Institute for Art and Designtherapy

           Selected Landmark 2007



In the following thesis the term Designtherapy will be connected with architecture – or more exactly speaking with architectonics. This architectonic viewpoint of design is one of various possibilities which has not only a retrospective significance for design-history, but also psychological and therapeutic aspects important for future. Many contemporary design theories dissociate themselves from art and architecture, but research in the fields of art therapy calls for an interdisciplinary updating of their relationships on a scientific basis.



    »…I see designing objects as architecture on a small scale…«
    Mario Botta

Seen from the aspect of design as architecture en miniature one could ask why the art of architecture should not be applied as art therapy. Painting, sculpturing, dance-, drama- and music therapy yes, but »architectural therapy«? Are there no specific artistic media that serve architecture like the sounds in music, the colors in painting? Of what nature are they?What is their therapeutic value?

Our vision of therapeutic possibilities is blocked by walls and buildings. Our usual concept of architecture is associated solely with large scale buildings, but built things as objects of architectural imagination are not restricted by size. In the same way that painting is not dependent on a specific size the essence of architecture cannot be lost by diminishing the scale. The spectrum of painting stretches from murals to miniatures – architecture ranges from a huge building to a small built thing like a tiny little box, – architecture can house a small or large entity. Just as it is usual practise in art therapy to use a smaller format, so will »architectural therapy« normally choose smaller building projects. The smaller form of painting changes its name to miniature; smaller architectural structures have many names – such as »chair« or »box« for instance. The name and concept of a miniature do not prevent us from realising it is a painting.

To realize that a box is a form of architecture however still seems to strike more than a few of our contemporaries as strange. A chair is a chair, a box is a box and design is design. Yet 20th century art and design have themselves presented us such objects as art: From Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamps and Kurt Schwitters to Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke we have witnessed boxes, Objektkästen and boîtes creating their own genre. The concept of micro-architecture as architectural art has been coined by the italian designer Alessandro Mendini in 1978/79 for table-top landscaping: »Tea and Coffee Piazzas« denoted various tea, coffee, sugar and milk vessels designed by eleven internationally known architects and designers.

A phenomenological description of architecture suggests that anything that is built artistically belongs (logically) to the art of building (i.e. architecture), whether coffee jugs, boxes, furniture or houses. A thesis to determine the position of architecture as art therapy has to evaluate the specific artistic media of architecture on a small scale. Furthermore art therapy has to discover architectonics as a basic structural element of all arts underlying the composition of a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music – not unlike an invisible skeleton.

The question whether architecture belongs in the spectrum of art therapy can arise through theoretical considerations; equally it can result from therapeutic practice. My therapeutic work with drug addicts led often to the question how someone can not only learn to express his thoughts, wishes and ideas on paper but bring them right down to the ground. Which artistic medium corresponds with – »getting back to the floor«? – to being »closed up« or »open«? How is it possible to transform a persons »castle in the air«, a delusional »frame of mind« into a humble dwelling of a more realistic size matching the person’s own reality? These questions led for example to chairmaking projects with young drug addicts designing imaginary chairs on paper, then making more realistic mockups and plans – and finally building them. »Designtherapy« offers the possibility to diminish onesided self-centeredness because the designprocess has to be functional.

On the other hand designtherapy can help to create an inner space and gain boarders if there are attention deficit problems or hysteric tendencies by creating and building the real space of a cabinet, chest or box. If someone has painted and designed his ideal chair or his little treasure box, and then wants to build it, he has to unite the artistic sense with the sense for reality. This bridge betweeen fantasy and reality can also open a way towards the artistic process for clients who feel uncomfortable with »art«, but who may be motivated to carry out practical work.

The qualities inherent in the legs of a chair and in the enclosed space of a box are in principle the same as the ones of the upright standing column and the enclosed space of a house. The symbolic correspondence of body and house are well known in psychology, but little attention has been given to the symbolic or anthropological relationships of the »legs« of a chair with the human legs, or of the »chest« of drawers with the human chest. Box and chest are symbols closely connected with the heart, as expressed in the metaphor »shrine of the heart« (Herzensschrein).

Designtherapeutic measures are increasingly indicated where children’s natural impulses to create and build (e.g. tree houses) are prevented by a lack of natural space, by restrictions and boundaries in a modern world. When frustrated, the need to be constructive can turn into pathological destructive actions (e.g. vandalism) or depressive resignation (»I can’t change anything«). Building does not only shape the object, it also develops constructive abilities within the person who builds.

© Reinhold J. Faeth, Prof. Dr. phil. Dipl. Art Therapist


P.S.: Consider the metaphoric expressions of the following quotation:

»This book is about the philosophical foundations of anthropological theory. My aim is to describe the basic building blocks of theory and to lay out the essential architectural principles of paradigm construction. I do not offer a blueprint for a particular theoretical edifice (although I do not hesitate to point out the designs that I consider to be most promising) instead, I try to identify what seem to me to be the essential engineering requisites for sound theoretical structures.« (James Lett: The Human Enterprise)






In a sociopsychological investigation, conducted by Mihaly Csikzentmihaly and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, participants were asked about objects within a living space, which carried special meaning. The findings emphasise effect of these 'special' objects of our surroundings in expressing and forming personality:

"The objects within our living spaces represent, at least potentially, the inner life of their owners. [...] The objects of the domestic domain form an ecological sign-system, which does not only depict, but also shapes the personality of their owner." Furniture was rated by the participants in the first place as being specially significant (36%): before (Art) pictures (26%), photographs (23%), books (22%), stereo systems, etc.  It seems that that furniture is capable of embodying manifold meanings,- of an immaterial and psychological nature. How significant, familiar, special objects can be, is made clear in the example set out by the authors, which poses the question, whether people, who move into an old people's home should be entitled to bring their own furniture:" Because [...] an older person orientates his/her self in the networks of past and present relationships, which are mostly embodied in specific objects. The lack of these, therefore, can lead to the destruction of their personalty. A more recent investigation looked after senior citizens in institutions, seems to underpin this thesis. (SHERMANN & NEWMANN 1977-8). The importance of objects in the normal development of the infant has also in been recognised in the last twenty years."    


The personality shaping values of furniture design form a wide spectrum that reaches right from the projected embodiment of personal memories, from psychological, sociological, cultural and aesthetic aspects,  through to haptic, material and functional characteristics. The complexity  of the conscious and for the most part unconscious meaning- values of the furniture und most of all its longterm effects on the human self have hardly been explored and  are even less present in the general consciousness. We are dealing with a highly effective, but " hidden dimension" of our lives. Resulting from proxemic research as seen in the book "The Hidden Dimension" by Edward T.Hall, the cultural dimension of the human experience of their surrounding space is clearly standing out in connection to building and city architecture. In a small chapter about " Semifixed-feature Space" an experiment with furniture arrangement in a hospital is mentioned, whose findings show 'measurable' effects on the communication behaviour and mental well being of the patients, depending on each arrangement. Consequently, the psychologist Robert Sommer, who was ivolved in the research, wrote - for the specific attention of the architects - an essay in the Canadian Architect (1961) titled: Design for Friendship

Prior to scientists it was the poets who perceived and formulated the complex spectrum of the effects of interior design. Christian Morgenstern emphasises the following:

"I ascribe to the presence of beautifully created objects a major influence on the human being. Because of this we should choose the furniture of our child's bedroom with great care. Some sort of  beautiful, simple and honest cupboard, on which the child's gaze may fall from its bed, yes, elaborate models of meaningful buildings, for example a small model of St. Peter's Dome, a greek temple or  a modern ironbridge would without any doubt, give the child an inkling for  great style, which it could follow up and develop further throughout its whole life."   

Next to the aesthetic qualities of furniture, Morgenstern emphasises their spiritual and moral qualities, which again 'without any doubt' produce similar effects during a long period of time. What he mentiones about space-proportions in the following, can also be seen in connection to the proportions and the 'character' of furniture:

"It is unfortunate that dignity and 'finesse' of thought are often dependent on the proportions of a room, a delightful window view and to a certain extent also of light and colour; with the result that someone, who has spent his whole in a kind of longish box and then one day steps into a nobly proportioned room find himself drawn to thinking, how much he could have lost spiritually only through  the character of his living space."   




Dostojewskij also notes on the first page of his novel  "The Degraded and Insulted":

" I have made the observation that a narrow space even narrows down thoughts."   

That the nature of the bond of thoughts could be dependent on the design of living space, was of no doubt to Goethe either. In this connection Eckermann established the following on the 25th march 1831:

" There is no sofa anywhere to be seen in my room; I always sit on my old wooden stool, and it has only been recently that I have had some sort of head- rest made for it. An environment of comfortable and tasteful furniture, lifts my thoughts and transends me into a cosy passive state. Unless one is surrounded by them from ones youth onwards, magnificent rooms and elegant household appliances are for people who don't have any thoughts and do not  want to have them either."   

With the words "magnificent" and "elegant" Goethe is referring to the excessive, upholstered luxury of the "royal and rich". On the 23rd march 1829, Goethe had already made a remark about similar, as also noted by Eckermann: "Magnificent Buildings and rooms are for the "royalties and the rich". Wether royal magnificance, material wealth and courtly elegance or "honesty and simplicity" - they embody social, emotional and spiritual messages in the form and colour elements of the furniture and objects. Due to this furniture conveys specific quatitative effects - "sensual and moral effects" - as Geothe would say. In the psychological chapter of Goethe's Colour Theory about the "Sensual and Moral Effects of Colour" he tells the following about a spirited frenchman:

“He maintained that the tone of his conversation with Madame had changed since she had had the blue colour of the furniture in her room changed to carmine red.”   

Goethe here wrote of the effects colours can have. Psychologists and Art-Therapists have investigated this aspect of the domestic environment more closely, but hardly the effects of design.

In the story Tristan by Thomas Mann, the poet Spinell's answer to the question of why he is spending his time in the sanatorium is: "due to reasons of style". He explains that the style, the design of the interior of the sanatorium, which used to be a castle, is “all empire” in style and that due to this, it has a therapeutic effect on him.

"There are times when I just can't do without the Empire style; times when I have a desperate need to reach a modest degree of well-being. There is no question about it, one feels differently amongst furniture that is soft and comfortable, and differently amongst those linear tables, arm chairs and draperies....This luminosity and hardness, this cool and austere simplicity and reserved severity gives me composure and dignity, dear Madam. In the long run this has an effect of cleansing and restoring one inwardly, and without any question it lifts me morally ..."   

The auric and aesthetic qualities of a well-designed interior embody a style developed (i.e. also giving cultural history meaning) which unconsciously influences the inhabitant or may be consciously experienced by the aesthetic self of the individual who perceives them. In a psychological study, students were asked to list things which they felt to be part of their own self. The body and its parts were listed first of all, but the list also included objects in the surroundings, with pieces of furniture also seen as part of one’s own self. This may at first seem strange to Western people whose notion of self is more limited.

African culture provides a far more amazing example of extremely close identification with items of furniture in the special relationship the Ashanti have to their stools. In early childhood they receive their own stool as the first present given by their father, and this stays with them for the rest of their life:

Girls sit on their stools during the rites of puberty. A bridegroom presents his chosen bride with a stool in order to bind her more closely to him. The dead are washed on their stools before they are laid out, and it is believed that the soul enters into the stool. Anyone getting up from his stool will tip it over so that no other soul or spirit may occupy it. ...  

It does appear, however, that normal modern daytime consciousness is remote from close bonds with the world of objects. There is little awareness of the real, i.e. psychically effective, value of the objects that surround us. Thus Viktor Sklovskij wrote in his Auferweckung des Wortes (1914):

We are like a violinist who no longer has sensation of his bow and the strings. We are no longer artists in everyday life, we no longer love our homes and our clothes, and easily let go of a life we are unable to feel. Living experience of the world can only be given back to human beings by creating new forms. This will wake things up and kill pessimism.  

There is also little feeling of responsibility towards objects that seem dumb to us. Things affect us in exactly the way they are produced—lovingly or without loving care.
In the memoirs of Russian painter Margarita Woloshin we find a passage that speaks of the educative, deep-reaching effect:

I think all these impressions gained of objects, carved Florentine chests and chairs, with animal-plants and human-animal forms which the child would touch and feel, the patterns in the rugs which the eye would follow again and again, had a deeper influence on the child's soul that any words addressed to it.   

All these things that have been said about hidden therapeutic and educational dimensions of objects around us show how important it is to have objects around us that are made in an artistic way.
As Rudolf Steiner put it, genuine art provides the healing spiritual atmosphere for human souls:

Anyone able to perceive and appreciate spiritual facts knows very well that customs, habits, inner inclinations and certain connections between good and evil in an age depend on the nature of the objects we walk past from morning till night, among which we are from morning till night. The things people usually have around them from morning till night today are often hair-raising, if you’ll forgive strong words. There’s nothing people are less concerned about today than the things they have around them through the day. Do they use their judgement, eye and taste on the way a table or a chair is made?   

The Quotes should be able to convey that designtherapy is a concept that at its basis has varied experiences to which designtherapeutic research is connected. The past became aware of the effects that can be experienced through the reception of design. The present research and that of the future, in connection to art-therapy, will deal with receptive and artistic processual and productive aspects.

© Reinhold J. Faeth, Prof. Dr. phil. Dipl. Art Therapist