Cosmopolitcal Design: A New Modality Harnesses the Connection between Home and Nature

With global society and climate in flux, mapping out new ways to live and create in the world has become an essential project. Amid the competing approaches to this transformation, the philosophical school of cosmopolitics, as its name suggests, addresses this challenge in a uniquely holistic way and presents an entirely new perspective on the human relationship with the world.

Albena Yaneva, in her introduction to What is Cosmopolitical Design?: Design, Nature, and the Built Environment, explains that “Cosmopolitical thinkers...see nature as no longer being unified enough to provide a stabilizing pattern for the experience of humans; it is not ‘out there,’ a simple backdrop for human activities.” Cosmopolitics distinguishes itself from cosmopolitanism by positing a relationship with nature and its non-human denizens defined by cohabitation rather than dominance. As Yaneva writes, “These thinkers abandon the modernist idea of nature as being external to the human experience—a nature that can be mastered by engineers and scientists from outside.” 

How does this cosmopolitical perspective manifest in the world of home design? To Yaneva, “It challenges encourage the enactment of new relationships both within and potentially outside the designed space.” Cosmopolitical home design is deeply tied to its locality and integrated with its environment. Yaneva describes cosmopolitical design as “required more than ever to address the primordial question of what it means to live together. That is, the co-existence of humans and non-humans, of how they share space and find ways to live together in peace.”

Because the cosmopolitical way of thinking is so all-encompassing, the approaches to incorporating cosmopolitics into home design are fittingly varied and can be scaled to projects as vast as urban planning or as circumscribed as landscaping a backyard. Manifestations of cosmopolitical home design can range from home renovation with the local climate in mind (for example, placing windows for optimal warmth or cooling of interior spaces) to pollinator-friendly gardens teeming with plants indigenous to their region.

To interior designer Sarah Barnard, WELL AP + LEED AP, bringing cosmopolitics into her home design practice means cultivating spaces that are specific both to her clients and as well as to the local environment and that encourage an accord with the natural world. Sarah says, “Finding ways to harmonize the design of a space to a specific environment instead of working against it is both challenging and rewarding. When a designed space and its greater environment are fully integrated, the effect is almost easier to feel than observe.”

Sarah explains, “I always look for opportunities to create inviting connections between the indoors and the outdoors. This continuity with the natural world is beneficial for emotional and mental health—it’s not just a source of beauty but nourishment.” For an artist’s bungalow, Sarah created a visual continuity between lush indoor plant life and the garden outside, and then took it a step further. Sarah designed the outdoor garden to support pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. The garden is a Certified Monarch Waystation, providing resources to support migrating Monarch butterflies by providing food, water, cover. Sarah said, “Designing homes for wellbeing doesn’t have to stop at the comfort of the client. Incorporating elements of design that nurture the local ecology deepen our relationship with nature and result in spaces that are unified with their surroundings.”

This particular expression of cosmopolitical home design can be achieved even with limited outdoor space. For an oceanview penthouse, Sarah transformed a balcony into an inviting habitat for local and migrating wildlife by adding potted olive trees and an herb garden. “Considering plants not just for their decorative beauty but also what they can offer to the local environment is a concept that works on virtually any scale,” Sarah says. To decorate the interiors, Sarah selected natural and eco-friendly furnishings and textiles, adding that “Organic materials have a gentler environmental impact, and from a wellness perspective, are kinder to the people who live with them.”

When selecting materials and furnishings for home decorating, Sarah often looks to her clients’ priorities to guide her approach to creating spaces that embody a cosmopolitical perspective. For one high-rise suite, the owner’s love of animals was demonstrated not only through the choice of art and decorative objects, but also wanted this care toward animals extended outside home design and beyond aesthetics. Sarah addressed this by using exclusively vegan materials and furnishings for this project. Sarah explains, “No space exists in a vacuum—every object and material we use has a footprint that goes well beyond the front door, so considering the story of the materials we use and the impact that they have on the world is a way to invite cosmopolitical ideas into home design.”

Sustainable materials can also have unexpected origins. For the kitchen of a historic craftsman bungalow, Sarah installed a countertop made of recycled beer bottles, a non-extractive alternative to a more traditional quarried stone countertop. “Not only is the material beautiful and environmentally conscious, but there’s also a little whimsy in how it reinvents something ordinary and adds character to the space,” Sarah says. The implications behind cosmopolitical home design may be weighty, but there is always room for playfulness.

“When I look at my work from a cosmopolitical perspective,” says Sarah, “I see tremendous opportunity for creativity. We are seeing our way of life change in real-time, and as a home designer, I’m lucky to be able to be a part of facilitating that transformation for my clients.”

Sarah Barnard is a WELL and LEED accredited designer and creator of environments that support mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. She creates highly personalized, restorative spaces that are deeply connected to art and the preservation of the environment. An advocate for consciousness, inclusivity, and compassion in the creative process, Sarah’s work has been recognized by Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Real Simple, HGTV and many other publications. In 2017 Sarah was recognized as a “Ones to Watch” Scholar by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).