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Design in the time of Covid-19

London, UK

How has the design industry adapted to lockdown life? When this is all over, what lessons and innovations will we take forward and what will we leave behind?

If any one area of economic life is primed to be resilient in times of crisis, surely it’s the design industry. Made up of inventors, thinkers, problem solvers and makers, the design community is trained to find solutions for industrial, working, domestic and virtual life. But, of course, nobody could have anticipated the extremity of the manacling much of the world is undergoing in its attempts to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.

“Like everyone in the world, our working practices, habits and rituals have changed out of all proportion in just a few short days. Regardless of the physical risks of the virus itself, every professional relationship we have has been affected,” says Tom Lloyd of London design consultancy Pearson Lloyd.

Many activities within the design industry have ground to a halt, and there has been an enforced acceptance, and also adaptation. There are small businesses and self employed who have been obliged, like so many, to down tools. There are some for whom productive work has stalled through lack of materials, manpower or a potential market. Some have gone back to projects languishing on a back burner. Others are converting their creative talents to new forms of expression online, or innovating in the marketplace. And there are those who, in confinement, have turned their skills to the ‘war’ effort, such as Foster and Partners’ open-sourced design template for protective visors for frontline workers. Similarly, the 3D Printing Society has called on architects and designers to help by 3D printing needed items for the National Health Service.

“It’s a time when we have to be pragmatic and realistic and also, possibly, empathetic. People are still too focused on a number of important problems. We are inundated with information of all kinds that sometimes creates confusion,” says Emanuele Benedini, owner of Italian bathroom design firm Agape, acknowledging the human cost that outweighs for now the pursuit of profit. Agape are currently experiencing a ‘fairly contained slowdown’, and are embracing the opportunity to test ‘new operational and work organisation functions’ and waiting, like so many, to see how long and deep any decline might be.

Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd of Pearson Lloyd
Refocusing creative endeavours

For many the day-to-day question is, simply, what can we do to earn our four walls from within them? Solitary makers and craftspeople will perhaps experience little change to routine. Materials may dwindle, and some workshops have had to close their doors, but many are managing to continue their work in domestic settings. Elsewhere, makers are turning to online teaching and as ever, Instagram remains the marketing tool of choice with small creative businesses promoting each other all over the social platform. Selling initiatives are springing up. One such, thought up by artist Matthew Burrow and extended to include makers by the UK’s Craft Council, is the Artist and Maker Support Pledge: makers post items they are willing to sell up to £200 and for every £500 made, a pact is made to spend £100 on work by other crafting contributors in the scheme.

Many larger studios and design bodies meanwhile have been able to continue planning-work, if not making, from kitchen tables, catching up with teams virtually. Many have also been implementing their plan B for launches destined for Milan Design Week 2020, which was due to start next week. It has often involved pushing back plans to 2021. But virtual alternatives are also taking place throughout the industry, with studios, design bodies, PR firms, photographers, filmmakers, writers and publishers shifting their creative output to screens.

“Our plan B for the show involved lots of new takes on how to present an exhibition in fresh ways,” says Benedicte Sunde of Norwegian Presence, a show of Norwegian talent presented during Milan Design Week annually. “Colleagues at DOGA Arena converted our facilities to a TV studio for streaming online interviews, lectures and seminars. This gave us the opportunity to plan webinars, interviews with the designers, showing design processes. We have also been experimenting with drone videos that we are launching this week. So for the next six months we are working steadily towards Milan 2021, and at the same time promoting our manufacturers and talented designers,” Sunde says.

Even museums are finding ways to bring exhibitions to us virtually. “We have set a strong focus on digital communication during this time, which allows our audience to visit our exhibitions online and engage with us via platforms such as Instagram,” says Mateo Kries of the Vitra Design Museum. “We will organise more online live events which may allow us to reach a global audience with less carbon footprint from speakers flying in from all over the world.”

Norwegian Presence curators Benedicte Sunde and Marit Haugen
The design fair

One notable attempt to transpose the physical world onto the screen is that made by Dezeen who launched its Virtual Design Festival this week. It will host a programme of online talks and lectures, movies and product launches – though the move was initially criticised by some as insensitive timing in light of the plight of Milan Design Week, which was postponed in February and officially cancelled at the end of March. “Some of these activities will replace those that we would have hosted at fairs and festivals around the world, but we also want to explore new and innovative formats, specially tailored for the digital sphere and for our locked-down world,” Dezeen’s blurb goes. Developed with collaboration from the worlds of technology and design, they have been broadcasting lockdown videos from the community in the build up.

Efforts to rethink the design fair have deepened the debate into whether the expense and environmental impact of international design fairs is sustainable. “We are interested to see whether they continue as a leading platform for design review,” says Ed Carpenter, Co-Founder of Very Good & Proper and CEO of Isokon Plus. “Alternatives could easily replace them, but it may be hard for smaller and younger brands to break through without them, as not every brand has the benefit of a centrally located showroom in design hubs throughout the world. Also, they are catalysts for bringing people out of the everyday structures, and for social interaction, which will be something that we will likely crave after the lockdown.”

There are many others echoing the same sentiments – even the curators for whom fairs are a source of income. “There was already a longstanding sense that the design calendar had gotten a bit oversaturated,” says design critic and curator Aric Chen. “In that sense, this has been a good time to pause and reconsider the necessity of all of these events, especially given their environmental impact. It may not be a bad thing to have fewer – or perhaps more, but much smaller and more local – events. Either way, they’ll continue to play an important role. This pandemic has accustomed us to living online even more than before – but it’s also, I think, made us ever more aware of the shortcomings of doing so, too.”

Space to think

The shortcomings are keenly felt by design studios whose work doesn’t readily transpose to 2D. “Seeing our work in the flesh can be an ‘Oh wow’ moment,’” says James Hoy, co-founder of London studio Uncommon Projects. “It’s an experience that can’t be replicated on social media.” Likewise, while Raw Edges, the London-based studio made up of couple Yael Mer and Shay Akalay, watch fellow designers embrace digital, they feel the character of their work is lost on screen. Theirs are products with colour, texture and form that they want people to see, touch, experience. “We can’t do much. Our design is very tangible. It’s about materials and collaboration with makers who we cannot visit,” says Shay. On the other hand, they appreciate the efforts of Dezeen to bring Bar Basso – the iconic after hours drinking hole in Milan where industry party goers retreat during the Salone and where it is joked that most business is done – metaphorically into homes: “It’s keeping the community together,” says Akalay.

Home office-based Bar Basso, though, like all Zoom socials, lubricated or not, risks being a far more sober affair. We are discovering new ways of working and some we like, some we don’t. With time to mull the bigger picture, a balance of the best of now and the best of then is where many of us hope to go. “On a macro level we are using new software for day to day tasks, which has proven to be very beneficial and something we could definitely carry forward,” says Tom Parker, co-founder and Director of Fettle Design. “On a larger level we have found that when managed properly, working remotely can be extremely beneficial on both a business and personal level. But we have really been able to appreciate how important the creative dynamic is within a studio environment and how key it is to feel part of a team.”

Common to most in the industry is the slowing down, the space to think more deeply, to assess, to organise, to regroup. “Slowing down will be the legacy of this period,’” says Mer. “I think we’ll miss it. The only thing we can do is centre ourselves – a kind of creative meditation to sharpen our practice. A mental spring clean for our studio.”

Valley cabinet by Daniel Schofield for Very Good & Proper
The conundrum of continuous growth

It’s a mantra being repeated widely in design circles: do we need continuous growth? “There is clearly an opportunity to challenge the status quo and recalibrate what is important and how it might change,” says Lloyd. “The unfettered culture of production and consumption that we have all become so familiar with is both a symptom and cause of the global world that allowed Covid-19 to so easily take control. I believe that the patterns of life will reform as a result of the crisis.”

That said, there are those coming out of lockdown demonstrating how things can return to what we once called normal, and maybe the world won’t look so different after all. Stellar Works’ factory in Jaiding, China is back to 90% production, with new collections launching digitally later this month. “Thankfully, we are now on the other side of the outbreak and business here is returning to normal,” says CEO and founder, Yuichiro Hori. 

But will minds and bank balances allow us to return to pre-lockdown consumption? New York’s David Rockwell is optimistic: “As a firm we have weathered national and international crises before, from 9/11 to the Great Recession and emerged stronger. We shouldn’t quickly assume a different world. There are parts of the human experience that are fundamental to who we are and that includes socialising, dining together, gathering for theatre and entertainment, and learning together. Our work is about creating environments that are in total service to our rituals, enhancing whatever real time, in person interactions are taking place within the space – to make them more memorable, more emotional and ultimately more meaningful.”

And from Italy, which has been locked down now for six weeks: “Surely there will be a decline but I can’t say how long and deep. The house has regained even more importance by becoming our refuge in recent weeks. Many will be thinking about how to make it even more comfortable with quality and long-lasting products. Belonging to this sector in a certain sense can benefit us,” says Agape’s Benedini.

As Tom Parker calls it, the best we can do is remain agile, roll with the punches, and use the time and space the virus affords us to refocus the industry to care better for the planet as well as its own community. “I don’t think the pandemic will so much change the world as accelerate processes that were already underway: de-globalization, growing inequality, surveillance and so on,” says Chen. “We’ll probably see more consolidation as its euphemistically called, with smaller players having an increasingly tough time. But I have faith in the design world’s ingenuity; we will all find a way.”