Hospital Rooms: a new project using art and design to improve mental healthcare

Artist Tim A Shaw and curator Niamh White have teamed up with leading artists, designers and photographers to transform a secure psychiatric unit in south London. We spoke to White and Shaw about the project and the impact it’s had on staff, patients and visitors

Tucked among a group of imposing Victorian NHS buildings in Tooting is the Phoenix Unit, a secure psychiatric rehabilitation unit for people diagnosed with schizophrenia. The unit houses up to 18 adults at a time. For most of them, the modern-looking two-storey building, with its pastel walls, laminate floors and NHS signage, will be home for at least a year, and most likely longer.

For the past few months, Tim A Shaw and Niamh White have been working with artists and designers including Assemble, Nick Knight and Gavin Turk to transform the unit’s communal spaces with bespoke installations and photographic prints.

Aimee Parrott's mural for the women's lounge at Phoenix Unit, inspired by Matisse's Dance. Parrott also installaed plants in the room and created handmade curtains to match the existing sofas
Aimee Parrott’s mural for the women’s lounge at Phoenix Unit, inspired by Matisse’s Dance. Parrott also installed plants in the room and created handmade curtains to match the existing sofas. Lead image (top): Photographic wallpaper by Mark Power and Jo Coles. Images were taken within a one-mile radius of the unit and show a mix of found objects and local trees and buildings. All photographs by Toni Hollowood, courtesy of Hospital Rooms

In a women’s lounge, RCA graduate Aimee Parrott has painted a large mural inspired by Matisse’s Dance in flesh tones and soft shades of blue. Artist Sophie Clements has installed a striking series of images for the games room, which show cloud like forms frozen in time while outside, landscape architect Joh Bates has built a pergola to provide shelter from the rain. She has also planted a colourful scented garden, with climbing roses and geraniums accompanied by annotated illustrations explaining how to care for them.

Sophie Clements series Shall I This Time Hold in the Phoenix Unit’s games room captures the idea of trying to hold on to a fleeting moment.
Clements’ images were captured using bullet time photography (filming simultaneously from different angles using various cameras) to capture the shifting forms

White and Shaw started working with the Phoenix Unit after speaking with a medical director at South West London and St George’s NHS Trust. Both have friends who have been sectioned, and after spending time in mental health units, the pair felt they could use their expertise in creating and commissioning art to improve environments for staff, service users and visitors. Before recruiting artists, they made over a dozen visits to the hospital to get to know its residents and hear more about what people wanted from the space.

Each artist was tasked with transforming a different area (10 artists took part, including Shaw, transforming 10 different spaces). Shaw says he wanted to give each room a distinct identity and make the unit feel more welcoming.

“It was important to remember that for users, this is their home – most people will stay for a year and a half, some people a lot longer, so there was a real push to make some of the spaces more domestic and stop them being so clinical,” he explains.

Joh Bates’ pergola in the courtyard of Phoenix Unit and illustrations of plants in the garden, created by Genevieve Johnson.

Installations are sensitive to the function of the space they are in – in a quiet room, for example, where people go to think, relax or sleep after taking medication, Michael O’Reilly, an apprentice scenic painter with the Royal Opera House, has painted a series of 3D effect trompe l’oeil artworks directly on to the pale yellow walls. Contemplative scenes include a cat gazing out at the moon, a bear looking up at a honey pot and a dog snoozing in a kennel in the rain.

O’Reilly spent three weeks painting in the space – Shaw says residents would often chat to him through the window, offering suggestions on colours to use in his paintings. “There are so many small details – he’s painted a different texture on each painting, so one looks like it’s an old hessian, because he knows people spend a lot of time in there … and they’ll notice all those little details. It’s a really thoughtful way of looking at the space,” he adds.

Aimee Parrott and Michael O’Reilly working on their installations for the Phoenix unit. O’Reilly spent three weeks painting the quiet room. As well as painting a large mural, Parrott has transformed the women’s lounge with plants and handmade curtains to match the sofas

An equally thoughtful installation is a photographic wallpaper in the relatives room, created by documentary photographer Mark Power and artist Jo Coles. The room is one of the first people encounter when they enter the unit while they wait to see family and friends – as White points out, it’s a transitional space and one that can feel quite daunting, but Power and Coles have provided a welcome distraction with images of found objects, buildings and trees in the local area. Images were taken within a one mile radius of the unit, and include shots of punctured tennis balls, Victorian terraces and discarded jigsaw pieces. “Some of the service users have two hours leave each day so they would be familiar with that area,” explains White. “It creates a talking point – something separate from the situation, so it’s quite a stimulating and distracting environment…. It’s also about finding a beauty in things that are often overlooked.”

Other installations include a series of landscape images by photographer Steve Macleod, which hang in a central corridor, and a wooden noticeboard created by Assemble, used to display the week’s schedule under the heading Our Meaningful Day. In the dining room, Shaw has painted a series of brightly coloured squares and rectangles which will be used to frame artwork created by residents. (He and Shaw have been running creative workshops and will continue to do so every couple of weeks).

One of Michael O’Reilly’s ‘trompe l’oeil’ paintings for the unit’s quiet room
O’Reilly’s contemplative artworks reference vintage illustrations and travel posters. Artworks appear 3D but were painted directly on to the wall, ensuring they are both hygienic and long lasting

One of the most intriguing artworks in the unit is by Gavin Turk and shows a pair of eggs, with one balanced on top of the other. “Gavin’s work is probably the most simple in terms of its execution – it’s such a simple, visual thing but we were really excited to have the piece in there and were surprised by how quickly it opened up some really interesting conversations,” says White. It even inspired one user to create her own artwork representing herself as an egg – “She’d never made anything before, and when she described it, it was so honest and thoughtful and moving. Seeing these things around them has been an important experience for everyone,” adds Shaw.

Artworks were created on a limited budget: the project was funded by Arts Council England and Morris Markowe League of Friends of Springfield University Hospital, with paint donated by Dulux and Liquitex and printing done by Metro Imaging. Installations also had to meet health and safety regulations, meaning they had to be durable, fireproof and wipe clean, with no visible fixtures, ligatures or sharp edges. But beyond the safety guidelines – and obvious restrictions around showing violence, death or anything that might induce anxiety or paranoia – Shaw and White say there were few limits placed on imagery. Artworks are deliberately thought-provoking and aim to reward repeat viewing. Clements poignant images, for example, capture the idea of trying to hold on to a fleeting moment, while O’Reilly’s aim to tell a story and Turk’s is left open to interpretation.

Gavin Turk's artwork for the unit's resource room - "it's very simple, but we were surprised by how quickly it opened up interesting conversations," says Shaw
Gavin Turk’s artwork for the unit’s resource room – “it’s very simple, but we were surprised by how quickly it opened up interesting conversations,” says Shaw

“We didn’t want to dumb anything down or be sympathetic or patronising,” says White. “We wanted to create quality artworks that force thoughtfulness and encourage conversation. It was quite nerve wracking when we started, you wonder, ‘Will people like this?’ but I think if you choose things that you think are diplomatic, or that people couldn’t possibly dislike, you can end up with something that’s quite dull. We had to try and be a little more challenging and really try and make an impact in there.”

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, say Shaw and White. More than half of the unit’s service users now sit out in the garden and have expressed an interest in helping care for it, and both staff and residents have been inspired to create their own paintings. Shaw says there has been no negative feedback, with everyone welcoming the changes.

“It’s been quite amazing, and I think that’s only happened because of the relationship we’ve built with everyone, coming in and speaking with staff and service users about the kind of things they’d like to see in the space…. We’ve all got to know each other, and everyone has been able to see it develop, so it hasn’t just been a case of them feeling like they’re walking in to a new unit,” says Shaw.

Tim_A_Shaw_Communal Dining_Room_1
Tim A Shaw’s colourful shapes in the communal dining room will be used to frame work created by residents, creating a Phoenix Gallery. Both Shaw and White have been running creative workshops in the unit with participating artists
Shaw researched displays in national galleries and applied their colour schemes to the room

Around the UK, various NHS Trusts are realising the potential of art and design to aid recovery and improve patient wellbeing – Vital Arts has created several imaginative installations for Barts NHS Trust and the newly opened Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool includes several new artistic commissions. In Sheffield and Manchester too, children’s hospitals have been working with graphic designers and illustrators to create child-friendly way finding and artwork for treatment rooms. In many cases, these projects have had a tangible impact on the patient experience – whether reassuring frightened children or providing a welcome distraction during painful procedures.

In mental health hospitals, art and design can have a similar effect, creating more stimulating, welcoming and even homely environments. But with mental healthcare suffering from a chronic lack of funding, few centres have money to invest in artistic commissions.

Assemble’s notice board will be used to display the schedule for the week and aims to reinforce the idea that time spent at the centre is meaningful
Scottish landscape photographer Steve Macleod’s images in a corridor at the Phoenix Unit offer a connection with the outside world
Nick Knight has donated one of his most famous images, Lily, for the communal lounge

The Arts Council and the Wellcome Trust have funded art and design projects aimed at mental healthcare and artist James Leadbitter has been researching how the design of mental health units could be improved through his Madlove project, featured in our most recent health issue – but more work (and investment) in this area is needed. White and Shaw say they are now keen to run similar projects in other hospitals, both in London and further afield.

“We finished just last week, so we’re in a funny stage at the moment, but the Trust we’re working with is very forward thinking and eager for us to continue within that hospital,” says White. “We’re also keen to look at other Trusts and hospitals and develop the idea – we’ve had a huge response from artists who would like to participate, so now it’s about taking stock, doing some evaluating, looking at feedback and wellness tests, learning from this project and applying that to the next one.”

For more info about the project see

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