Can Psychology Help Combat Anxiety in Crafting Welcoming Hospitality Spaces?

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Sometimes there’s no better way to gauge what’s happening in an industry than to go straight to the source. So in conceiving a special series on hospitality, we turned to AvroKO, a global full-service design bureau founded in 2001. Currently working in 25 cities in 14 countries, the studio has delivered crowd favorites—from hotels like the Hoxton in Chicago and the Eaton in Hong Kong to eateries like The Zodiac Room and Saxon + Parole in New York. Stepping in as guest editors, AvroKO shows the extensive reach of hospitality across design typologies, from health care to retail and living.

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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One of the design trends Robson has been tracking for over a decade is how hospitality spaces can contribute to or help alleviate anxiety, at least a bit. Her 2008 study “Scenes from a Restaurant: Privacy Regulation in Stressful Situations” found that people who were more anxious, like those in the middle of an interview or a power lunch, chose to sit next to walls, corners, or partitions, “giving the individual a sense of control over the environment.” She defined stress as “when an individual has less control over an environment or situation than is desired.” Since that study, and especially in the past couple of years, Robson has noticed many more design trends catering to an increasingly anxious public. “There’s a sense right now that everything is falling apart. Climate change, the political situation, economics. We know a downturn is coming, but we don’t know when,” she said this autumn. “So we’re craving comfort.” Robson has seen a proliferation of more intimate, safer-feeling, partitioned, and hushed spaces in restaurants and hotel lobbies.