Like many of you, over the past couple of months, I have participated in dozens of conversations about the future and what lies ahead. Beyond the rhetoric and hyperbole, what I have heard is fear. People are worried that we may be separated into our own bubbles of space—even in public. Some question whether we will ever handshake or hug again.
I, for one, have hope. I believe there is a future where our creativity and innovative spirit will foster our need to be together— hugging a friend, sharing a meal with colleagues, and even watching a concert with strangers.
Now more than ever, designers can play a critical role in providing a sense of security and well-being within the built environment. There is little doubt that while we are all eager to get back to normal, the “Next Normal” will not look the same. People will encounter more emotional and physical hurdles in their day-to-day lives. How do we, as designers, minimize those barriers and tempt people out of their comfort zone, inviting them once again to come out and play?
Before entering the field of Interior Design, I studied psychology and anthropology. I have always been fascinated by how environments can not only affect how people function in a space, but also how they feel. Good design has the power to impact people in ways so subtle and intuitive that one hardly knows they are being influenced.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been emotionally impacted by a space. I recall the feeling I had standing in the Sagrada Familia, looking up at the slender sculptural columns reaching for the colorful canopy lit by stained-glass overhead. Quite a different emotion than the soothing comfort I find when entering a candlelit yoga studio.
Prior to COVID-19, our industry was already beginning to embrace a more holistic approach focused on the well-being of the user. In the future, holistic design will no longer be an optional buzzword, but critical baseline criteria. After being “alone together,” we will need to re-learn—and to some degree, reinvent—what coming together looks like. What drives us to put aside our fears and gather? How can a space put the user at ease and feel secure?
Beyond addressing those emotional concerns, there are many practical considerations to take into account. How will people move through a space safely and how will the long-term care of finishes change to meet new demands of cleaning? As interior designers, we have become experts in chemical and biological factors that affect the planning of a space, finish selections, and maintenance. We will need to continue finding creative solutions that support both safe interactions and our human desires for closeness and connection.
To navigate this new landscape, the path forward will be carved by a multi-faceted group of designers, engineers, technology specialists, data analysts, and facility managers. We will all be tasked with developing immediate solutions with an eye toward the long-lasting effects.
While we need to react, we don’t want to overreact. Once the pandemic has passed—truly passed—we will not feel a need for some of these physical barriers and precautions. Sure, this test of the human spirit will prepare us for future hardships; but we will also see innovations borne out of this era that will make our lives richer, which we will take with us into the future. One of the best examples of this is the rise of technologies such as grocery delivery apps that have made our daily routines easier and given us more time to focus on what is important: our family, friends, experiences, and passions.
If this experience has taught us anything, it is that we still need each other, in mind and body, and no technology can replace that. As a designer, I was already observing this evolution in our spaces since the proliferation of personal technology. People weren’t seeking more space for their possessions—after all, books and music contained on a phone no longer require a shelf. Instead, they were using their physical world as a playground for experiences with others. As a result, the designs of our environments have become intentionally more interactive and engaging.
To continue this evolution, designers will need to find creative ways in our increasingly touchless, voice-activated world to encourage active engagement with people and their environment, while providing a sense of security. The future of design sits at that crossroads.
I’ll meet you there!
Kristen Larkin, ASID
Associate Principal, Director of Interior Design