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Garden hotels. Forest restaurants. Plants are the future of interior design.

Greenery brings calm, surprise, and — sometimes — fresh airflow.

By Alix Strauss

Times Square, like other high-traffic, ultra-urban spots, ran on high-stimulation chaos before the pandemic. Lights flickered. Horns blared. Electric billboards streamed a barrage of jarring images from above. Mob scenes of people pushed past each other. There was nothing calm, serene, or green for blocks.

Except, that is, for the ninth floor of the Edition Hotel on 47th Street and Seventh Ave. Draped from floor to ceiling was a living utopia of more than 1,500 plants, trees, and flowers — some fake, most natural — from ferns and boxwoods to birch trees, ivy, and annuals for color. The Edition Terrace and Garden, a greenhouse inspired by the L’Orangerie at Paris’ Jardin des Tuileries, was a 3,200-square-foot visual, emotional, and mental antidote to the commotion of Manhattan’s theater district.

“Blurring the distinction from the inside and outside has always been of interest to me,” says Ian Schrager, the veteran hotelier who partnered with Marriott to open Edition-branded boutique hotels around the world. “Doing it in Times Square was more alluring because of the contradiction. You’re walking into a decompression zone. It’s totally unexpected.” The hotel closed in April, citing COVID-19 as the cause. But the garden was part of a trend that feels all the more urgent while we’re indoors and distanced: making indoor structures a little more like the outdoors, and creating new indoor-outdoor spaces that open up to fresh air.

 These foliage-forward spaces, following the principles of “biophilic design” often incorporate visuals, sounds, smells, changes in humidity, and — especially important today — fresh airflow. The aim, designers say, is to provide not just beautiful scenery, but also the refuge and nourishment nature provides.

Even before the pandemic, many people were experiencing an overload of the indoors. A 1989 report from the Environmental Protection Agency declared that Americans spend about 90 percent of their lives inside. Since then, the intrusive infiltration of smartphones and social media has added another significant wedge between us and the natural world.

The pandemic made that distance even more acute — and made the outdoors more critical to mental health. “We spend an enormous amount of time inside our offices, and now our homes,” says Michelle Laboy, a professor of architecture at Northeastern University. “There is proven evidence that having even a view of greenery gives us a cognitive break, a momentary distraction that lets us reset our processing of information and creativity, which makes us more productive.”

For the past 11 years, Laboy has taught design studios in urbanism, comprehensive design, and building technology, studying how environmental design can lead to healthier people and more resilient cities. “More and more people are living in urban centers with less access to a natural green,” she says.

“You’re not just designing for pretty; you’re designing for emotion, and how people want to feel within the space.”

Bea Pila, interior designer

Many artists have sought to reconnect people with the natural world — sometimes to prompt them to think or act differently. The immersive exhibit Arcadia Earth, held in a 17,000-square-foot space in New York’s SoHo last year, used naturescapes, an underwater hall, and ecological elements — such as a 15-foot terrarium where the plants and stones changed color based on a viewer’s CO2 output — to inspire people to protect the environment.

“I’m trying to put the participant inside nature. We are trying to educate, inspire, terrify, and get them to take action in every room,” says Justin Bolognino, founder and CEO of the firm Meta, which co-produced the show.

Designers use those principles to create sensual, tactile, and emotional experiences in homes and businesses — sometimes, with the goal of inward growth. Bea Pila, founder of the Miami-based studio B. Pila Design, often integrates trees, greens, water walls, pebbles, and stones into the interiors of her clients’ homes. “You’re not just designing for pretty; you’re designing for emotion, and how people want to feel within the space,” she says. “Being in nature drops our cortisol levels, makes us calmer, reduces anxiety and improves our mood. It’s a physical desire. We are hungry for the experience of what the outdoors brings to us.”

In recent years, the restaurant and hotel industries have discovered that an urge to connect to nature can also be good for business. Millennials, whose contagious need to post and document takes them another step away from the natural world, are also willing to pay $50 to $100 more for a hotel room filled with plants, according an online survey by Orbitz from the spring of 2019. Sixty-three percent of the 1,028 U.S. travelers surveyed, all between ages 25 and 44, said the amenity they most wanted to see in a hotel was plants. The survey inspired the Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago to partner with city’s Garfield Park Conservatory to create a plant pop-up program for hotel rooms.

Attracting guests with plant-driven delight was also the goal behind the Garden Room, a multi-million-dollar addition to Atlanta’s St. Regis hotel. Built in 2019, the 3,000 square foot indoor-outdoor garden was enclosed with a vaulted glass-and-steel roof and sliding windows around the perimeter.

“We blurred the lines between fantastical plants and real ones, so one can’t tell where the real stops and the fake begins,” says Anna McGrady Miller, director of interior design for The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, based in Atlanta. In addition to more than 500 seasonally rotating plants — orchids, begonias, ivy, palms, roses, camellias, gardenias — the room includes a white artificial tree with iridescent leaves, which reflect light and glow when lit up.

While some create from imagination, others are incorporating existing elements of nature — like a 100-year-old, 75-foot tamarind tree, the centerpiece of chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Overtown restaurant in Miami.

“There was so much history and presence in this tree that it became an important element to include,” said Miami-based interior designer Sean Saladino, whose Saladino Design Studios transformed a vacant lot in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood to create the two-story, 13,000 square-foot space. “We had to find a way for the tree to continue to grow within an enclosed garden patio, which was purposely designed to make you feel as if you’re inside someone’s backyard rather than in a restaurant.”

Saladino’s studio hung 360 plants from the ceiling, scattering them throughout the space in colorful handmade pots. Designers mixed in live oaks, silver trumpets and palms and more than 100 shrubs and bushes. The weatherproof awning is retractable, to let in fresh air, and designed to let in natural light so the living greens can survive. The restaurant’s grand opening, scheduled for April 2020, has been postponed due to the pandemic.

“This feeling we created brings you back to warmer weather, especially for the out-of-state visitor [looking] for better times and the tropics,” Saladino says. “The key is making sure the visual and physical outdoor-indoor space work together.”

That often-surprising interplay between inside and outside, Laboy says, is what gives biophilic design an emotional effect.

“It’s always really interesting to people when you can create hyper-natural environments in places that you don’t expect to see them,” she says. “People love the idea of transporting themselves to a kind of wilderness that in some ways is exotic.” The goal is to lift moods and change perspectives, she says — making people green, but not with envy.

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.

illustration by Mauco Sosa

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