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Can modern art heal? This children’s hospital is betting on it

Work from the great Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers informs the design of a children’s intensive care unit in London. Cue lots of yellow.

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In 1810, the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe published his definitive “Theory of Color,” in which he claimed that “We [experience] a very warm and cozy impression with yellow. Thus, in painting, too, it belongs among the luminous and active colors . . . The eye is gladdened, the heart expands, the feelings are cheered, an immediate warmth seems to waft toward us.” This text would ultimately influence the young German-born artist Josef Albers’s understanding of color and how he used it in his work; in a 1968 interview, he said he was “in the yellow period,” which would extend itself through many of his greatest-known works.

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This meditation on yellow has now been applied to the children’s intensive care unit at St Mary’s Hospital in London. The interior design scheme—from playful yellow wallpaper designed by Anni Albers to Josef Albers’s iconic repeating squares (also in yellow)—is based on Albers’s central philosophy: that art can be a remedy. “Josef thought of yellow as the color of healing,” says Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

[Photo: Ed Reeve/courtesy The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation]

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation partnered with London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Imperial Health Charity to create the interiors for this revamped pediatric ward by donating signed prints from Josef’s “Homage to the Square” series, granting permissions for the hospital to reproduce the Albers’s art, and providing guidance and funds to execute the project. The new and improved ward was officially revealed last month.

“Anni and Josef believed that art should not reflect the difficulties of everyday existence, but should provide an alternative,” Weber says. “These people fled Nazi Germany in 1933, and if you look at their art from 1933, you don’t see the hazards from that trip—you see an alternative. If they had been isolated in the crisis going on at this moment . . . they wouldn’t want the art to reflect COVID-19. They would want art to be a complete diversion from it.”

The 20th-century modernist artists are known for their use of repeating shapes, which can have a calming effect in a hospital setting, Weber says; they can distract children and parents from what may be a stressful visit. That’s true of the paintings but also of other design features. The doors throughout the pediatric ward use glass constructions Josef made during his time at the legendary German art school the Bauhaus,  and the patterns are echoed on the walls. These abstract shapes and their “unusual color intensity,” as Albers described them, offer a sense of whimsy traditionally not found within the sterile, white walls of a hospital.

The children’s intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital is designed for children with life-threatening conditions and those who have experienced trauma. This Albers-inspired ICU wing is part of a $10.9 million dollar redesign effort that has been underway since 2016.