Since design is in her DNA and permeated her childhood environment, Toby Israel incorporates it into her own life and is creating a constantly evolving career that is uniquely hers. The Princeton-based mother of two adult children is an environmental psychologist, a design professional who uncovers memories and emotions connected to an individual’s early-life environment. She then uses that client’s personal information as a tool for designing living and work spaces that promote fulfillment and wellbeing.

“This is design that comes from within, personal and emotionally relevant,” she says, “not inspired by or derived from a magazine or following a trend, or ‘what’s in.’”

Israel’s design philosophy will be a point of observation and discussion this week during two distinctly different events. The first is the opening celebration of the renovated YWCA Breast Cancer Resource Center on Thursday, March 14, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The other is the Princeton Future panel discussion “A United Princeton Looks at the Future: What Do We Want Our Town and Region to Be in the Next 20 Years?” Saturday, March 16, starting at 9 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library.

The YWCA Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC) is a space where over the past four decades support services have been offered to help women through the entire breast cancer journey — from diagnosis, treatment, recovery survivorship, and possible recurrence. Thousands of women are served every year. One who has been served is Israel, who this past fall led a design workshop at the Y to explore ways to create a healing, stress-free space for BCRC. The activity, she says, was a way for her to “give back” to BCRC after what she calls “absolutely amazing support while going through treatment.”

That workshop, “Creating a Healing Oasis,” included patients, caregivers, designers, psychologists, and others eager to learn more about the psychology of healing design. Participants from around the country also joined via webinar.

Israel led the group through her series of exploratory exercises that took individuals back to their childhood experiences. Through this visioning process, participants drew from their positive memories to determine their personal, nurturing associations with color, fabrics, furniture, and special objects.

As a real life exercise, the group created a vision of a healing oasis for the new center, located at Bramwell House adjacent to the YWCA building on Paul Robeson Place. They also explored ideas of how this learning experience could be valuable in looking at their own healing home space.

To access what she calls the treasure chest of the past, Israel has created a comprehensive questionnaire that she uses during extensive interviews — a process elaborated upon in her first book, “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” published in 2003 by Wiley Press.

After exploring her clients’ past, analyzing their present life, and helping them to envision a future sense of place and home, Israel develops a design psychology blueprint, a recommendation based on the clients’ personal “environmental autobiography.”

With a doctorate in environmental psychology from City University of New York and a masters in education from Rutgers, Israel began her career in teaching. She soon segued into arts education, consulting for architects, homebuilders, educational institutions, and the design industry.

Reviewing the details of her life, one sees how seemingly serendipitous events shifted Israel’s path bit by bit, as people she encountered and life’s unexpected twists and turns led her to new interests, strengths, and opportunities.

When the idea for her first book was a seed, Israel, an unknown writer, bravely wrote to three of the country’s major design luminaries asking them to be her “subjects” and to participate in the place memory exercises she had designed.

Astonishing, even to her, all three accepted her invitation and she set out to visit Charles Jencks at his Cape Cod home, Michael Graves in Princeton, and Andres Duany in Florida to delve into their personal environmental autobiographies. The process was revealing, not only to Israel but to the subjects. All were surprised when the process brought to light long-buried feelings about early influences that re-appeared decades later in their homes and design work.

Jencks, the architectural theorist who coined the term “postmodernism,” was intrigued by the revelation that his grandmother’s house was the key to both the home he designed for himself and his family and for the architectural theory that permeates his work.

Michael Graves was not consciously aware that his current home in Princeton, a ruin of a former furniture warehouse when he found it, echoed the form of the Indiana stockyards of his childhood where his father was employed. (See sidebar, page 32.)

Duany discovered a link between his grandparents’ courtyard home and the courtyard homes of his New Urbanist communities that have become popular in the U.S. It was, Israel said, a moment of epiphany after he completed her environmental family tree exercise.

After decades of creating ideal places, providing related consultation services for both individuals and institutions, teaching, and lecturing, a health scare brought Israel to a new focus — the importance of environment in healing. After detecting the early stages of breast cancer six years ago, Israel embarked on a personal journey to create in her own Princeton home an ambiance in her surroundings that would nurture, provide comfort, and, she hoped, promote healing.

She went on to write and speak extensively on the subject of healing environments, writing a blog for Psychology Today and articles in other publications, as well as working with individuals and health care facilities to plan such surroundings.

One of those facilities is the Ken Hamilton Center for Caregivers in Mt. Kisco, NY, part of Northern Westchester Hospital. Israel ran a series of focus groups to design this new center for those who look after individuals with long-term illness. Now her new workshops help other individuals and institutions to develop healing and stress-free surroundings.

Her second book, “Oasis for Healing,” in the works, focuses on creating healing ambiance for people in emotional transition, those facing what she calls “the big Ds” — disease, divorce, death of a loved one, and displacement due to natural disaster. She also serves as part of a National Initiative for Arts and Health for the Military, which is exploring connecting wounded warriors and veterans with expressive arts opportunities.

Disheartened about the degrading bland hospital gowns women must wear during radiation treatments, Israel decided to bring her own elegant Japanese kimono to her radiation sessions. Then she had a thought, “Why shouldn’t every woman have something lovely to make her feel better during these uncomfortable frightening times?”

Soon, her personal need, coupled with her professional expertise and design sense, led to the creation of her Robe To Wellness (, a silky robe that replaces the institutional hospital gowns. Two area hospitals became the first to purchase the new patient robes: Capital Health in Hopewell and the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. The robes are also for sale to individuals.

While she focuses on the wellbeing of the individual, Israel also looks at the larger picture of a strong and healthy community, as evidenced by her participation in the Saturday, March 16, Princeton Future discussion about the town’s future.

“As we’ve seen in projects such as the Arts Council, the Dinky, the pool, the hospital site, we can make all the plans we want, but if we don’t explore the hidden dimension of people’s social and emotional connection to Princeton, we’re really missing out,” says Israel.

“When we’ve commissioned feasibility studies on redesigning places like Valley Road School, the pool, or particular streets and neighborhoods and haven’t included the community’s perspective, these projects have been slowed down — sometimes by years. Every study Princeton conducts on its environmental future needs to consider the human elements, not just the bricks and mortar. Community participation in design can be achieved in lots of creative ways. Participation is what design psychology focus groups and visioning sessions are all about. I’ve been amazed at the insights I’ve gained when involving public school kids in analyzing town changes as part of ‘built environment’ education.”

A connection to design began for Israel even before she was born, when late in the 19th century her paternal grandfather opened a paint and wallpaper store in Guttenberg, NJ. Today the store, originally J Israel and Co., is Israel Paint and Hardware — and under new ownership.

Israel’s father, Nathan, grew up in the apartment over the store and eventually took over the business. Her mom, Gloria, a Queens girl, studied set design at Queens College and worked in the theater department at Rutgers before she became involved in the business. Her art background was valuable in helping customers select colors and wallpaper, and she eventually developed her own career as an interior decorator.

One of Israel’s formative experiences was tagging along on her mother’s design assignments, always enjoying being surrounded by color, texture, and people eager to create their dream homes.

Israel also remembers that from the age of seven she accompanied her mother to clients’ homes and to the Decoration & Design Building in New York City. There were frequent trips to antique shops and furniture showrooms. The little girl was soaking it all in and developing an interest in drawing, painting, and sculpture.

“Our own home in Englewood was carefully designed and very tasteful,” she said, “but it was formal even to my child’s eye, and I realized later that missing from that and many other beautiful places I visited was some relevance to the human beings who actually lived there. I knew early on,” she said, “that I wanted to express myself artistically, not by creating ‘stage sets’ that were ‘done’ but places that spoke to an individual’s own experience and feelings.”

Early on she was interested in architecture. The programs she looked into, however, all seemed to concentrate on esthetics or engineering, and she felt the lack of any human element.

At Trinity College in Hartford, where she minored in studio art and majored in English, she graduated with a teaching certificate and went on to teach at Manalapan/Englishtown Middle School. A couple of years into teaching, which she calls one of the most difficult but satisfying jobs she has undertaken, she was inspired by a classroom visit from a poet in residence from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She then earned a master’s degree in creative arts and education at Rutgers University. That was followed by her becoming the visual arts coordinator for the state arts council, guiding the early development of its art in public places program.

Things jelled once again in her head in the late 1970s when a lecture she attended in Princeton featured an environmental psychologist whose focus was on creating a more humane environment in mental hospitals, which were notoriously depressing and inadequate. Next in her ongoing education, she enrolled in the environmental psychology doctorate program at New York’s City University, while paying the bills with her teaching position. At last she had discovered a program that focused on her long-time dream of creating spaces that are more human, functional, and useful.

A crucial marker in Israel’s life journey occurred in the summer of 1981. In addition to traveling to England to do research for her thesis and teach art at the Open University in Norwich, she met her future husband. She remained in England for 12 years, produced two children, and served as an associate professor of architecture at what is now Lincoln University in Lincoln.

When the marriage ended in the 1990s, she and her young children, Liam and Sarah, moved sight-unseen into a rented house near the Princeton Shopping Center. To pay the bills while she worked on her first book, Israel became the education director for Young Audiences of New Jersey. She later was on the staff of the Looney Ricks Kiss architectural firm in Princeton and a consultant to the Charter High School of Architecture and Design in Philadelphia.

Today Sarah has completed a master’s in social work in London. Liam, a graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, is working in investment banking in Washington, DC. Her mother, 91, twice widowed, lives in Florida in a new apartment that she decorated in “record time,” according to her daughter. The nonagenarian is also on a lecture circuit, speaking on biographies of famous women and teaching memoir writing. For several years, she had enjoyed this speaking career on cruise ships throughout the world.

Today, the Princeton home that Israel bought in 1996 is rich with echoes of various scenes and memories of her past. She drove by this property often before the final sale, and each time it felt like the right move. The house is a simple modern design, set in a horseshoe with many other homes nearby.

“The image of favorite places from the past that are important to me now merged in this house. It was open, had space for me and my children to be together or separate as desired, and though on a small lot, featured a miniature woodsy area and lovely flowering trees,” she said. She continued the woodsy elements in the interior by installing a tree-trunk settee in the kitchen that is reminiscent of her great grandparents’ dwelling, a rural hut in Hungary that she had only heard tales of in her childhood. Asian objects such as a hanging kimono in her living room, point to ways in which other ancestors chose to distance themselves from their Hungarian roots.

After her diagnosis of early stage breast cancer six years ago, Israel embarked on the transformation of her bedroom into a space that would be nurturing and therapeutic and help her envision a healthy and satisfying future. Because she had always wanted to learn to sail, that desire served as the theme for the new plan.

Warned that radiation treatment often produced fatigue and radiation burn, she used “cucumber cool” cotton sheets and luxury bedding to create the image of cooling. A shimmering bed throw contributed to the “cooling” visualization. Curtains hung from porthole-like openings, artworks of water scenes hung on the ocean blue and light green newly painted wall, and a “sandy beach” was accomplished with beige Berber carpet.

Says Israel: “My beautiful and meaningful new room was completed on my last day of treatment.” A week later, with an “all clear” and extremely low chance of recurrence, she was off to Florida to learn to sail.

Toby Israel’s websites are www.oasisbydesign,, and

#b#Michael Graves’ Childhood Views#/b#

Believing that you can go home again (at least in thought and sense memory), design psychologist Toby Israel uses one-to-one interviews to uncover experiences and emotions that contribute to an individual’s choice and design of home and place.

In the following excerpt from her book “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” Israel provides an insight into her process when she writes about one such session with internationally recognized architect and Princeton resident Michael Graves:

Although we had both gravitated to the same town, Graves’ environmental roots were completely different from mine. His ancestors had come to America generations ago. The first Graves was a Presbyterian minister. His mother came from Scotch Irish stock. Some ancestors settled in Massachusetts, some went South, and others to the Midwest. Graves’ branch settled in Indiana. Thus his earliest impressions of his environmental genealogy are of a Midwestern landscape.

With great nostalgia and an air of vulnerability, Graves described scenes of “gathering and “conviviality,” his grandmother’s very loving “wrap around us” as she regularly told stories about the lives of their relatives in America in the late 1880s:

“I remember driving with my mother once a month from our Indianapolis suburb to my maternal grandmother’s house in rural Indiana. It was sixty miles away. We’d go through the city, go through the country roads….It had the sense of a life away from Indianapolis, a very rural life.”

At the end of the journey was his grandmother’s creaky old Carpenter Gothic house.

“It was an extremely pleasant house — made pleasant by my grandmother. There was a pump in the kitchen and dark floral wallpaper. Always waiting for us was the huge Thanksgiving-style dinner my grandmother prepared. I can remember my grandmother telling us stories, cooking. It was all very loving.”

By way of contrast, his paternal grandfather lived in an Indiana suburb in a more pretentious Tudor house on a quarter-acre lot.

“The house was entirely different from my grandmother’s house. My grandfather had a chauffeur who took care of the cars and the lawn. He also took the grandchildren to ride horses on Saturday. That pulled us together but it was more ritual than love.”

Graves could remember the world of the Indiana stockyards where his grandfather, father and uncle all worked. As a boy, Graves would go there with his father.

“An exaggerated building with great elevated passageways all made of wood which crisscrossed in the air, more like Piranesi, although I didn’t know that at the time. It was not just the passageways, but that you looked down on the animals in their pens. Also attached to the stockyards was a wooden bar in a kind of Western movie style — all wood. There was a character to it that I’ve never seen since. I returned as an adult but it’s been demolished.

“Understand that I’m from a place in the Midwest without much culture. The library, the church, our houses were very ordinary. The profundity of the stockyards was a result of its contrast compared to the other structures around me.”

Note: As Israel’s book went to press in 2003, a new and unfortunate chapter to Graves’ life was his contracting a spinal cord infection, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. His office has been adapted for wheelchair access.

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