By Charrisse Johnston, FASID, LEEP AP, Assoc. AIA | IID director and co-founder of StudioSALT
Once upon a time, building typologies were easy to identify. You worked in an office, came home to a stand alone house, and considered airports to be mere transport hubs that would get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
Today, however, the lines between these archetypes are blurred. People now work 24/7 from anywhere in the world, offices now resemble homes, offices have become physical embodiments of a company’s brand, and airports now boast live music, spas and luxury shops.
As a professional interior designer, I’m very interested in how spaces evolve over time. Thanks to a confluence of factors including technology, the global recession, social media and online shopping amongst others, interiors have transformed especially dramatically in the last decade.
In the past, they were designed to maximise operational efficiency and minimise costs for the owner. Now the driving force comes from the space’s users. Those users are demanding choice and flexibility in their workplaces and schools, and when they shop and travel, they’re seeking memorable, personalised experiences.
In this era of cutthroat competition, consumers are demanding unique, personalised goods and services tailored to their specific needs. Designers can’t fully understand those needs without engaging the users in the design process.
For residential projects that’s obvious, but for commercial spaces we often have to convince the clients (owners) that we need to talk with the users themselves, or better yet, observe them going about their day in their existing offices/schools/shops etc. By doing so, we often notice details that they may not think are important enough to bring up, but we realise will improve their experience.
At a law firm, for instance, we saw that the secretaries spent a lot of their time bringing documents to the mail room, even though someone made the rounds twice a day to deliver mail to them. It turned out that the in- and outboxes at their desks were not large enough to hold shipping envelopes. The secretaries were delighted when they saw the larger in- and outboxes in their new office, and they told us that this simple change eliminated a huge hassle in their day.
Focusing on the user means designers must approach each project with fresh eyes, rather than assume they know best. The same solution that worked for one project may not be applicable for another. Take “mothers’ rooms”, for example. In the United States, employers are required to provide an area for nursing mothers to pump and store breastmilk.
For a factory, these areas could take the form of “quiet rooms” near the changing rooms that double as rest rooms for both men and women. At a financial services firm, these rooms might need high-speed Internet and a speakerphone, so mothers can continue working while pumping.
There is now a growing realisation that we should design spaces for mental health and neurodiversity. This means that the design choices we make can relieve stress and anxiety rather than contribute to it, and support people whose minds may be wired differently than ours.
In fact, the same elements that may help those on the autistic spectrum and/or have ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety disorders etc. are often more calming and soothing for “neurotypical” people too. By the same token, by employing the tenets of universal design (wider doorways, lever door handles rather than knobs, ramps at front entrances), we not only help those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility, but we make spaces more welcoming and usable for the rest of us too.
The notion of home
Once upon a time, you sat at a desk in your office, went to a bar after work for a beer and watched television at home. Then Google came along, and now offices have squishy sofas, beer on tap, ping-pong tables and big-screen television sets.
The furniture industry has been turned upside down, with contract furniture manufacturers scrambling to produce pieces that look more residential, and residential furniture manufacturers upgrading their pieces to withstand heavier use. There is even a firm that manufactures pillows for offices (as opposed to homes); sales went from $50 000 USD in 2014 to well over $1 million USD this year.
At the same time, the entire notion of what is “home” has also been upended, and there is no longer a clear delineation between work and home. Nowadays, people work from home, they rent out their homes on Airbnb, and they are more likely to live with roommates and their parents. What hasn’t changed, is our biological need for places to decompress and enjoy privacy; it’s just that we no longer go “home” to meet this need.
According to research by the Swedish furniture company IKEA, 29% of people surveyed felt more at home in places other than where they live, and this number jumps to 35% of people who live in cities.
To get some time alone, 25% of people leave their home, and 45% of Americans go to their cars to get alone time. And more than one in five respondents aged 18-24 say they feel a sense of belonging more in their virtual communities than they do in their homes.
The membership economy
Another factor is the notion of the membership economy, rather than an ownership economy. Because of Uber, many people no longer feel the need to own a car. Similarly, there is now Roam, a housing network for digital nomads, who pay a membership to gain access to “co-living” flats all over the world – Bali, Tokyo, San Francisco, London and Miami. Armed with a backpack and laptop and untethered by a mortgage, these intrepid techies can travel the world and work from anywhere.
Offices are now being designed to offer a “palette of places” – plug-in high counters and booths for “touchdown” work and small groups, private booths and high-sided cubicles for individual “focus” work, small enclosed “team rooms” for dedicated group work, and open communal tables next to bountiful pantries for the “solo but not alone” work.
The Japanese architect Hitoshi Abe took this idea of a menu of spaces and conceptualised an entire city, where people could rent empty spaces, depending on their needs: a penthouse for one night to host a dinner party, a bungalow for the summer to write a book, etc.
A multidisciplinary approach
For all these reasons and many more, our commercial and residential spaces are becoming increasingly sophisticated . . . and designing them has become more and more complicated. This means no single person can expect to know everything that’s required to design a space any more, let alone keep up with the new products and processes that are introduced every day.
For example, take sensor technology. By 2020, there will be more than 20 billion connected sensors and endpoints in our homes that can adjust your thermostat, water your plants, check whether grandma is taking her medication and tell you when you’re low on laundry detergent . . . and that’s on top of monitoring your house’s energy, security, lighting, entertainment systems and HVAC.
This isn’t science fiction, it’s already here. So for the technology elements alone, interior designers need to work alongside and collaborate with architects, builders, electricians, security experts and audio-visual specialists. Now consider off-grid projects, healthcare interiors, indoor/outdoor living spaces, experiential retail shops etc., and the other experts that need to be brought to the table . . .
In fact, each discipline should not stay in its own lane; everyone needs to contribute in order for the design to be cohesive. And even sillier is the notion of a hierarchy among design professionals: Architects who think of interior designers as pillow fluffers, commercial interior designers who think they know more than residential designers, and residential designers who denigrate decorators.
In order for a space to be truly functional, comfortable and beautiful, and delivered on time and within budget, there is no question, we need everyone’s input. This is why the IID represents the interior design professions – proudly and emphatically plural.
Working together, relating to users rather than dictating to them, and understanding that a great space is much more than an Instagram moment, is what real interior design is all about.
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Busting myths about interior design
1. The goal of interior design is to make a space look pretty.
While a well designed space must be beautiful, it also has to be safe, comfortable and functional. Interior design, therefore, is not just about decoration; it takes into account space planning, lighting, acoustics, technology, sustainability and ergonomics, among many other factors. An amazing image on Instagram can be nothing more than set design, and the same items in the photo may be entirely inappropriate for your space, lifestyle and needs.
2. Anyone can be an interior designer!
Many people have great taste and instinctively know how to put together an attractively decorated space. Professional interior designers, though, are required to have formal education, undergo rigorous training and pass tough examinations. They understand the science behind design choices and they are used to working with architects, engineers, builders, landscape architects, graphic designers and other professionals to deliver well-integrated, fully thought-out projects.
3. Interior design is a luxury.
Despite all those glossy shelter magazines that greet you at the checkout counter, genuine interior design is not about fancy materials and huge spaces. In fact, the projects with the most limited budgets are often the ones that require the most design ingenuity. Well designed spaces can help people heal quicker, learn better, work more productively and live healthier. And that’s why everyone deserves good interior design, not only the wealthy.
4. You have to draw well to be a great interior designer.
You can learn to draw, to understand colour theory and to distinguish different types of wood veneers. And being a naturally gifted artist is definitely a big plus! But I believe the best designers are the ones who have the most empathy – the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they need from a space. Interior designers have specialised skills that complement those of architects and engineers when designing spaces to withstand natural disasters, house the poor and educate our future generations. Interior design was a key element of an elementary school that was rebuilt in Jacmel, Haiti, after the disastrous 2010 earthquake.
Locally manufactured pieces give spaces a unique edge, so they don’t look like everyone else’s. There is a story behind every handmade piece, and you can feel good knowing you are supporting the local economy. Sourcing furniture, lighting and materials locally is also much kinder to the earth than something that is trucked or flown in from far away.
We have so much design talent right here in South Africa that there is no reason to automatically turn to international sources first, or worse yet, seek cheap knock-offs. The quality of knock-offs is almost always inferior to that of the original, because in order to bring the price way down, manufacturers of imitations cut corners and often use less sturdy construction methods and cheaper, even unsafe, materials. Besides, when you buy knock-offs, you are ripping off intellectual property of the original designer.
The African Institute of Interior Design Professions (IID) is dedicated to promoting the best of South African design talent and will soon be introducing a new membership category specifically for local artisans. Stay tuned and please help us spread the word!