Creating spaces that care for people

Dr. Rebecca Tapia, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist in San Antonio, believes that interior designers have a superpower: the ability to dramatically improve the physical and mental health of their clients.

Tapia experienced that power herself when she designed a space in her own custom residential build specifically for her “very, very beloved” grandmother, whose health was declining while living with another relative, most of her time spent in a small back bedroom that limited her mobility and dampened her spirit. Today, with her own front door for a sense of autonomy, a big window overlooking greenery and other amenities, Tapia’s grandmother, who will turn 90 next month, is cooking, enjoying visitors and serving as “the important matriarch” of the family.


When Tapia asked her grandmother how she felt in her new space, she responded: “My space cares about me.”

“I took into account all of her abilities and disabilities and sensory issues, and as I was doing this, I thought everybody should have the opportunity to have the perspective of a health care professional to (help create a space) that will empower them to live their best life,” Tapia said.

Tapia, who now does design consulting as an extension of her work as a physician, spoke as part of a panel, “Designing for the Human Experience,” during the inaugural Design, Art & Science Symposium on Oct. 13 in High Point.

(From left) Diane Falvey moderated, “Designing for the Human Experience,” a panel discussion among Lisa Staprans of Staprans Design, Dr. Rebecca Tapia and Lisa Kahn of Finding Sanctuary by Lisa Kahn Designs.

She was joined by Lisa Staprans, co-founder of Staprans Design in Portola Valley, California, and Lisa Kahn, co-founder, CEO and chief design officer for Finding Sanctuary by Lisa Kahn Designs in Naples, Florida. Diane Falvey, editor-in-chief of Furniture, Lighting & Decor, moderated the panel.

The message from the symposium: Armed with the latest neuroscientific and medical research into how design affects people’s health and well-being, interior designers can create spaces that change lives, just as Tapia did for her grandmother.

Tapia noted that she often sees patients in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities who could be at home — if those homes were properly configured and outfitted. The issue isn’t the inability of these people to be able to perform certain functions, Tapia explained: It’s “that these homes aren’t performing for their intended users. This isn’t a failure of the person who has had a stroke or an amputation. It’s a failure of design.”

Staprans shared her own experience with how a space can negatively or positively impact health. Eighteen years ago, when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, she found herself in a cold, sterile treatment center. “I was just terrified by the environment,” she recalled. She switched to a different facility that made her feel calm and nurtured during her chemo treatments, and the experience “was a huge call to action that our spaces have a tremendous impact on us.”

“I now bring that (belief) into everything that I do,” Staprans said. “It’s a great honor and also a great responsibility for us as designers.”

Kahn, too, has seen the dramatic impact thoughtful design can have on wellness. Her 23-year-old daughter has several health problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and severe epilepsy. The seizures, which began when her daughter was about 10, were particularly tough to deal with. “It was a tough time — the worry and angst you feel when your child has these awful seizures. … No one should see their child go through that,” Kahn said. “… We were trying to navigate these waters as a family … and the entire tenor of our family was just so turbulent all the time. But I had one of those personal epiphany moments and the word ‘sanctuary’ came to me in such a beautiful way.”

So, Kahn said, she set out to create a sanctuary for her daughter, a place where she “can be physically safe, where she can have a chance to express herself and get back to being the best version of herself.”

“It was so effective, our entire family felt elevated,” Kahn continued. “I realized we all need a sanctuary and so I started to create highly personalized cradles of wellness (for clients).”

As the name indicates, Kahn’s entire design practice, Finding Sanctuary by Lisa Kahn Designs, is now centered on the idea of creating holistic sanctuaries for clients. Staprans, too, focuses her design work on well-being, not just for older adults or people with specific cognitive or physical disabilities, but for everyone.

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“Shortly after that first round of my treatments, which was a long time ago, a client said to me, ‘I really want a place where I can come in and recharge and feel energized so we can go back out into the world and do our best work,’” Staprans said.

“So, after my experience (with chemo), I saw this (client) as a call to action — I could really help this family come home and have a sanctuary where they could recharge and go back out into the world,” she said. “That project became another whole journey for me because I had that intention.”

Next week: We’ll share some of the questions that Kahn, Staprans and Tapia ask clients to help create spaces that promote well-being, as well as some of the science-based design ideas they incorporate into their projects.

New Science in Design certification

Science in Design, which sponsored the symposium, has launched a Science in Design Certification, a 24-class curriculum focused on human health and its science-backed relationship to the designed environment.

The self-paced, online coursework is divided into five modules: 1) neuroaesthetics; 2) biophilia and fractals; 3) the science of color, light, sound and air; 4) new technologies; and 5) human-centered design practices and marketing your services. Upon completion, participants will receive a Science in Design Certificate, as well as 16 IDCEC-accredited Health, Safety and Welfare continuing education units. Click here to learn more.

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