Catch the Experts: The Future of Design After COVID-19

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Catch the Experts: The Future of Design After COVID-19

Experts assess the implications of the global pandemic on the design community

While industries such as tourism and hospitality have been most visibly affected by COVID-19, the design community, too, is weathering the ‘new normal’ ushered in by what has been the most disruptive and far-reaching pandemic in modern history.

In our recent Catch the Experts webinar, entitled “How is COVID-19 Impacting the Future of Design?”, CatchOn’s Founder and Managing Director Catherine Feliciano-Chon spoke to a panel of esteemed experts: Suzy Annetta, Editor-in-Chief of Design Anthology; Charmaine Chan, Design Editor of the South China Morning Post and author of Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses of the Asia Pacific (Thames & Hudson); James JJ Acuna, Founder and Creative Director of his eponymous studio JJA Bespoke; Rowena Gonzales, Founder and Principal Designer of Liquid Interiors; and Ross Urwin and Darrel Best, Co-Founders of Infrastructure.

Here, they outline key insights on the present and future of the world of design.

On How Home Design Will Change

In this global pandemic, “home” has truly become our last refuge and—particularly for those under quarantine—a sort of prison, challenging our notions of personal space, wellness, sustainability, and productivity. Acuna notes that the pandemic has made companies regard remote work in a different light. “People used to think of working from home as a cute idea, something that millennials were very into,” he says. “Companies are going to loosen up. The market is going to demand spaces where they can operate businesses from home. As designers, we may be asked by our clients, whether it’s a developer or a private residential client, to really carve out a space, a live-work environment that’s not just a selling point.”

“What I would like to see is more flexibility—more homes that are shape-shifting, more furniture that is multifunctional. We have to place more importance on fundamentals, like privacy and comfort, good ventilation, lighting, a bit of outdoor space,” Chan says. “And let’s talk about technology: We need high-speed broadband. You’d be surprised at how many homes don’t have high-speed internet.”

Focusing on one’s sensory needs and use of space, too, is increasingly essential. Annetta says, “I’m reassessing the things that we’re touching on a daily basis. In small spaces where we can’t splurge on a nice big sofa or things which take up a lot of space, it might be cabinetry, or the taps in the bathroom—these things we touch every single day can bring quite a bit of joy.”

Best adds, “You need to think about the things you bring into your home and the fact that they need to perform both form and function.”

On Urbanization and Density

It’s predicted that nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban cities by 2050, and Asia is urbanizing faster than any other region, with 21 of the world’s 30 largest cities located here. While cities are frequently viewed as cradles of collective creativity, the pandemic has forced much of the world to rethink its notions of urbanization and density. Though Chan thinks urbanization will continue in Asia, she notes, “The coronavirus will change how cities function, and I hope it makes them more resilient places.”

Acuna predicts that clients will request for improved ventilation, access to greenery and sunlight, and indoor-outdoor spaces in their homes. “When done well with good developers and a vision, you can have a better quality of life even in a densely populated area,” Gonzales agrees. “There’s a lot of great examples in Hong Kong that the rest of the world can learn from. The things that the city still needs to catch up on are ventilation and fresh air.”

Acuna continues, “The built environment really reflects what a government really cares about. It is a physical manifestation of an idea, or a theory, of how they want things to be. [For example] When you go to Singapore, you know that the government cares about space and greenery. Maybe there’s going to be a connection between private development, designers, and the government so that everyone may have direct access to all of those. Hopefully, that’s where we’re going.”

On Reshaping the Business of Design

Spring, when many fairs and exhibitions take place, is typically an optimal time for the global design industry. With many of these now cancelled, the pandemic has upended marketing sales cycles—and companies that previously had been slow to adapt digitally now find themselves chasing solutions. “A lot of companies and key [fashion] brands have been riding the wave of digital,” Best observes. Meanwhile, he says, “The industrial product design companies were coasting on old school business models of trade shows, et cetera. Now what’s happened is they have had to play catch-up.”

At the same time, consumers will be emerging from the crisis with a different mindset, which designers and retail brands will have to take into account as they move forward. “It’s a time to pursue new innovation. There is a huge opportunity for designers to create and support the world through meaningful, useful products,” Urwin says.

Another obviously disrupted part of the industry is supply chains and production, with much of these concentrated in some of the countries that were dealt the biggest blows. “China and Italy are relied on for so much of furniture and construction trades, so it’s an opportunity, perhaps, for other companies to step in and step up,” Chan reflects. “It wasn’t until this crisis hit that we realized how little is made locally, so we might be seeing more local manufacturing.”

The experts unanimously place an emphasis on digital innovation, whether for nurturing relationships, building commerce, or operating behind the scenes. For her part, Annetta shares, “We’ve done a lot of groundwork to ensure that our company can run from a distance. For anyone in the industry, it’s about making sure you can communicate seamlessly. Whatever it takes for you to be able to work remotely, for your team to be able to do that smoothly, and for your clients to feel confident that things are still going to happen, you’ve got to do it—and you’ve got to do it now.”

Chan says, “We’ve been led to believe that density is our destiny because land is so expensive. I think we should be looking at digital infrastructure, and maybe that will be our salvation.”

On Innovation, Creativity, and Sustainability

Much has been said about how this extraordinary crisis should have every organization consider what they want to be when they emerge from the pandemic. All over the world, creative practitioners are mobilizing their expertise and resources to help where they can—but according to our experts, they are also thinking deeply and looking to the future. “It would be nice to slow down and reflect on things that are really important to us, and the things that we want to put out into the world,” Annetta says. “Once this is over, the whole climate crisis hasn’t gone away—it’s still there, it still needs action and a response.”

“As long as we’re making an attempt to transition towards something that is more environmental, we’re still winning a battle,” Best agrees. “From a designer perspective, people are taking a breath. The design cycle has become almost as frenetic as the fashion cycle, and designers felt a compulsion to be producing new collections, regardless of whether it was truly relevant to the moment or not. A lot of great designers we know are thinking about what they really want to bring to market.”

Urwin adds, “I would hope that communities can formulate an understanding and an appreciation for the simple things. This [pandemic] has given us the time to sit inside and reflect on how we’re doing things. I really liked what I read from Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, who said, ‘When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ That is really relevant right now. Whether it’s in design, finance, [or some other] business, it is time to consider how we can do things better.”

“I hope that we might be able to move from self-righteous minimalism to self-preservation minimalism,” Chan concludes.

Catherine Feliciano-Chon

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