica Helps of Toronto-based Wolfe ID. Helps is a pioneer in biophilic design, which focuses on creating spaces that encourage a connection with nature and promote well-being.

Personal health is not usually on a renovation must-have list, but Helps is trying to change that. It seems an easy sell, too. Who wouldn’t make an improvement to their own health and happiness by choosing a natural material, or even a nature-inspired pattern over another? “It doesn’t have to be more expensive either,” says Helps. This is in stark contrast to many eco-conscious designs, which often do cost more. “I don’t discourage it, but you have to have deep pockets and deep morals…” Biophilic design, however, immediately affects the people living or working in the space, lightening moods and elevating spirits.

Helps grew up in Vancouver, whereas a child she designed and redesigned the tiny rooms of her dollhouse again and again. She moved to Toronto to study environmental design at OCAD University—a perfect mashup of her two favourite subjects as a student, art and biology. Following school, she went to work as a designer for CMID, then later as vice president of design for Streetcar Developments in Toronto, before launching her own practice eight years ago.

Urban cottage: photos by Giulio Calisse

Helps witnessed first-hand the neck-jerkingly fast pace at which condos are going up. “We aren’t building these for people,” she says. In problems ranging from air quality down to the types of cement or caulking used, the issues really hit home. “You see it on a grand scale. We are building these things for a growing population in the city, but not for human health and wellness,” she says. “The condo market is a hard game,” she admits. “It’s hard to make money. So it’s definitely a cost-oriented perspective, but also we aren’t asking the questions. How will the end user be affected by the design?”

Through Wolfe ID, Helps and her team redesign spaces to achieve healthy and happy living through a deliberate choice in materials, layout, colour, finishes, and lighting that improve the owner’s life, often bridging the gap between nature and the city dweller. Offices, it seems, are where the greatest strides are being made. Employers are quickly realizing the benefits of a healthy staff.

Urban cottage: photos by Giulio Calisse

“It’s not rocket science,” says Helps. “Biophilic design recognizes the instinctive bond that humans have with nature. We feel profoundly better when we are around natural materials, plants, water features, and images of nature. It increases cognitive performance, improves creativity and productivity, and at schools, children’s test scores go up.” The field has its own LEED equivalent called WELL, which awards buildings that meet the highest standards of health and human experience.

The studio’s residential, commercial, and retail spaces are laden with natural materials, comforting to the touch and easy on the eyes. The lighting has an awe factor, too, with natural light front and centre, but also in the sculptural appeal of hanging fixtures and the function of warm task lights. Helps has a keen eye for artful spaces, executed with elegance and a palpable sense of luxury. It would be easy to forget the underlying intention of her designs because of their sheer beauty. “There is a pattern to the things we gravitate toward as a species,” she says.

While society is still focused on the aesthetics of decor, many companies are embracing the trend and crafting health-promoting products with broad appeal. Sculptural high-tech air purifiers are everywhere now. Plants and living walls proliferate across the pages of design magazines. It’s a good sign that we will all soon reap the rewards of healthy, luxurious living.

Get inspiration from a carefully curated selection of mindful furnishings and decor that call for a design refresh.

Wallpaper (price upon request) by Coordonné for NewWall, Avenue Road.

Awair ($179) by getawair.com.
Cirque Lamp (price upon request) by Roche Bobois.
Niwa One Standard ($549) by Niwa.
Sanctuary S ($69) by Botanica Boutique.
Petrified Wood Pyramid ($70) by CB2.