Calming Effects
Metropolis Magazine|October 2019
Trends in hospitality design are matching up with what environmental psychologists see as a need for comfort in anxious times.
Audrey Gray
On a warm afternoon in September, I snuggled into a super-tall barstool at Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia. Leaning into its wraparound back, I was surprised at how peculiarly comfortable this slate-blue leather perch felt. I’ve had many thoughts on barstools over the years, but never “Wow, so cushy.” I wrote this down in a small gray notebook that blended nicely with the marble-topped bar.

I was visiting the mod café that day as a stealth amateur environmental psychologist, hoping to observe the restaurant the same way real-life environmental psychologist Stephani Robson sees places. A professor at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, Robson is an expert on how the design of hospitality spaces affects our feelings and behavior, especially what makes us uncomfortable. She recognizes trends with a prescience born of countless hours watching people maneuver through spaces, emulating a hero, architect Eero Saarinen, who visited airports with a notebook and a stopwatch to record how the public moved about before he designed Dulles International Airport and the TWA Flight Center. Robson had warned me that you can quickly look suspicious if you don’t do this kind of data collection right. “I’ve been kicked out of so many places for sitting there and sketching maps!” she says. I tried to appear interested in my lobster bisque and iced tea while I took in every detail of the café, from the old-fashioned seltzer bottles bubbling at each table to the businessman reclining with his arms extended around the curve of a soft leather banquette.

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