Home is Where the Heart (and Brain) Is: Dochia Interior Design

Merging timber frame construction and neuroscience, this ecologically friendly home showcases a design anchored in perceptual biology.

Neurodesign is having a moment these days. The concept is defined as an approach that seeks to understand the relationship between design and neurology, and how manipulating environments — or in fact any designed object, from packaged goods to advertising — can influence brain function and possibly even slow or prevent cognitive decline.

Upon first hearing, it’s understandable to feel a bit skeptical; in fact, a lot of people tend to lump it together with biophilia and other buzzy wellness trends. But there actually appears to be some persuasive science behind it. Several respected institutions including the Stanford Neurodesign Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Arizona, and European academic and scientific organizations have been investigating the link between neurology, emotion, anthropology and psychology for some time now.

Some of the idea seems intuitive, even to some extent familiar. Colour theory is a crude form of neurodesign: it’s almost a given that blues, greens and greys are soothing; while red, yellow and hot pink stimulate our emotions. (It’s rarely that simple, of course. If you happen to dislike green or grey, these same colours might produce the opposite reaction.)

Adriana Mot of Dochia Interior Design has been a practicing designer in Toronto for over two decades, and a longtime proponent and student of neurodesign. Her interest dates to her undergraduate work in architecture and environmental studies at Waterloo and further studies at Stanford. Mot’s research led to developing her own more personal variation, unique enough that she had it trademarked: SelftropyTM. In her definition, Selftropy focuses more directly on the relationship of individuals to a designed environment, or what she calls a “spatial philosophy of wellbeing.”

The building’s framework consists of a double height central core and radiating secondary spaces. As the architectural height varies, interior elements mimic this dynamic, establishing perceptual coherence. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

In part, Mot explains, the concept has to do with primitive, limbic-brain-centred reactions to the spaces we’re in. For example, “People tend to be instinctively drawn to spaces that are more [visually] complex. It’s related to safety: a high-contrast, complex environment allows you to better perceive danger in your environment and find places to hide.” More complex scenarios also feel more natural, for nature is almost never blank: even a still pond reflects sky and trees.

Her design for the interior of a contemporary house in suburban Toronto is a great case study in some of the ideas expressed through Selftropy. Architect David Small had already designed the main shell (the clients had specified a timber frame style) but left it to Mot to add the interior details, focusing on neurodesign elements while also complementing the breezy, relaxed style of the home and its inhabitants.

As you enter, a wide pathway leads from the front door into the living area. The designed verticality of the foyer closet complements the timber structure and the unobstructed view of the trees. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

The front door opens into a bright, almost fully glazed vestibule, with vistas through to the living room, outdoor patio beyond, and up the stairs to the second floor. The abundance of sunlight and clean, open design are Small’s work, but Mot added crucial tweaks: glass railings on the stairs and lining the upper level sitting area maintain a feeling of openness and visual variety, while white walls and natural wood elements complement the long view right through the house. “It’s a complex view, but it’s controlled; nothing is cluttered or jumbled,” she observes.

The balance of openness and human-scaled details — a comfortable bench just inside the front door; hall closets that stop short of the ceiling plane overhead — illustrate another of Mot’s principles, having to do with something called the “Gulliver Scale.” This addresses the scale of our bodies relative to our surroundings, or in other words, whether a space makes you feel Lilliputian or Brobdingnagian. Most of us know a big soaring space can feel exhilarating, while small spaces can be cozy (or claustrophobic), but it’s more involved than that. Without a more human-sized counterpoint, a big space can also feel unsafe or out of balance.

In the living room, the fireplace and display unit are the focal point. The composition is carefully constructed as various components break down the scale of the whole. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

The idea of pleasing complexity is even more evident in the living room. First glimpsed side-on at the front door, the hearth is fronted by a single, oversize reclaimed timber, set before a fireplace of smooth hot rolled steel insets and a tall marble chimney facing. Combined with boxed bookshelves mounted on the inner side, the whole composition is a study in subtlety.

Look more closely, and you begin to notice a few unusual details. The top surface of the timber log doesn’t match the plane of the steel surface behind it. To make the steel flush would be to make it “disappear,” neurologically speaking; less expected details add complexity, and therefore interest. A similar small surprise occurs in the shape of the bookshelf boxes: they’re neither lined up nor flush to each other. And a stripe of steel lines one vertical side of the marble chimney, placing it slightly off centre. One would think that all that dynamism would throw off the overall composition, but somehow the effect is both visually interesting and balanced.

Anywhere inside, your cone of vision is filled with carefully chosen stimuli. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

Neurodesign practitioners look closely at how an individual experiences the space: what you see, how you feel, how you move about, what is close to and farther away from you. You can see this in action in the kitchen, where the waterfall surfacing on the island only descends on one side, so that it’s easy to get your legs into place when you sit down from the left; and also, charmingly, in the breakfast nook just beyond.

“We were just going to put a table and chairs in there, but the first thing I saw in that room was the great view of the garden. Everyone will want to sit where they can look out the window at it! So we designed a comfortable banquette in the perfect position for looking out.”

Breaking down shapes was a critical technique for achieving this simple complexity, the kitchen included. The island and cooking counter are in the open space but the breakfast area and a hidden pantry are tucked away. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

Contrasting shapes — which combat “Hedonistic laziness,” which is just a fancy way of saying the eye glosses over anything it doesn’t perceive as unexpected — keep the dining room visually interesting without sacrificing its uncluttered feeling. Mot supplemented the structural timbers in the ceiling with crossbeams to counter their linearity, then added an oval table and subtly textured wallpaper for complexity. “At night, the windows are black, so you need texture and shape to keep the room interesting.”

Mot acknowledges that neurodesign in general, and Selftropy in particular, could be criticized as both a mere affirmation of Modernism — a rejection of clutter, and prioritizing how we actually live — and a repudiation of it. “Modernism is a big beast to go up against,” she laughs. But in her view, the concept is, really, the next logical step: going beyond pure formalism towards a more human-centred way of designing spaces.

A den on the upper landing is both secluded and on display. (Photo by Julia Bewcyk)

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Photo by Julia Bewcyk
Photo by Julia Bewcyk
Photo by Julia Bewcyk

As featured in the March/April 2024 issue of Canadian Interiors magazine.