Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Freud's Office: Opium Den or Therapeutic Space?

Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places

Posted Aug 20, 2010

Did Freud have ‘design on his mind', when he decorated his office? Did he consciously design it to be a therapeutic space? Besides his now iconic "lie down and tell me your problems" couch, what did patients see when they walked into Freud's office?

According to Diana Fuss, author of The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them, " For the patient lying on the couch, surrounded by Persian carpets and wreathed in the smoke of Freud's cigar, the room was a late Victorian fantasy of an opium den." Freud also filled his space with thousands of antiquities including a rotating collection of 40 statuettes he placed on his desk.

No wonder Freud had a passion for archeology and these primal figures: He was an archeologist of the mind! Perhaps his dream-like office ‘stage set' and archetypal sculptures/‘props' inspired him and had therapeutic value for his patients as Freud conducted his psychic digging.

In my book, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, I discuss the importance of people's special objects as keys to their identities:

. . . objects handed down from one generation to another weave together the lives, the souls of people throughout the years as part of our environmental genealogies. As such, we can read these artifacts for clues about our past familial world, much as archeologists would unlock the mysteries of civilizations by studying the riches of lost tombs.

Besides "reading" Freud's, our clients, or our own family histories and identities via special objects (Ah! My grandmother's rocking chair, so full of warmly rocked memories!), I believe we can design places that are part of the therapeutic process itself. How is this possible?

Psychology Today's article "The Color of Introversion" (August 2010), discusses my thoughts on color and personality and includes some tips. (Thanks, Psychology Today, for highlighting the importance of Design Psychology!) In my future posts, I will be discussing further ways we can create spaces as healing antidotes, especially when dealing with the ‘The Big D's'- - ‘divorce,'the ‘death' of a loved one, ‘disease' and natural ‘disaster.'

In our classic debate over whether heredity or the environment has the greater impact, we usually think about the "environment" as our social/familial environment. The physical environment, also laden with meaning, can act as a catalyst for our growth and change. Places purposefully designed with iconic healing elements and positive messages can connect us to the best of our past, present and future. No wonder I have "Design on My Mind."

References/ Useful links:

Arango, Jeorge. "The Color of Introversion," Psychology Today, August 2010.

Fuss, Diana, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Freud Museum London

Israel, Toby, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2003.

Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna 

Copyright Toby Israel, 2010.

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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