Interior space explorers

Last week’s inaugural Interiors Forum debated whether architects understand interior space better than interior designers. Lynda Relph-Knight tests the atmosphere at the event

There is escalating tension between the UK’s architects and commercial interior designers. The belief that each profession understands interior spaces better than the other was underpinned at the Interiors Forum last week.

A fear that architects are encroaching too much into the interiors camp – along with a sense that interior designers weren’t well represented by existing design bodies – prompted Callum Lumsden of Lumsden Design Partnership to moot the idea of the forum a year ago.

There is concern that interior design is losing status, given the Warren Committee’s decision in the early 1990s not to allow UK practitioners to use the descriptor interior architect. In other European countries the term is recognised and carries with it the same kind of conditions that have to be met here by architects before they can sign up to the regulatory Architects Registration Board.

On the night, the Interiors Forum motion, “This house believes that architects understand interior space better than interior designers”, was defeated by 75 votes to 106 by an audience weighted heavily in favour of interior designers. But the debate threw up differences and some animosity on both sides.

The motion’s proposer, Alsop Architects director Christophe Egret, pitted architecture against interior design. “A memorable space versus a product”, “vision versus problem-solving” and “the integrity of the internal space in relation to the external envelope” were the themes fuelling an argument that ended in a view that undesigned spaces are the best and that interior design is about filling, rather than creating, space.

His opponent, 20/20 creative director Bernard Dooling, spoke of the need for a space to be “uplifting, engaging and usable”, as well as in touch with user needs and commercial realities. He cited Stansted Airport by Foster & Associates as given over to “people denial” – a trait he equates with the “self-importance” he perceives in architects, while describing Ben Kelly’s children’s section of the Science Museum in London as “fun and experiential”.

Both they and their seconders – respectively Alex Ritchie, head of exhibitions and brand environments at Jack Morton Worldwide, and Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins – quoted top-level, almost interchangeable examples to reinforce their respective cases. But Ritchie and Higgins inadvertently sowed the seeds of a future where we might hope the edges between the two disciplines might be blurred. Ritchie, an interior designer who aspired to be an architect, spoke of the need for boundaries to be broken down, blaming education to a large extent for playing up the differences. Higgins, meanwhile, spoke of the wealth of different talents that go into making great experiential spaces, ranging from imagineers to architects.

But no-one put the situation in a historical context and explained why the motion might even have any relevance. In truth, there has always been an overlap between architecture and design, with architects as versatile as Eva Jiricna, Pentagram Design partner Lorenzo Apicella and Rick Mather, crossing the divide. But the past ten or so years have seen architects moving “inside” like never before.

In the 1980s, growing interest by UK business in US management models on the one hand and sports organisations on the other, created new streams of lucrative work for the designers and architects. But with such mega-jobs demanding multidisciplinary design, and the likes of Fitch notwithstanding, it was architects such as DEGW and Building Design Partnership that tended to take the lead in these two fields. They had project size and budget in their favour and adding interiors to the mix didn’t involve much of a stretch to them.

At the same time, a move towards refurbishment of old, largely industrial buildings rather than new-build into homes and commercial properties, as Britain’s traditional industrial base declined, cast architects in a different mould, with “architectural” exposed services interiors becoming the norm. Then the recession of the early 1990s caused traditional building projects to dry up, forcing the more nimble-minded and designerly of them to take on interiors and exhibition work.

Interiors groups were meanwhile growing in strength in areas such as retail and event design, where they are perceived as having a stronger sense of branding. The likes of minimalist architect John Pawson might handle plum one-off projects such as a Jigsaw store or a Wagamama restaurant, where each outlet is intended to be different. But when it comes to handling, say, a Sainsbury’s project from concept to national roll-out, you expect the likes of 20/20 to be in control.

Millennium projects, meanwhile, have fostered new respectability for design in creating visitor attractions – the Dome notwithstanding. Though on opposing sides in the debate, both Ritchie and Higgins have experience in this area, not least through their shared heritage at Imagination.

History points to a closer meshing of the two professions in the future as the boundaries blur. Though most architectural practices and design groups remain relatively small businesses, both are likely now to employ one or two people of the other profession as projects increasingly demand complementary skills.

Perhaps the Interiors Forum ought to take a lead in recognising this reality and open its doors more widely to both.

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