Natural materials not only look and feel lovely they are good for your well-being too. We explore why...

There is something undeniably pleasing about the texture of fabrics like cotton and linen or the feeling of a seagrass mat or warm wooden floor beneath our feet. When the 17th century poet, Robert Herrick, spoke of the delight afforded by the sweetly flowing ‘liquefaction’ of Julia’s silk clothes, we know what he meant. Polyester curtains and acrylic bedding don’t have quite the same tactile or visual appeal as their natural counterparts. We tend to prefer the appearance and texture of natural materials – and their sustainability means that they are better for the environment – but it seems that they are good for our physical and mental well-being too. So what do we mean by natural materials and how does their feel-good factor actually work?

What are natural materials and why do they matter?

Let’s start with a simple definition: a natural material is any product or physical matter that comes from plants, animals, or the ground. Minerals and the metals that can be extracted from them are also included.

The backlash against using plastic in our homes and in the workplace might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, but a preference for using natural materials has been growing since the 1980s. The trend stems, in part, from the work of American biologist, Edward O Wilson, who put forward the biophilia hypothesis: he believed that increasing urbanisation was responsible for people becoming disconnected from nature.

Biophilia means a love of nature – a deep-rooted love that draws us to the natural world and natural processes. Remove us, step by step, from that natural world and we pay a price in terms of our mental and physical health. A busy office, for example, where environmental factors have been overlooked, is often little more than a chemical cauldron containing dozens of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Biophilic design aims to tackle this by improving the health and well-being aspects of the spaces in which we live, work and play, and one way to achieve this is by using natural materials.


How natural materials can help reduce the stress epidemic

Back in 2001, the World Health Organisation predicted a dramatic rise in stress-related disorders, warning that by 2020, depression would be the second highest contributor to global disease. That’s no longer in the future, that’s now… so anything we can do to offset stress is welcome and can make a real difference to our mental health. We’re not all in the fortunate position of having total control of our work environment, but our homes are a different matter. If your workspace leaves a lot to be desired, it makes sense to bring the natural world into your home as much as possible. Whether you’re choosing furniture, furnishings or flooring, opt for wood, glass, metal, cotton, linen, leather, coir, jute or seagrass, for example. With their pleasing textures and neutral earthy tones, natural materials can help you to create harmonious room settings that are calming and relaxing.


Houseplants can make your home calmer, cleaner and healthier

We can’t consider the benefits of natural materials without taking a look at other ways of bringing the natural world into our homes and workplaces. (There’s a reason why so many dentists have aquaria full of tropical fish in their waiting rooms…) Houseplants are an obvious and affordable example. Apart from the fact that they’re good to look at, they work hard at tackling the toxins that swirl round in our homes, many of which are created by electronic devices such as laptops and mobile phones and a rapidly growing number of smart devices. A 2018 YouGov survey showed that almost a quarter of us here in the UK now own at least one smart device and, when we own one, we’re more likely to buy another. Almost a third of us now own five or more connected devices.

Popular houseplants like philodendrons, peace lilies and aloe vera, and even good old-fashioned English ivy, all do a remarkably cost-efficient job – not only by cleaning up the air we breathe but, by helping us to sleep better, to concentrate more effectively, to lift our mood, and to keep colds at bay, they are contributing to our overall well-being.


Natural materials and a touch of feng shui

Although the biophilia hypothesis gave us a fairly recent heads-up, the value and significance of using natural materials, plants and water in our surroundings has been understood for far longer. For over 6,000 years, feng shui, which originated in ancient China, has aimed to tap into the energy, known as qi, that is said to flow through five elements – earth, fire, metal, water and wood – and through colours and shapes to create harmony in homes and workspaces. In essence, it’s about using the right materials, colours and shapes in the right place, at the right time – for the right result! 

It’s not surprising, perhaps that just when the biophilic design was beginning to grow in influence, feng shui was also gaining a foothold; it soared in popularity in the latter half of the 20th century. Books by practitioners such as Lillian Too, which offered a contemporary approach to feng shui, flew off the shelves. Applying feng shui principles to a south-facing room, for example, would mean choosing wood furniture, such as one of Raft’s recycled teak tables, and natural fibres, including jute (see Raft’s large basket) or sisal. In a north-facing room, metal and glass, and mirrored surfaces are the materials to choose; this pewter-framed mirror would work well.

There is, of course, a great deal more than that to feng shui, and it has been a major influence on an entire generation of professional declutterers, such as Karen Kingston. So, if you want to simplify your surroundings, create a harmonious and stress-free home environment and support your mental well-being by using natural materials to their best advantage, feng shui might just hold the answer.

Raft is one of the world’s largest retailers of 100% recycled teak, which we turn into stunning and enduring furniture for the home and workplace. We love natural materials and use a wide variety, including wool, cotton, jute and glass, across our entire range of furniture and accessories.