March 26, 2020

Designers Look Toward the Future in Uncertain Times

While the news about the COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop minute-by-minute, in some ways many of us are in a holding pattern: working from home, washing our hands, thinking about the future while managing our present personal and professional responsibilities. In efforts to stay as connected as ever, Interior Design continues traveling around the world via phone, Skype, and email to check in with members of the global design community. 

Editor’s note: This story is the second installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic. 

Alexandra Champalimaud and Ed BakosChampalimaud Design, New York City, U.S. 

Alexandra Champalimaud: I think it’s important that we remember anything that happens during a time of crisis is well beyond our control. Everything becomes about survival. When the world falls apart you have to adapt, and the strength of your studio lies in your ability to react. Every studio and every practice is different. However, I think the past ‘life-shifting experiences’ (i.e. 2008 recession, Hurricane Sandy, etc) have taught us all a lot about resiliency and how to develop practices that allow us to protect our respective studios during times of crisis. We’ve found that having organizational and operational systems in place that allow for quick action and planning has helped us during this time. We also have an incredible office culture that wants to include everyone at all times. That’s been really holding us together. So has being present to our community—at a distance. Staying in touch and checking in on colleagues, vendors and clients, if only just to say ‘Hello!’ It’s a stressful and lonely time for most of us. A little act of kindness can go a long way. Also, this goes without saying but staying inside and washing your hands frequently—if there’s ever a time to be selfless for the greater good of the community and the world, it’s now.

Ed Bakos: It has been really interesting to see how quickly our office has been adjusting to what has become the new normal. We’re all doing what we can to adjust. Everyone has been very malleable. We’ve been banding together and actively utilizing the various technologies available to us to keep the momentum going. Internally, we’ve been using Microsoft Teams and old-fashioned phone calls to stay in touch. We’ve also been using GoTo Meeting for client calls, as that was our main conference call system prior to our shift to working from home. We’ve noticed that clients have been taking thoughtful approaches to the future of their projects. Some have been on hold, others are still underway—albeit with some schedule delays. That communication and transparency is essential now more than ever, with your studio, with your community, and with your clients. We’ve also found that maintaining a diverse list of active projects across industries helps too.

Peter IppolitoIppolito Fleitz Group, Stuttgart, Germany

Moving 70 people from our offices to their homes was quite an adventure. Luckily, since we already experienced the lock-down in our studio in Shanghai, we came prepared and could turn this challenge into a proper team-building experience. So actually we’re full of energy and in rather a good mood.

Communication is quite crucial now: We had a lot of meetings with clients and co-workers to talk through how to proceed. For the home office, Microsoft Teams, VPN, and Dropbox create a surprisingly smooth working environment and we make sure to stay in touch. As for the projects, we’re in the privileged situation to work with several industries and countries. In Germany, right now about 25 percent of our workload was put on hold, but at the same time we were able to still secure new projects [here at home] as well as in China and the Middle East. Also we’re rather optimistic, since China has almost overcome the crisis already, and life’s about back to normal, let’s say, up to 80 percent. What’s fascinating and energizing is that our clients over there really can’t wait to make things happen now, so we’re experiencing a request for proposals that truly amazes us.

Altogether we believe this will be a great chance to learn new things and want to come out as stronger, better professionals. Desires and discussions, which have hovered for quite some time…are now gaining even more presence: Take simplicity, values, minimalism—purpose. In Europe, beside the fear of the economic consequences, there seems to be a hope that the crisis could act as a catalyst towards a deceleration of our overheated globalized and complicated world. Whereas in China, people after quarantine seem even more eager to catch up and move forward—there’s a crazy vibrant energy right now. In both cultures we witnessed a lot of solidarity and creativity within the industry.

Another pre-existing debate has been the one on community: co-working, co-creating, co-spacing, co-driving, co-everything. The strong wish for more community has been tangible for quite some time. In a way, due to this, people adapt so fast right now: They use digital options to create community in a second, be it digital dinner parties, digital yoga classes, digital schooling, digital meetings. Even industries that were not all too fond of digital working concepts now discover that it can actually work. That of course will have implications for us as designers, both for what we design, and also for how we design it. At the same time I believe this will enormously boost the appreciation of analog communities as well. And last but not least: People will realize what really matters to them, what they really value. That might change behavior and affect us as designers on a daily basis. 

Héctor EsraweEsrawe, Mexico City, Mexico 

We started to do home offices a week ago and have managed pretty well so far. We are working on all the platforms, depending on whether a client or team or colleague is on Zoom or Skype. Sadly, some projects have been postponed and some cancelled. We know things will come through in the near future and are starting to talk about strategies to reinvent ourselves and understand this new reality. We are designers. We love what we do, and we will always be designers no matter what the circumstances and context.

Right now, we are mostly digesting the new circumstances, and for sure creating the environment for an open and constructive dialogue about future scenarios. We don’t have a scale for how harmful this situation will become, but we know for sure there will be a before and an after. We need to work around it, understand our mission, and take all the possible lessons as professionals—but mostly as human beings.

It is a moment to be focused. It is a moment of being humble and oriented. It is a moment to understand that everything we do [has] consequences for good or for bad. We are opening all the communication channels with our colleagues, team, friends, and family to learn and to reinvent ourselves. Intuition will become a good tool, but information is the best one. What I know is that we need finally to understand that everything is interconnected, that isolated intentions lead to isolated solutions. We need to promote equality and respect and be honest. We must understand this moment and embrace it. We have the power to make a difference, to relieve and minimize the pain.

Martín LejarragaMartín Lejarraga Architecture Office, Murcia, Spain

Since a few days before the state of alarm was officially set in Spain, we have been working mostly at home. In theory, the state of alarm is compatible with present work so far, but we applied telework as a health and security measure. None of our projects have been cancelled, they are all ‘alive’ in each of the phases they are now: ideation, project, construction. Nevertheless, during the pass of the days we have observed a social and professional deceleration from the aptitude to the execution. We know for sure that the COVID-19 effects will obligate us to socially and professionally organize in a different way.

Our sector is not understood as a first necessity one. Therefore, in the dystopic case that this situation will last many months, our industry, as we know it, will disappear or be transformed. For this reason, a lesson learned is that we—architects and construction stakeholders—need to change our vision towards the world and our own work patterns. In the short run, architects need to put their most immediate tools at the service of society. For instance, there is a huge 3D printer community of architects, engineers, and designers in Spain, and they are manufacturing protective masks with their own 3D printers for the healthcare personnel. Additionally, we can also help in this under pressure and stressful situation by keeping a moral and ethical behavior.

In the [present] and long-term, we need to rethink the profession and change the construction model. It is crucial to deeply analyze what we design, the materials we use and how they affect the living conditions of people and behave with the planet. As architects and builders, we need to be conscious; we are in charge of shaping the world. Therefore, we should not aspire to do things less bad, but do things good… This change in the construction’s paradigm is needed…

We will also learn how to prevent or diminish the effect of the next pandemic through design: Interior and exteriors spaces need to be thought out and ready to be the front of the next epidemic. Not only hospitals, elderly houses, and other healthcare typologies, but also other common spaces like supermarkets or apartments need to change to address the future challenges that pandemics or another crisis will provoke.

Matteo ThunMatteo Thun Milano, Milan, Italy

Good news from our office: We are all healthy, working from home, and staying connected with our clients. For European clients we expect a delay on construction sites from six-to-12 months.

And good news from China: Some production sites are working at full speed. We are intensely working on new projects. Only in the construction business is there a small delay. Apparently, China has faster reaction times due to [past experience with] the SARS experience, etc.

For us, our architecture business is mainly concentrated on hospitality and hospitals. From now on we will focus even more on hospitals, senior homes, and healthy living formulas. As for our industries, our IT should work on more simple, easier, and better technology for conference calls.

Elizabeth LowreyElkus Manfredi Architects, Boston, U.S. 

As architects and designers, we’re trained to be nimble problem solvers. These professional and personal characteristics and qualities serve us well in the best of times. During a crisis, we’re reminded that we’re a community of compassionate problem solvers.

We have always believed that collaboration is at the heart of design excellence and that collaboration thrives with proximity. Now, we will continue to work collaboratively with our clients and design partners in new and innovative ways. While we are working remotely we are more connected than ever. We will make this disruption a catalyst for enhanced engagement as we are all reminded of what really matters—our colleagues, our clients, our partners and friends, and our community.

We’re genuinely learning more about one another. We’re seeing our colleagues at their kitchen tables, hearing the baby cry and the dog bark. We are each sharing our whole selves. More than ever, helping our neighbors brings out the best in all of us. We have a long-term relationship with Heading Home, a Boston-based non-profit that is dedicated to finding permanent housing for families and is currently seeking vital, additional funding to provide food and essentials to their clients. Elkus Manfredi is rallying around a company-wide effort to help raise funds to support these families in need. During this incredibly difficult time I am reminded of how designers came together in 1984 during the HIV pandemic to form DIFFA, which was a game-changer. As was the case then, coming together now to help others will help heal us all.

Up next: Designers Share Strategies for the New Normal

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