Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior

We seem, today, to be infatuated with indoor plants and flowers. Many of our every day public indoor spaces are full of them, while glossy magazines depict miniature jungles in stylish domestic interiors. Yet, the story of how and why we have chosen to surround ourselves with living nature is not a simple one. Rather, it is characterised by both steadfastly unchanging beliefs and practices, as well as by new strategic uses of indoor plants and flowers that have responded to shifts in fashionable taste and to the ever-evolving discourses that have accompanied modern architecture and interior design.

In this blog, design historian Penny Sparke discusses how the modern architectural movement in the first half of the twentieth century utilised plants to rupture the barrier between inside and outside space, and considers the complex relationship between ‘plantscaping’, the growth of consumerism, and the rise of eco-anxiety.

Penny Sparke unpicks why we bring nature inside …

Indoor plants during the Covid-19 pandemic

(Fig. 1) A conservatory attached to a 19th century home. Illustration in John Mollinson’s The New Practical Window Gardener, 1894 (scan from original source).

In the indoor spaces of our homes, to which we have become all too accustomed during the Coronavirus pandemic, plants are in abundance. Advice about how good they are for us is widely offered up in magazine articles, radio programmes and coffee table literature. Along with Joe Wicks’ exercise classes and making banana bread, communing with nature, even inside, we are repeatedly told, calms the soul and grounds us in these troubled times, Indoor plants, it is widely claimed, also absorb toxins and purify the air. While there is some scientific evidence that this is the case, this is ultimately less about science and more about belief. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, nurturing indoor plants has become one of the ways in which we believe that we are simultaneously enhancing our personal health and happiness and showing our respect for the natural world.

Indoor plants in public spaces

Indoor plants are not just present in our homes, however. The managers and designers of hotel tearooms, shopping malls, and seaside winter gardens have long understood the calming effects of potted palms and ferns in our indoor environments and exploited that fact to make us linger longer and spend more money in their commercial spaces. This need to commune with nature in an urban setting was widely understood in the Victorian era when people first felt the pinch of industrialisation and the emotional loss of the daily experience of the countryside in their lives. While middle-class housewives, new to the gendered task of household management, spent hours watering their draecenas and training ivy across their walls, as well as filling the small greenhouses newly attached to their homes (Fig. 1) the Crystal Palace, (Fig. 2) the first large-scale public exhibition space in the UK – a giant greenhouse in effect – was filled with countless tropical plants which accompanied the giant elms that were already on the site.

(Fig. 2) Print of the transept of the Great Exhibition building, Hyde Park, showing the elm trees left on site, 1851 (scan from original source).

Late modernism

(Fig. 3) Planting and fountain inside the NorthPark Mall, Dallas, USA, 1998.

The spirit of indoor/outside living became a reality in the post Second World War years, when architectural and design modernism crossed the Atlantic and landed up on the West coast of the USA. In that new setting a dream became a reality, made possible by the benign climate of the region and a strategic use of indoor and outdoor plants which, in the hands of European émigrés, such as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, and of architect-designers, Charles and Ray Eames and their neo-modern contemporaries, eroded the distinction between the spaces. While a controlled use of nature inside facilitated the emergence a new typology in American domestic architecture, it also permeated the public sphere in the spaces inside large, commercial buildings – restaurants and malls (Fig. 3) among them – where it offset the otherwise impersonal aesthetic of late modernism and provided calming environments which, as had already been the case in late nineteenth-century Europe, supported the growth of consumerism. The entry of indoor plants into the office also suggested that the improved productivity in those work environments. A new professional, the plantscaper, emerged to make these large-scale indoor landscaping projects possible.

Environmentalism and consumerism

The link between indoor landscaping and enhanced productivity and consumption was not just taken as a given, however. From the 1970s, environmental psychologists and others set out to provide scientific evidence that plants in indoor settings affect both the physiology of their inhabitants and the quality of the air they breathe. Their findings coincided with the general public’s growing anxieties about humankind’s negative impact on the environment and the ever-increasing requirement on the part of the developers of many public, indoor spaces to make their inhabitants produce and consume more. Whether as a symbol of a commitment to mending the damage that people have wreaked on the natural world, or as a means enhancing productivity and consumption, nature inside has continued, and will continue, to dominate our everyday lives.

Penny Sparke is professor of design history and director of the Modern Interiors Research Centre at Kingston University, London.

Her book, Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior, reinterprets the story of modern architecture and interior design through a thoroughly fresh lens; introducing readers to the possibilities of reuniting with nature in an urban setting.

Find it online or at your favourite local bookshop.

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