Mix & Match: Texture, Patterns in Interior Design With Mary Cook

This latest installment of our quarterly series with the designer takes a deep dive into how materials and shapes add spice to multifamily.

Mary Cook
Think of pattern and texture as a spice that is one part of the overall meal, but can make or break the experience, depending on how it is used, Cook said. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

Patterns and textures are two complementary tools that have the power to enhance and fine-tune multifamily interior design, stimulating residents’ senses by breaking the monotony of plain surfaces.

The second installment of our quarterly interview series with Mary Cook, the president & founder of commercial interior design and strategy firm Mary Cook Associates, provides an in-depth look at the science of patterns, starting from our innate attraction to them.

What are patterns and why are humans attracted to them?

Cook: On the simplest level, patterns are designs in which lines, shapes, forms, or colors are repeated, either regularly or irregularly. To understand why patterns and the order and predictability they offer are inherently pleasing to humans, you must begin with and understand our ancestral brain.

Attraction to pattern is rooted in our evolutionary history, where survival hinged on our ability to recognize patterns in the environment that helped us identify potential threats or resources. Since there was no built environment when early humans first walked the Earth, this pattern recognition skill developed based on what we encountered around us: Trees, mountains, coastlines and seashells are all examples of the abundance of patterns in nature. Some of the most common natural patterns are repeating fractals such as those in snowflakes, fern shoots, riverbeds and tree branches—these patterns are ‘self-similar,’ meaning the form repeats in a never-ending loop at every scale as you zoom in and out.

What role do patterns play in interior design and what are the benefits of using them?

Cook: Pattern, along with texture, is one of our firm’s proprietary seven fundamentals of interior design that we use to create spaces that engage and positively impact the end user.

Patterns are a tool to add visual interest, depth and texture to a space. They can break the monotony of plain surfaces and provide a sense of movement, creating focal points for guiding your eye through a room. Large-scale patterns can help balance proportion, while small-scale patterns can create layers of visual texture. A savvy designer can incorporate patterns to help a space feel larger or smaller, depending on the design objective.

A sitting area at the Dey & Bergen community in Harrison, N.J.
Patterns at Dey & Bergen, a 242-unit residential community in Harrison, N.J. BNE Real Estate Group appointed MCA to handle the interior design for the project. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

But even more than that, we know through neuroscience and research that patterns can impact emotions, influence moods and trigger endorphins—the ‘happy hormones’ that elicit pleasure—making them an important part of a holistic approach to improving well-being through design. Spaces designed using patterns in conjunction with other design fundamentals can evoke positive feelings of comfort, joy, inspiration and curiosity and can elevate mood by producing serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, contributing to overall happiness and enhanced emotional health and quality of life.

Patterns from nature, even in simulated forms, significantly impact mental and physical well-being by captivating us and distracting us from pain and discomfort, lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

Tell us more about some of the most popular manmade patterns and their specific effects.

Cook: While the first patterns stemmed from nature, today there are any number of manmade patterns that trigger the same appreciation for their sense of order and predictability. We use them as part of a larger design strategy to address any number of needs and challenges.

Geometric patterns are created by a series of points, lines, surfaces, shapes and angles and suggest a sense of modernity and structure, often evoking feelings of order and precision. These patterns are common throughout Art Deco, mid-century modern and contemporary design.

Lounge area at Dey & Bergen
Lounge area at Dey & Bergen. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

Floral patterns bring in elements of nature, adding a touch of softness and tranquility. A medium-sized pattern in fresh and light tones creates a calming effect. In contrast, a large-scale floral pattern with bold, vibrant colors provides a more dynamic and energetic ambiance.

Polka dots can be used to create a playful, whimsical look. This pattern is capable of making a bold statement or blending harmoniously in a design collection, depending on the scale and color contrast.

Stripes can visually elongate or widen spaces, depending on their orientation, and provide visual interest to a room. Designers can vary the width of the stripes, how they are arranged, spacing, scale and color to create the desired effect. Everyday examples include awning stripes, Regency stripes, pinstripes, navy stripes and candy cane stripes.

Humanmade fractal patterns exhibiting the same self-similar characteristics of fractals found in nature draw in the eye with repeating shapes at multiple scales and can evoke the same kind of positive reactions in the end-user.

In what ways can architects integrate patterns and textures into their interior design projects?

Cook: Patterns and how our brains interpret them have long played a major role in design. Zoom out and you can find examples at the largest scale. For example, many of the world’s great architectural works such as the Taj Mahal are based on the 3 x 3 grid, which mirrors the pattern of the human face that we all instinctively find pleasurable. Zoom in and on the same building you’ll find patterns used at the smallest scale, such as a lotus flower pattern used as ornamentation along the top of a column.

Those examples are representative of the countless ways designers incorporate patterns and textures—from overall massing and proportion to small details that add to the aesthetic, all of which bring us pleasure on both a conscious and subconscious level.

For interiors specifically, the use of patterns and textures ranges from material selection for wall coverings and flooring, to choices for textiles, furnishings and other fixtures. Used in conjunction with other design considerations, pattern and texture can enhance the visual and tactile experience of spaces to create a specific desired effect.

Hall at Dey & Bergen
Hall at Dey & Bergen. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

You can use bold and large-scale patterns to make striking visual statements and textures such as matte finishes, woven materials and natural fibers to create more tactile and cozy experiences for the end-users. Think of pattern and texture as a spice that is one part of the overall meal, but can make or break the experience, depending on how it is used.

How does the biophilic interior design movement benefit from using patterns?

Cook: The biophilic design movement is a lot more than simply arranging plants in space. To maximize the many documented benefits of biophilia, such as reduced stress, improved concentration and enhanced overall well-being, designers need to take a holistic approach to incorporating nature and nature-inspired elements throughout their projects—and patterns are a huge part of that.

Studies show integrating natural elements that replicate fractal patterns, such as leaf motifs or wave-like designs, helps reduce stress, improve concentration and enhance overall well-being—all of which contributes to a more calming and therapeutic environment. Biophilic materials like wood or stone further enhance these benefits by introducing familiar textures that are aesthetically and tactilely pleasing and connect occupants with nature to promote comfort and wellness.

Pocket Space at Canvas at Arizona State University, a an 856-bed luxury off-campus student housing property.
Pocket Space at Canvas at Arizona State University, an 856-bed luxury off-campus student housing property in Tempe, Ariz. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

Likewise, the patterns found in natural materials, such as the heavy graining of old timber or the color variation in stone, also play an important role in how we perceive and enjoy spaces. The same effect can be achieved whether using actual natural materials, or manmade materials that replicate patterns and motifs found in nature, such as artificial wood grain laminates or tiles mimicking the look of the ocean floor, or even colors pulled from nature in the surrounding region.

In recent years, design professionals and consumers alike have become much more educated about the importance and benefits of incorporating biophilic principles into built environments.

What’s the difference between texture and pattern?

Cook: Texture is usually dimensional, and pattern is typically two-dimensional. Texture describes a tactile dimension of a space, while pattern is a means to add a visual rhythm and repetition. However, at different scales and with varying color contrasts, pattern and texture can easily substitute for one another, depending on the vantage point. For example, when observed at a greater distance, a pattern can become a texture.

What are the elements that define texture and how can we make use of these in interior design projects?

Cook: Texture typically refers to the surface quality of a material, which we experience through sight and touch: Is it smooth, rough, soft, or coarse? Generally, smooth textures read as cold, and rough textures project warmth. Both the visual appearance of textures and their durability and workability are critical contributors to great design. Depending on how the space is intended to be used, a designer can use texture to influence human comfort, functionality, productivity and overall enjoyment or pleasure within a space.

Finishes with subtle textures are generally more durable than smooth ones. A smooth surface may show footprints and dirt but will be easier to clean, whereas coarse surfaces hide dust better but are often more challenging to clean. Rough plaster walls can be a design solution to strategically conceal seams and joints, while textured flooring materials tend to have better non-slip properties, which is a safety consideration. It’s important to also remember that texture can influence the acoustic performance of space by impacting how well materials absorb or reflect sounds and echoes.

Kinn Guesthouse
Interior at Kinn Guesthouse in Milwaukee, featuring 31 luxurious rooms, chef’s kitchens on each floor and intimate dining and gathering spaces on all floors. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

What is the role of light in perceiving textures?

Cook: How we experience textures is affected by not only distance and scale but also light and lighting. Direct lighting highlights textures by casting shadows that reveal the material’s depth, while diffused lighting can soften the appearance of textures, reducing contrast and detail.

Likewise, color and surface characteristics heavily influence the appearance of a texture. For example, smooth, polished surfaces reflect light and objects, adding visual complexity, while rough textures like clay, wood and stone absorb light, creating a warmer, more intimate feel. We always consider the color, type, intensity and glare of artificial light and the availability of natural light when incorporating textures into a design.

What are the current trends in terms of interior design patterns and textures?

Cook: Current trends in patterns and textures vary depending on project location, demographics or what’s currently fashionable. One overarching trend that remains constant is incorporating patterns and textures holistically and in a way that reflects a broader, research-based focus on well-being. This trend is supported by the latest advancements in neuroscience and neuroaesthetics, which apply scientific insights to human-centered design to enhance physical and mental health.

As Dr. Claudia Miller from the UT School of Medicine in San Antonio observed, ‘Architects and designers have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals.’ We will always steer our clients toward choices that make the most sense for specific spaces and support the wellness of the end-users, even when it comes to fine details like textures and patterns.

The link between pattern recognition, survival and pleasure is the reason we recognize patterns as beauty. By taking a researched approach that successfully pairs patterns and texture with other key elements of design, we can create spaces that elicit those same positive feelings and allow the end users to live better.

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