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A new aesthetic, stemming from a greater awareness of sustainability and more imaginative use of technology, is taking hold in the world of interiors. John Stones reports on a discipline looking for a way forward

After the crash, what sort of an environment should we be creating for ourselves? This is as much a question for interior designers as it is for politicians, entrepreneurs or financiers.

Even though the dust is settling and business is picking up, things won’t be as they were before the economic events of the past year. Of course, interior designers have felt the pinch more than most. And beyond the practical problems of the day – depleted ranks, squeezed budgets, uncertainty and delays – interior designers will also face a more fundamental problem next year. What sort of designs should they be creating?

It is a question with an aesthetic dimension, but one that also goes deeper. It is already clear that the main stylistic trends of the economic bubble – the Joe Colombo-like Back to the Future swish retro, exemplified by shiny, curvy plastic, and the ostentatious ‘maximalism’ or ‘neo- Baroque’ – have had their day, in Europe at least.

In their place you now see a preference for the minimal, subtle, and ingenious over the extravagant, brash, voluptuous, and for simple materials such as such as wood over the glitz of marble, gold and brass.

But the interior design that is being commissioned is being made to work as never before, to justify its share of limited resources by creating genuinely ‘wow’ environments. So designers will be finding themselves squeezed. On the one hand, they will be pushed to create environments with high impact, and yet on the other hand need to avoid profligacy.

Recent projects for clients like Australian skincare brand Aesop, Catalan shoe brand Camper and London restaurateur Alan Yau, suggest a way forward. Interiors such as the cave of bamboo poles created by Kengo Kuma for the Cha Cha Moon in west London, Yau’s latest noodle restaurant, or the wall of folded paper flowers in Tokujin Yoshioka’s Camper Store on Regent Street, or the ceiling of dangling string in Aesop’s Singapore store (by Australian consultancy March Studio), show stunning environments can be achieved with humble ingredients.

The design of the café of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris is another case in point. Working to a tiny budget, the designers (Mut Architects together with graphic design group Le Potager) created a simple, yet ingenious space that essentially relies on a specially designed modular wooden bench that curves in and out of the space.

It would, however, be a shame if this emerging aesthetic were to become merely another style on the merry-go-round of fashion. The opportunity is there for a new kind of interior design. As with other areas of design, such as the automotive world, there is a tension between the stylists, who provide a largely decorative service, and the fundamentalists, engaged in rethinking the conventions and coming up with ingenious and novel solutions.

Interior design has tended to languish in the first camp, and not just because of the flounce of a few TV personalities. The emergence of a new generation of interior designers trained in a more holistic mindset could push things towards the latter, as could the increasing encroachment of neighbouring design disciplines (notably product design and architecture) into the world of interiors. For instance, of the five projects picked out above, only one was designed by a conventional interior design consultancy.

The need for environmental accountability should further rein in the idea of interior as fashion, as a garment that can be discarded on a whim. Furniture manufacturers across the spectrum are already tapping into the zeitgeist, creating more responsible and enduring items, in which provenance, durability and heritage are as important as the visual ‘hit’.

Two recent office Dutch office designs, one made of cardboard (Nothing by Alrik Koudenburg and Joost van Bleiswijk) and one entirely of reused furniture sprayed black for uniformity (Gummo by i29), show a novel approach, no doubt aided by the open mindedness of their clients (advertising agencies in both cases). But a maturing sense of socially responsible interior design will move beyond gestures, even ones as interesting as these.

And in rethinking what a contemporary interior could be, designers also have another under-used tool at their disposal – technology. Apart from a few hidden switches or a couple of interactive screens, interior design has largely been defiantly low-tech, but there is the potential for this to change. For instance, programmed LED lighting can be used be to create environments that continually change (as in the interiors for the Snog yogurt bars created by Cinimod Studio) or to create psychological effects such as calm or sleepiness, as in the interior of the innovative Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The present economic hiatus has created a window for change. If the wider world is anything to go by, most are desperate for things to go back to how they once were. But there is an opportunity to do things differently and, perhaps, better. Whether designers and those who commission them are able or willing to grasp it is another thing.

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