Design With Nature

By Deborah Coburn

Interior design and home renovation may have gone on the back burner with the advent of the coronavirus, yet there are still ways we can bring the soothing shapes and tones of nature into our homes.  Now is a good time to take stock of our surroundings, to see how in tune they are with the local landscape. This week, I’m using the “Shelter in Place” directive to reorganize my office and reading room, sprucing them up with some colors from my front yard — bright berry red and pale fern green — and also to consider what I’ve learned about design ecology over my long career.

Design is all around us — in the shapes of the trees and stones, the palette of spring flowers, the movement of a brook.  In a masterful way, nature combines flow and color, light and texture. These principles can also help us to create inspiring homes.
The emerging field of biomimicry uses the wisdom of nature to solve design challenges on many levels.  Bio– refers to the perfected systems of the natural world and mimicry to ways we draw upon those systems to solve problems.  Since its founding in 2005, the Biomimicry Institute has applied nature’s laws to create breakthroughs in the fields of energy, architecture, transportation, communication and medicine.

Today we’re learning from humpback whales — and their streamlined fins— how to create more efficient wind power. From termite mounds, how to create sustainable buildings and regulate room temperature. From the beaks of kingfishers how to reduce the noise of bullet trains. From dolphins how to send communication signals underwater.  From mosquitoes how to create a better and more effective needle for use in delicate brain surgery.

Fifteen years ago I began to apply these principles to create homes in harmony with nature. My inspiration came from a meandering hike with Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicy Institute, near the West fork of the Bitterroot River in Montana.  Janine is a biologist, innovation consultant, self proclaimed “nature nerd” and author of the ground-breaking book, Biomimicry, Innovation Inspired by Nature.  As we walked, Janine kept stopping to look at variations in light and color, form and function. The spiral shell, the smooth edges of rock, the exploding head of a dandelion.

That afternoon, I learned how to see the beauty all around us, and knew that my life’s work would be applying nature’s aesthetics to interior design. 


Discovering the Desert

One of my first projects was a series of model homes for Civano, a development in Tucson.  I used natural fibers for the drapes and upholstery and chose a carpet made from recycled soda pop and ketchup bottles.   Think about it: You don’t see any ketchup inside of the ketchup bottle—because it’s impervious to stains, and so this was the perfect fabric for the floors.

Following the principles of reuse/recycle, I purchased most of the home accessories at auctions or garage sales. I made a lamp from an old stove, a side table from a bird cage, a coffee table from an old Art Deco fire screen. Then I used local shells and stones to decorate the bookshelves and the mantels.

After these homes were showcased on HGTV,  I consulted with Canyon Ranch, a celebrated spa and wellness center, repainting every single building on 50 acres.   All the structures were a nondescript putty color and the owners wanted something more vibrant, so  I created a palette based on the gray-purple of the sunrise, the soft green of the cactus,  russets from the local rock formations,  and the deep rich browns of  manzanita bark.    

In Canyon Ranch’s very fancy conference room,  I spilled some of the local soil on the table, tossed out some cactus branches, rocks and leaves, then slipped in the paint colors I had chosen after observing the local landscape.  The owners of the Ranch, Mel and Enid Zuckerman, immediately saw that nature’s palette would make the buildings come alive. 

 “The spa is the heart of this place,” I said, “so it should be a heart color like the berries of the Mandina tree.  And your own home should reflect the soft sage of the local landscape.”

The Spa at Canyon Ranch
Home of the Canyon Ranch founders Mel and Enid Zuckerman

Living with the Light

It was a challenge getting the right shades of paint.    The light changes rapidly in the desert so I put each color up on an exterior wall and just observed it for a few days, noting how the palette appeared in the soft light of dawn, the brightness of midday and the lengthening shadows of the afternoon. It was a process of living with the light until the exact tones and values revealed themselves. 

Tones taken from the early morning sunrise

After selecting the right colors for all of the buildings, I looked for a color that would tie them all together.  For the trim, I chose a strong, reddish brown, the color of desert clay or manzanita bark. This strong earth tone grounds the eye as you move from place to place.

The trim on all of the buildings is a rich earth tone

Listening to the Landscape

Canyon Ranch was a great success, a “color walk” through the desert palette.  And from then on my company, Naturally Inspired, provided similar services for private homes. My goal is to  create a visual language of color, light and contrast — and to teach people how to employ that language in their own decor.

When working with clients, I might say, “Look at the color of that tree just outside your door. This would be a great tone for the exterior.  Then your house will feel like it’s  part of the landscape.”  Or I may pick up a rock, and ask, “Do you like this subtle gray? We could use this to make your house sit more quietly on the earth.”

Choosing white for the exterior of a home is a common mistake. It’s the brightest, most luminous tone in nature, and we see it only in clouds and snow.  It basically reads as glare. Our minds also rebel when we see a blue or yellow house because these colors have no relation to the soil or to the nearby plants.   Earth tones  give you a sense of being at one with Nature, and make your house blend in with the local landscape.   

Your living room can be livened up, too, by zeroing in on your favorite scene in nature.  I recently put together these panels to show clients how a landscape can inspire the color palette in their homes.

The African Savanna

It’s hard to use a lot of green in interior design without nature’s guidance.  In this room we find the green and gold tones of the bush coupled with the amber grasses, framing the tawny fur of a young lioness.

Forest Camouflage

This monochromatic scheme is all about camouflage, so the palette is very subtle.  Yet the accent color, yellow—the sunlight falling on the bark and the ochre in the bird’s feathers— bumps up this combination, providing energy and contrast.

A Jeweled Koi Pond

A fish in a colorful habitat tells you how to use dramatic colors to best effect.  The mauve and the lime green and the bright yellow are strong yet perfectly balanced. And the room below incorporates all these jewel tones, without one overwhelming the other.

How to Design with Nature: Seven Principles

For years I have been teaching people how to look at nature and how to use its basic principles to create an inspired home. Here are a few tips that will make your house feel like it’s part of a living landscape. These stem from 3.8 billion years of evolution, or the earth’s own R&D.


Nature gathers the sun’s energy efficiently, using only what it needs to support life.  Consider using radiant heat or passive-solar panels to power up your home. South facing windows add warmth to a room in winter. In summer you can use shades to shut out the stronger sun. If rooms are dim, consider installing skylights or daylighting tubes.  Recent studies show that people think and perform better—and stay healthier—when they’re in synch with natural light cycles.


 Nature rewards cooperation.   Species that endure depend upon cooperation.  In the home, furnishings work together to create a visual impact.   A room comes alive with a mix of patterns, textures, shapes, size and colors.  Keeping the room’s function and focal point in mind, you should distribute the furniture in a way that flows. 

You can use accessories to set up relationships.  An off-center picture can be balanced with a lamp. Before hanging art, experiment with different groupings.  Use a variety of  sizes, shapes, styles and frames in different finishes. Keep playing until you find an arrangement that you like.


Successful organisms adapt to their environment. The giraffe developed a long neck to feed from the tree tops. So keep function in mind when you choose a piece of furniture.  Does a large coffee table with drawers for storage make sense for a small space?  Or do you need a piece that’s easier to move?  An ottoman might serve many functions: a place to rest your feet, additional seating, or hold a tray, doubling as a coffee table.   


Nature knows the advantages of beauty.  Flowers have showy petals, bright colors, tantalizing scents and sweet nectar.  That’s how they attract bees which help in cross-pollination.

In interior design, select objects that reflect your passion.  Love music?  Frame old sheet music or make instruments an integral part of the room.  Love family? Hang photographs and memorabilia.  Love nature?  Bring your treasures indoors – put sand and seashells in glass containers.  Fill vases with autumn leaves, using nature to create conversation points.


Consider the resilience of natural things:  Perennials put down strong roots that see them through the winter.   In nature, longevity is the reward for efficiency.

Sustainable design is about doing more with less.  Eighty-five percent of manufactured items end up at the dump.  So when buying furniture, consider sturdy, repairable pieces.  Choose items  that will have a long life and can be reused or donated.  


One species’ waste is another’s sustenance.  Nothing goes unused.  In your home, give objects a second life.   An old  fireplace moulding can become a headboard,  a table cloth can be transformed into a curtain.  When in doubt, ask an object what it wants to be. 


When designing your home, choose products and materials that are in sync with your surroundings.  Use local material to save on shipping costs. Create a design that reflects the style and energy of your region, drawing on local materials and crafts.   Your home should reflect your sense of place and honor the special character of your region.  

These stones are from the banks of the Columbia River which winds from Canada into the states of Washington and Oregon. This chart shows how the local landscape can set the color palette for your home. Rocks can also be showcased on in a glass jar on a bookcase or a mantle --- a way of honoring the spirit of a place and bringing the outdoors in.

Deborah Coburn is the founder of Naturally Inspired and a pioneer in green interior design. She has worked in New York, California, Arizona and Montana,  written for Natural Home magazine, and spoken widely on biomimicry and the home.  She is currently creating Nature’s Color Cards, a deck of inspirational visual patterns to make your house come alive. 

Recommended Reading

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus, Callie Beaulieu, et al.

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