Location: 515 Madison Avenue — Midtown Manhattan, NYC
Size: Lounge/Waiting area: 800 square feet
Private therapy rooms: 100-120 square feet typically
Group therapy rooms: 200-250 square feet typically
Interior spaces—the personal and public environments we spend much of our time in—have an impact on us. Emotionally, and sometimes even physically. You can improve and change decor elements in your home to affect the way you and others feel in your space. And Alma—a thoughtfully designed co-practicing space for therapists and patients in midtown Manhattan—is chock-full of scientifically backed decor inspiration you can use in your own home.
"Alma elevates the therapy experience for patients and therapists by offering stunning private and group practice rooms, a therapist lounge that doubles as an event space for curated programming, an outdoor terrace overlooking the city, and four Headspace meditation pods for patients to use while awaiting their appointments," reads an official description.
"The quality of the therapeutic space is an important element of good therapy. Regardless of the reason that clients are pursuing therapy, they all share the common goal of feeling better and creating positive change. The physical space can be a barrier to successful therapy when it makes clients feel vulnerable, defensive, uninspired, or unhealthy. It's hard to work towards positive change when the environment you are in does not promote a sense of healing. The space should be someplace that people can easily develop a positive attachment to, not one that perpetuates the stigma that mental health is something to feel ashamed about," writes Rachael Goldberg, Psychotherapist, LCSW, and member of the Alma mental health co-practice community.
Designed by Lauren Spear (who also designed Google's offices), Alma is full of minimal style, organic materials, and cool art. It looks lovely... but more importantly, it provides the very real feelings of privacy, security, and comfort. According to Spear, the space was designed based both on research as well as by interviewing "dozens of mental health practitioners, therapists, and even potential clients." Below, Spear explains how Alma's environment was designed... and they're ideas anyone could use to design a home, too.
Opt for round shapes
"Behavioral studies surrounding the psychology of shapes have taught us that humans perceive rounded shapes, specifically circles, more favorably than some other more angular shapes. Their rounded nature has shown to evoke feelings of wholeness, balance, and eternity (no beginning and no end)—all things symbolic of what we are trying to achieve within Alma's walls," explains Spear. They reinforced a circular, organic shape in obvious ways like tables, the lines of furniture, and even the globe-shaped light fixtures. But also in much smaller ways, like the rounded custom bookshelf systems made by Brooklyn furniture maker Armada, the cabinet pulls by Reform, the wood-dowel entry wall, and more.
Harness color knowledge when choosing a palette
"Neuroscientists have been studying the relationship between color, emotions, and cognitive performance for years, so there is a wealth of knowledge to be harnessed while creating palettes these days." At Alma, two paint colors make up the space's main palette: "[A] creamy white that serves as a blank canvas in all public areas, and a soothing dark slate—which the therapy spaces almost appear to be 'dipped' in. Studies have shown blue hues to induce calmness and serenity, while also being seen as a sign of stability and reliability in many cultures. In addition to its therapeutic qualities, we executed this high-contrast concept as a way-finding mechanism for individuals to easily navigate 'active' vs 'quiet' spaces," explains Spear.
Embrace the natural look of sustainable materials
"In the early stages of design, we made the decision to execute what we call 'trueness to materiality' in our brand palette. To us, this means using as many sustainable products as possible—and embracing the natural look, feel, and inherent flaws of such materials," describes Spear. "In hard construction, this resulted in many unpolished and exposed aggregate natural stones, raw and non-treated hardwoods, and linoleums. In soft goods, this translated to many natural fiber textiles, leathers, corks, and even woolen carpet tiles."
Ensure ample natural daylight
"As it is an accepted fact that natural daylight positively impacts mood, productivity, and stress levels, we made a commitment to ensuring every therapy space had ample access to natural daylight and views to the exterior," explains Spear. But, where natural light wasn't enough, artificial lighting was incorporated mindfully. "In therapy areas, we give therapists full control of several layers of light in order to create the desired ambiance, while in public areas we try to achieve a far more intimate, cozy, and warm lighting level—somewhere in the 2700-3000K range—with full dimmability. This has been achieved by going completely LED in the space, and working with local manufacturers like Allied Maker and Rich Brilliant Willing to achieve both the aesthetic and functionality needed," describes Spears.
Create visually impactful plant moments
"The biophilia effect—or human's innate tendency to gravitate towards nature—forms a significant portion of Alma's design ethos... We chose to execute two large live plant green-wall installations in the Alma space; one at the main entry and another at the terrace entrance... They are constructed as simple wall mount planter boxes, clad in stone, with supplemental lighting built within—therefore we are able to swap out boxes as needed. They're proven to be the largest maintenance item, but we believe it is well worth the effort to create these special moments for people to connect and gather around. In planning plant life project wide, we worked with The Sill to determine best plants types for different locations, including the 60+ other free standing potted plants you can find throughout the space," writes Spear.
Incorporate art that speaks to the process of self-discovery
"The creative arts play a substantial role in therapeutic-recovery, so it was important for us to incorporate art that speaks to the process of self-discovery, all while being accessible to the viewer. We chose to do so through minimal abstract art pieces from artists who are both very process-driven and committed to their craft. In the main entry and waiting areas, we feature a limited edition of fine art prints from Melbourne-based artist, Bobby Clark. Her "Print Range" collection is a methodical study of the balance and connection between fundamental geometric shape and grid-like compositions.
In contrast, in the therapy rooms we commissioned Kansas City-based artist, Lee Ahlskog, to create original artwork to connect a bit more to the organic, imperfect, and iterative nature of the work that takes place behind closed doors."
Consider Hygge along with privacy and security
"In discovering what security really meant to us at Alma, we realized we were not only simply trying to check the 'safety' box surrounding a typical healthcare space, but more so trying to celebrate the broader feeling of comfort, peace of mind, and familiarity to one's surroundings. In doing so, we took inspiration from the Nordic term Hygge, or the 'creating of cozy and convivial atmospheres that promote well0being.' Hygge is a relatively new practice here in the U.S., but it's gaining much traction in the cognitive science world as of late. We found many parallels between the theories of Hygge and other well accepted 'must-do's' of therapy settings," explains Spear.
Spear made sure to create "distinct and easily navigable spaces with clearly dedicated uses" to reinforce a feeling of order. But guests also have a sense of control, able to choose between waiting in meditation nooks, soundproof phone booths, or semi-private lounge spaces. Consistency of decor elements was important too: "[E]very room is laid out and furnished (by Swedish based Hem) identically, down to the books on the shelf and the art on the wall... In a shared room co-working model, this uniformity allows anyone and everyone to be instantly familiar in any space they inhabit," describes Spear.
"I want my clients to feel like their mental health is a priority and I believe that having a practice space that feels nurturing, rather than clinical, is an important element of that."
Spear incorporated comfort visually into the space's design with soft seating, but also by including tablet tables and charging stations, recognizing that accessing technology is actually a form of comfort.
And while the design team has a legal obligation to design around privacy needs, privacy plays a huge part in feeling secure and safe, which is why absorptive materials and white noise machines were used to achieve acoustic privacy. Technology—like digital ID badges and mobile check-in—also helps. And they laid out the space to minimize awkward interactions with other patients.
"I want my clients to feel like their mental health is a priority and I believe that having a practice space that feels nurturing, rather than clinical, is an important element of that. Client-centered design, which involves good lighting, calming colors, and comfortable furniture, creates a nurturing atmosphere in which clients can pursue counseling. It is important to me that the choice to pursue therapy indicates a strength in their character, not a deficit, and the office environment plays a big role in achieving that goal," says Rachael Goldberg.