A rebalancing act

Conspicuous consumption is becoming passé as the recession starts to bite, but where does this leave commercial interior design? A shift from private to public projects and an emphasis on creative capital is the way forward, says John Stones

Parts were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or a perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. You may be forgiven for assuming this description relates to the latest luxury hotel in Dubai. In fact, it describes the lavish excesses of the Roman emperor Nero’s infamous Golden House, as recorded by the historian Suetonius.

No one quite knows what the impact of the current economic situation on commercial interior design will be, other than a fair certainty that the cult of luxury – even in Dubai – is going to be reined in and that things are going to get very tough indeed. Those crystal-studded chandeliers that once glittered so enticingly have very suddenly lost their allure.

While conspicuous ‘baroque’ opulence has been one major trend in interior design of the past few years, whether for restaurants, shops or hotels, it has not been the only one. Its seeming opposite, the ‘Prada Meinhof’ guerrilla posturing pioneered by Comme des Garçons has also been very influential. Flea market chic allows the more sophisticated luxury experience of dissembling, allowing the modern-day Marie Antoinette to pretend there is no money or formal design in these ‘impromptu’ environments, when, in fact, we all know there is plenty of both.

As more and more retail premises are vacated, this trend might have a short extension as an easy way of making the most of empty shops. But the novelty of this approach has already worn off, even before the amount of available premises to ‘occupy’, be they office or retail or leisure, is set to become much more generous. Tempting consumers to part with their money will require a bit more than that, and policy-makers around the world are doing everything they can to ensure we spend our way out of the crisis. It’s less a case of ‘let them eat cake’ and more one of ‘let them buy cake – and lots of it’.

Design will have to work very hard at the very time when there is no money for design – a ‘design crunch’, in effect. Stylistically and conceptually, something new will have to be developed between the irresponsibly opulent and depressingly humdrum. And the kind of work on offer is going to be very different, as commercial interiors projects will follow the wider economy.

The Keynesian response to the crisis taken by governments around the world to increasing public expenditure means there will be a shift in design needs towards public projects. Rather than retail environments for handbag retailers and dim sum restaurants, designers could be thinking more about interiors for libraries, schools, health clinics and railway stations. Which, for the design purist, may be no bad thing, as often these types of public projects have resulted in some of the most radical and enduring design innovations.

Those few companies that are feeling flush will be able to use design to put clear water between them and their rivals. For instance, HSBC, which has weathered the storm much better than most banks, is embarking on a global branch refurbishment campaign. More common, however, is the stance taken by retailers such as Marks & Spencer, which has frozen its store redesign programme to conserve cash. Minor, yet effective, interventions will be the order of the day there.

The geopolitical shift and economic rebalancing that is taking place will affect design not only in terms of the amount of money available, but also in terms of who does the design. Interior designers may well be looking abroad for work, but the days of designers simply jetting off from London to dispense little design pearls of wisdom to emerging markets are over. The flow of ideas may very well go in the other direction, as clients look for novel solutions and fresh talent. And major new entrants, such as the US electronics giant Best Buy, which is set to import its format to 20 new stores in the UK next year in a joint venture with the Carphone Warehouse, will be very closely scrutinised.

Irrespective of these developments, a new language will have to be forged by designers, using creative rather than financial capital. Intriguing and cosseting experiences that draw customers in, perhaps, or environments that are traditional and reassuring, with higher levels of service. Another approach could be escapism formulated in such a way that it doesn’t make consumers feel they’re being irresponsible.

The Cologne and Milan furniture fairs are likely to be more sombre events in 2009, particularly the former in January, which is a barometer of the commercial rather than creative activity taking place. Given the ecological bent of most young furniture designers, perhaps there will be a conceptual shift away from furniture and interiors as so much disposable fashion, and towards something more sustainable, both financially and ecologically.

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