Originally published in STIR®
Nature comes, well, naturally to Laura Birns, owner of Laura Birns Design in Del Mar, Calif.

Laura Birns is well-known for her evocative and playful color palettes; award-winning, eco-friendly interior designs; unique furniture collections; and innovative use of sustainable materials. Her commitment to the environment drives her overall design concepts as well as her incorporation of renewable, inert and recycled materials.

Birns began allowing nature to inspire her color palette in the 1970s, when she was a painter. Her inspiration deepened exponentially when she purchased a book of black-and-white photography of botanical plants. While it seems a contradiction to say that black-and-white photographs of magnified leaves and trees inspired color, Birns explains it this way: The photographs made her look beyond the obvious (the green hue of a leaf) to what was underneath (the texture, shape and elements of a leaf). This deeper, more microscopic look at plants caused Birns to see all of nature differently: to really look at its structure, its bones – to find its genetic color code.

The trick for Birns is bringing nature's details indoors and balancing them within the confines of the space she's working on.

When designers and artists turn to nature for color and design inspiration, Birns urges them to look beyond the solidity of natural forms. Take a tree, for example. It's easy to see the obvious details: black trunk, brown branches, green leaves. However, a closer inspection reveals that the color of the tree's ridged bark is really a mottled pattern of blacks, browns, rusts and reds. The leaves and stems are not just green, but many shades of green, with flecks of pink, purple, yellow and orange. And there's movement and sound. The limbs of the tree dance and click as the wind whistles through the leaves.

"If you always think in terms of black and white, that's what you'll get," says Birns. "If you look at a burnt forest and see only the char of black, gray and brown, you'll be depressed, not inspired. But if you look more closely, you'll see the soft, chartreuse fringe of new growth emerging from between the blackened stumps. You'll be inspired and awed by nature's power of renewal."

Birns' Tips for Natural Inspiration

  • Look out your window. Even if you live in an apartment with a window facing another building, you can see nature's colors. How does the sun cast light over the wall? How does it glint off metal? Absorb into wood? How does a vine or tiny sprig survive in the confines of concrete and mortar?
  • Keep track of your inspirations. As Birns creates designs for clients, be it a grand mansion in the city's center or a cozy bungalow on the beach, she writes down what she does. She repeatedly refers back to her journal for inspiration on new assignments.
  • Collect things. Collect small items that bring you joy. Whole or in pieces, these small gems inspire over and over again. Stones, beach pebbles, pressed flowers, sea shells, pretty woods, rusted metal. Small pieces can ignite a storm of possibilities for color palettes.
  • Change with the seasons. "Space is canvas. It is changeable," Birns says. Just like nature, our moods and emotions change with the seasons, so why shouldn't our spaces?
  • Use environmentally friendly products. Select environmentally friendly paints with no or low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like Sherwin-Williams ProGreenTM 200 and Harmony® Interior Latex.