Skip to content

A sustainable house: is it attainable?

Sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips now. It is so popular that it smacks of a trend. Or is there long-term mainstream potential here? In this post, I explain that yes, there is long-term mainstream potential here. But I also urge to proceed with caution: not everything that seems green, is green. A sustainable home is attainable, if you take a holistic approach and look beyond the marketing and soundbites.

I once proposed that the easiest way to achieve a sustainable home is to do nothing to a space. After all, every interior intervention will have some level of negative impact. Because of the materials that have gone into creating the new items for the house; because of the journey the items have been on (often half-way round the world) to get to you; because of the old existing items being disposed of…the list goes on.

‘Do nothing’ is not good enough

Now of course ‘do nothing’ is actually a lazy approach and not something that I really believe in. After all, we want our homes to meet our needs, to be functional, to be up to modern standards, to be safe, and to be enjoyable to spend time in i.e. aesthetically pleasing. All the same factors are equally relevant to non-residential interior design projects too.

Ongoing renovation project residential building site
Should we just stop renovating and designing interiors to be sustainable? That’s not quite how it works.

‘Do something’ is also not good enough

However, ‘do something’ is probably also unfortunately not quite good enough. Simply, if you want to truly live sustainably, then tinkering around the edges won’t quite do it. Isolated actions, such as recycling or composting some of your waste, reusing an old piece of furniture here and there, or buying a few locally produced items, does not quite cut it on its own.

To a large extent, the marketplace of interior items has been taken over by ‘sustainability’ the soundbite, not ‘sustainability’ the concept or ‘sustainability’ the lifestyle. So if you buy hundreds of items, and a couple of them have been marketed to you as sustainable, does it make you feel good? Probably. Does it have any tangible impact on the state of the world, climate change and so on? Probably not.

Sustainable kitchen Miinus kitchens dark green pine drawer detail
It’s green, so it must be sustainable? Here yes, but not always. Watch out for greenwashing.

That is not to say that there are no genuinely sustainable products out there, but do proceed with caution and ask questions. Greenwashing is the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product. It is rampant in the interiors industry. Very few producers have actually done any sort of maths to be able to substantiate their claims. It sounds as if everyone is sustainable these days; but are they really?

More widespread still than greenwashing is ignorance. Producers, suppliers, retailers, designers, homeowners… they simply lack any form of knowledge or understanding of matters of sustainability. They don’t seek out the information, because it is not something they are conditioned to think about. The good news is that it takes only one person in this chain — ideally the end-user — to start asking questions. And suddenly everyone cares.

Less is always more, when it comes to interiors and sustainability. I am a proponent of considered minimalism, or more specifically maximal minimalism, as I like to refer to it. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de St Exupery. I urge you to consider this man’s wise words.

Detail of black and white minimalist sustainable kitchen Miinus Kitchens
Minimalist Miinus Kitchens open shelf biocomposite frame and birch structure

‘Do a lot’ is better

Renovations, interior design, building projects… what comes with these is a lot of decisions that need to be made. A lot. Just in your kitchen alone, to take one example, you need to decide on the model of up to 10 appliances, the layout, the style, the colour, the worktop, the handles, the splashback, the flooring… and more. Interior design is about making decisions. For half a chance of a successful project, you need to be making the decisions in a consistent and considered manner.

Today we live a world of plenty, making our generation an exception in human history. What comes with this is abundance of choice. Choice is good, but too much choice is crippling and counter-productive. The more you are able to narrow down your selection, the easier the process will be. Why not use sustainability as an additional filter for every single interior decision and purchase that you make? By virtue of narrowing your options, it will also make your life easier.

Going back to the kitchen example, this will mean going for the most energy efficient appliances, the most thermally efficient flooring, the most durable worktop, cabinets that use the lightest and cleanest materials… And once you repeat the process across your entire project, you would have made a cumulative impact that is noteworthy and commendable.

‘Do a lot and spread the message’ is best

There are definitely products out there that deserve genuine praise thanks to their eco credentials. They may not be those made by the manufacturers with the biggest budgets, and are often more niche and less well-known. If you want to do your bit, then consuming sustainably (including anything we buy for our homes) is great. Spreading the message about genuinely responsible products, materials and producers is even better.  

With an ever-growing contact book of sustainable suppliers, we at Bright Designs can help you navigate an eco renovation. You may consider using us if, as many of our clients, this is something you just don’t have the inclination or time to manage yourself.

As your kitchen will be the largest single purchase by far that you will make for your home, it is a good place to start if you want to do your bit for the environment. As suppliers of sustainable and non-toxic Miinus Kitchens, we can help with this too!

The kitchen where less is more: sustainable and healthy Miinus

Earlier this year, an opportunity came my way which I took on with great pleasure: designing and supplying Miinus kitchens, from Finland’s leading kitchen manufacturer Puustelli. These are not any kitchens. These are kitchens where less is more, quite literally. Unique in several ways, Miinus represents a genuine innovation in the slightly stale world of kitchen design. Read on if you are looking to create a sustainable home.

The alternative kitchen research project

Here’s the problem with the highly fragmented home improvement and interior design industry: R&D budgets are virtually non-existent. Big respect is due, therefore, to Finland’s leading kitchen manufacturer Puustelli for spending 2.5 years developing a new model for the decades-old kitchen design template. Their aim? To create a kitchen that would be more sustainable as well as better for the health of its users.  

Sustainable Miinus kitchen bioframe development journey displayed in models
The design and development journey of the sustainable Miinus kitchen bioframe involved several iterations.

Scandinavian eco mindset

Scandinavian countries, you see, are lightyears ahead of us here on the British Isles in all things to do with environmental sustainability. Have you heard of their elaborate recycling systems? Bike friendly cities? Alternative energy generation projects? The plogging craze? The list goes on. This mindset surely has something to do with the thinking behind Miinus kitchens. 

Goodbye traditional kitchen materials

In order to understand why the new model is better, it helps to first understand where the old model went wrong. Traditionally, kitchen units are made of a carcass (a box of sorts), with a door on the front. More often than not, the carcass is made of one of the popular composite wood products i.e. primarily MDF or MFC. These materials have various problems associated with them. For one, they are heavy. They don’t like water (you can see how that can be a problem in a kitchen…) The small wood particles making up these boards need to be held together somehow. Strong and toxic adhesives tend to be used (e.g. MDF can contain up to 10% formaldehyde).  

Traditional kitchen carcass construction for frames and unframed kitchens
Traditional kitchen carcass build. Source: https://www.merit-kitchens.com/about-cabinets/cabinetry-101/

Enter the patented Miinus bioframe with a 30-year guarantee. Instead of the cumbersome boxes, the kitchen is propped up by a ‘skeleton’ of sorts. The frame is made using an injection-moulding technique, and combines the best that natural and manmade materials have to offer (wood fibres and plastic no.5 polypropylene — strong and safe).

Flexible and recyclable innovation

The result? A frame that is robust yet light, water-resistant, and can handle both hot and cold. The development means that the volume of material used in the construction of a kitchen is cut in half, as is its weight and therefore transport footprint (think CO2 emissions). You can recycle the biocomposite frame, or better even, repurpose it as much as you please. Ready-made holes for assembly and fitting of mechanical parts make this a breeze. They don’t deteriorate with time, meaning hinged cabinets can turn into drawers or open shelving units (and vice versa).

Sustainable Miinus kitchen carcass visible in open shelves
Less is more: the patented bioframe construction that replaces the traditional kitchen carcass.

The ‘other’ 90%: we are an indoor species

But in my opinion, the best part is something else. We as 21st century humans spend 90-95% of our time indoors. It’s a stunning stat that the media and authorities have seemingly not yet caught onto. Who cares about diesel car fumes when we barely spend any time outdoors? Surely we should be discussing indoor air quality instead. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates indoor air quality to be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air, on average. This is even the case in some of the largest most industrial cities in the world. Yikes.

There are many materials and products that contribute to the quality of indoor air, and among them are the composite wood materials that traditional kitchens are made of. Volatile organic compounds (chemicals that linger in the air around us and find their way into our bodies) are among the main polluters, and ones that have been drastically cut in Miinus kitchens.  

Not just ultra sustainable, but also ultra stylish

So there’s plenty of substance to these kitchens, but they don’t exactly lack in the style department either. Materials and door styles are unique and exciting. For the young urban dwellers there is the cost-effective FOSB door style that is both funky and on-trend. My personal favourite is the technical veneer (and judging by the reaction of the House and Garden Festival visitors, where we displayed, it’s the public’s favourite too). Brushed pine is a high-end material that sits stunningly in luxurious spaces, while more traditional oak and birch veneers in a range of colour ways are also available. Too many options to choose from! (Tip: we’ve picked a few favourite schemes that can be viewed here).

Sustainable Miinus kitchen drawers in technical birch veneer material with brass pulls
One of the stunning technical veneer door materials from the Miinus range, shown with brushed brass pull handles.

I’ve said this before, but at Bright Designs it’s all about the ethos of design. Style comes second. It is indeed the ethos of the Miinus kitchen that prompted me to get involved with the range. My verdict: better for people and better for the planet. It is genuinely hard to come across products and materials for an eco home renovation or build, but this one ticks the right boxes. Drop us a line if you’d like to hear more!

Colour me happy / Bright interiors ideas from Focus/18

A self-confessed colour lover, I could not miss this year’s Focus event at the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, held as part of London Design Festival. In a departure from the more restained palettes one usually sees at DCCH, the event’s theme of colour was a welcome one, and very much in tune with current trends. The place felt all-round upbeat and vibrant.

In my book, the inspiring and thought-provoking talk and seminar programme was a real highlight this year. Far from treating colour as something shallow and two dimensional, I found that the discussions were primarily focused on colour’s deeper properties, such as its ability to influence mood, tell a story or channel energy. It is this that I felt really struck a chord with many of the visitors.

——

International artist Moritz Waldemeyer’s specially commissioned installation was one definite talking point. A 12-metre walkway, lit up on both sides by LEDs that change colour according to the fabrics or surfaces placed underneath a connected lamp/scanner device, became an immersive envelope and a welcome break from the hustle and bustle elsewhere.

Firstly, it was impressive to experience the dramatic shift in mood and atmosphere of the space that occured by making just one change: using a different colour of light. Secondly, the effects of varying the combinations of lights used and their proportion were equally intriguing and eye-opening. This is not something we generally encounter in our daily lives, because light is mostly of a single (predictable) colour. It need not be, and the effects created by layering different colours of light can be unexpected and powerful. The beauty is this. Whereas painted or papered surface finishes are of a fairly permanent nature, those created by light effects are temporary and flexible.

IMG_7053
Fabric and paper samples to choose from to be projected onto walls in Moritz Waldemeyer’s interactive installation.

At the showrooms, the conversations covered a wide range of topics within the realm of colour in interiors. Too many to describe each in detail, I highlight below a few that I found particularly fascinating.

There was a discussion at the Style Library about a less well-known side to William Morris’ work. Looking at designs that were based on his Icelandic expedition (who knew); and with an emphasis on how the colours of this unusual landscape affected him as well as what he felt when he saw then. An early study into colour psychology then…

Creation Baumann invited a designer in to give an introduction to biophilia (you guessed it, green is a biggie here). Harleen McLean delved into various aspects of designing spaces with people’s wellbeing in mind. No surprises here: the materials and colours around us can have a big impact on how we feel (leading us to be stressed/relaxed/calm/moody…you name it). I could not agree more, and have written on this myself in Utopia Kitchens and Bathrooms Magazine.

The Romo showroom introduced a new children’s collection at Villa Nova, in collaboration with three renowned children’s book illustrators. Moving away from cliche baby pinks and blues, the designs were oozing with colour, positive vibes, nature and a real sense of diversity. What an inspirational and unexpected space these can turn into for some lucky kid.

IMG_7088
Christopher Corr’s designs as part of Villa Nova’s new Picturebook collection 

Back at Style Library, Sophie Robinson offered a fascinating take on how she approaches colour decisions, by categorising individual colours into groups by season. While not something I practice, I have to agree there is a logic to this that seems very natural (I suppose that is the idea!) It is true that following nature’s clues in colour decisions results in harmonious spaces, and it is hard to go wrong.

This year in particular, I have increasingly been immersing myself in the deeper aspects of Interior Design; those discussions, elements and decisions that lie behind what we actually see in an interior. I therefore really enjoyed the debates that took centre stage at Focus/18; from the way we look at colour and interact with it, to the action of immersing oneself in colour, and ways to boost one’s health and wellbeing with the help of colour.

Colour is truly an amazing tool in an Interior Designer’s arsenal, and there are few other means to create such wonderfully personalised spaces. Every person and space has a story. Colour plays a big part in telling that story through an interior.

colour_wheel_2
The colour wheel. While a helpful tool, it is no more than an aide in colour decisions. Source: https://npgshop.org.uk/products/pocket-colour-wheel

Interior Design for Climate Change: Part II

In Part I of this article, I wrote about the link between Interior Design and climate change, and about ways in which Interior Designers can help prevent it in the first instance. But let’s face it, renovation and refurbishment is expensive business (especially if there is an element of retrofitting involved — e.g. heating systems, glazing, insulation etc). What if all that your budget, timeframe, building status or other constraints allow is to treat the symptoms? Not the preferred option, but far from an inconceivable situation for a designer to find themselves in.

Designing for comfort

Worth recalling is this: we as humans started designing in the first instance, millennia ago, in order to provide ourselves with a level of physical and psychological comfort. It is this idea of comfort that needs addressing in the context of interiors and climate change effects. 

The surfaces, finishes, furniture and lighting used in an interior affect our level of comfort in a given space. For instance, we are used to seeing tiled floors in warmer climates, and other flooring alternatives e.g. fitted wool carpet in cooler climates. I am sure many a UK house dweller would have been cursing that dense wool carpet underfoot in the recent heatwave.

Sisal, jute and seagrass are less popular but might all be more appropriate alternatives. Hard floors (e.g. wood or engineered) with rugs on top, or tiles with underfloor heating might also be more appropriate… as well as more flexible.  

Window treatments are another way of regulating whatever is going on outdoors (temperature, light etc) for the purposes of indoor comfort. Windows can account for 30% of energy losses in the colder months, and can substantially amplify the effects of sun rays in the warm months.

Thermal and solar blinds are more energy efficient than conventional window treatments. They keep the cold out and the warmth in, as well as diffusing sunlight and keeping harmful UV rays out of your home. Considering the direction of your windows and the use of the space will help determine the appropriate solution. 

phpThumb.php
A conservatory is an obvious place where solar blinds can dramatically improve comfort levels. Source: https://www.vbcpremierblinds.co.uk/made-to-measure-conservatory-blinds/

Beyond the fitted carpet…

Versatile and sustainable materials such as cork (used as flooring, wall covering, in furniture, accessories and more) should be high on the designer’s list given how well it adapts itself to different climates and conditions.

Less trendy, natural rubber and linoleum (a natural material, not to be confused with its synthetic equivalent vinyl) are totally under-appreciated but have many similar characteristics to cork, and numerous potential applications.

Not to mention various new composite materials; this is an ever evolving field. Even wood — not a new or fancy material — is hugely versatile and can be sustainable if appropriately sourced and certified. All of these can find numerous applications in an interior, and take you through the seasons with relative ease and comfort.

Cork flooring
Cork floor tiles in a West-facing room (warm and sunny in the afternoons, cold in the mornings).

The benefits of flexible furniture

Furniture on castors, or that which folds, rotates, is light and easy to move around etc, can be helpful in case of parts of a home drastically changing temperature or natural lighting conditions throughout the day. Even though the task is the same, you may want to vary the location of where you carry it out, for maximal comfort (working from home is a good example).

Adaptable furniture items with multiple uses are also in this category of climate change friendly items. In fact, I believe that flexibility is the number one criterion for the vast majority of Interior Design specifications, not the least in the context of drastically changing climate patterns.

Adaptable furniture
Adaptable furniture is practical as it has a multitude of uses. Source: http://sites.psu.edu/arch311w/2015/09/27/architecture-furniture-spatial-adaptability/

Light, air, colour, and more

When relief from the elements is required pronto, low energy consuming cooling and heating devices, in particular those with air quality sensors and cleaning ability, can come in handy. From a sustainability point of view too these are better than traditional power guzzling aircon units. Meanwhile powerful and efficient extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms can markedly improve the comfort of the users of these spaces. 

Other ways of dealing with the impact of climate change on our homes include variable lighting (self-adjusting, dimmers, sensors…) and seasonal home accessories. Certain materials and colours can amplify or regulate the effects of the heat, cold, drought, rain and so on. In the summer, I would prefer a cotton throw or rug over a wool one, light silk cushions over rich velvet ones, playful bright towels and tablecloths, and so on.

These are just some of the specific ways in which Interior Designers can help their clients cope better with the effects of climate change. There are others, I am sure. Importantly, new innovative interior products and materials are increasingly versatile and adaptable, helping create interior comfort irrespective of outdoor conditions. Comfort may be a trivial discussion in the context of the real issue at hand; and ideally, we would participate in the prevention (not only treatment) of climate change.

Interior Design for Climate Change: Part I

Is this is a bizarre topic to write on? Given most of us across Europe have spent the summer sweltering (both outdoors and indoors), it seems rather pertinent to me. Unless you are the 45th US President, you have probably noticed more extreme and less predictable weather patterns affecting your daily life. We are increasingly feeling climate change through colder winters, longer more intense heatwaves, excessive rainfall, drought and wildfires. Over time, all of these effects are predicted by scientists to intensify further, and to do so faster. 

Buildings consume energy

So what can and should Interior Designers do? Why should we care and how can we help? Buildings — the very fabric that Interior Designers work with — are substantial energy consumers (while being built, when in use, and once demolished). BP estimates that globally, Buildings consume 29% of total energy; in comparison to 20% consumed by the much maligned Transportation sector. BP also predicts that the relative energy demand of Buildings will grow further over time. 

The statistics are even more alarming in the world’s largest economy, the US, where Buildings currently account for 48% of the total energy consumption. Direct energy use includes heating, cooling, lighting and the use of electrical appliances within buildings. Indirect energy use is more complicated: how and where was everything that is in my home made? How did it get here? There are many nuances (and unknowns) to answering these questions. 

More sustainable thinking needed in Interior Design

I appreciate that the practice of Architecture and the standards and regulations associated with new buildings are increasingly focused on Sustainability. The field of Interior Design is, in my opinion, light years behind. Little thought is paid to genuine environmental considerations, greenwashing is rampant, and frankly, there is very little understanding of this complex topic (understandably so, I suppose). 

I think of the issue at hand, and Interior Designers’ involvement with it, similarly to how I think about an illness. You can either treat it, or make efforts to prevent it in the first instance. So Interior Designers can either propose ways of making interior environments more comfortable and enjoyable to occupy, despite climate change. Or indeed they can contribute to preventing it from happening in the first place. 

Part I: Prevention

Members of the Design community are increasingly, if slowly, becoming aware of their responsibility to consider climate change throughout their work. Most of the building stock globally, and certainly in the UK, is old and inefficient. The refurbishment of a home, office or commercial space provides an opportunity to not just make it look better and in tune with the latest trends, but to also make it more efficient and sustainable. For an Interior Designer, the 3 R’s of Sustainable Design are a good starting point: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

In my book, Reduce refers to specifying less, not more. I make a point of focusing on the essentials in a space. My design ethos, MAXIMAL minimalism, is about employing fewer items (less 3D), but creating more impact by 2D means. This may be through colour, pattern, texture or detail. Any or all of these, even when used sparingly, can have a big impact. Using fewer finishes, or specifying materials and items that can serve a dual purpose is good both for a client’s budget and for our planet. 

269_00
This gets a MAXIMAL Minimalism tag from us. Clean and simple lines, oozing comfort, with beautiful colour and a few quirks. Source: https://furnish.bg/en/news/esenni-tendencii-obzavejdane.html

Reusing can mean repurposing existing items within the same space, or going down the salvage and reclamation route. There is no easier way to create original interiors bursting with personality than reusing a 50 years old school desk, original Victorian doors, Edwardian ironmongery etc in new and unexpected ways. As I recently wrote, reselling bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets and the like can be easy and lucrative.

Recycle is the 3rd R. Both recycled content and recyclable materials and items are becoming more common. There is a clear (business) opportunity here given the nature and speed of consumption in today’s world, not the least in the sphere of interiors. As people grow ever more aware of the problems associated with landfill waste, recycling efforts in this sphere are bound to grow over time. The use of post-industrial waste is fairly common; but I have also come across materials and products made of recycled tyres, carpet, yoghurt pots and more. Needless to say, providing recycling opportunities when designing spaces goes under this heading too. 

2c96c54c22d44286a191ddddbf6eb606
DESIGN_Waste is one of several innovative waste processing projects taking shape today. The ethos of the project is viewing waste as a resource… and why not! Source: https://www.archilovers.com/stories/3330/waste-glass-transformation.html

Energy efficient LED lighting is widespread nowadays, and further innovations in the area of lighting are emerging all the time. Energy efficiency of appliances is a big selling point, and ever improving. Various smart controls and home automation methods are also helping address some of the issues by e.g. controlling cooling and heating more efficiently, as well as automatically switching off unused lights. Other interior elements are catching up — if slowly — with what has happened in the sphere of electrics.  

There are numerous ways of integrating sustainable elements and practices into interior projects. However, sometimes prevention alone is not enough. Come back soon to read the sequel to this article, Part II: Treatment. 

Two events, two audiences, one theme: Sustainability in interiors

I was involved in both last month’s leading trade and consumer focused interiors events — Clerkenwell Design Week and Grand Designs Live. The events shared the same unmistakable theme, that of Sustainability. Sustainability is increasingly hip in the world of interiors and design; except it’s not a trend but more of a necessity in today’s world. 

Don’t designers just fill spaces with stuff? It’s tricky…

To date, sustainability efforts in the Interior Design industry have been disparate and spontaneous at best. The subject is understandably tricky to approach for an Interior Designer; it is multifaceted and not at all black-and-white. Sustainability has hardly been front-of-mind historically for most of the leaders in this industry.

To put it very crudely, filling spaces with stuff (the caricature of Interior Design, once you strip it down to the very basics) is hardly environmentally sustainable practice. Our planet’s resources are stretched, and by and large this industry is not helping. The issue boils down to balancing the wants of our planet’s current inhabitants with the needs of future generations — a delicate balance indeed. Approaching the matter through this lens makes a designer feel very small, leaving them to wonder what exactly they can bring to the table. However just like every challenge, this one too presents an opportunity.

Sustainable design: the inflection point

Of course in reality there is much more to Interior Design than filling spaces with stuff, but this does often seem to be the general public’s perception of this industry. Attitudes can be painfully slow to change, both towards what we do and how we do it. However, we seem to have reached an inflection point, both among industry practitioners and the end users of our products and services.

I could not help but notice a common theme running through this year’s leading industry and consumer focused interiors events: Clerkenwell Design Week and Grand Designs Live, respectively. Sustainability is increasingly mainstream. There are signs that this is more than a passing trend, but in fact a new paradigm that will dictate the direction of this industry for years to come.

Clerkenwell Design Week: installations and more

The Reform installation from Bakers Patterns together with TDO, StudioDA and Studio 8Fold challenged the visitors’ understanding of sustainable materials. The sculptures produced as part of the installation were made of polystyrene. Often considered a ‘bad’ material as it cannot be recycled through regular municipal recycling schemes, it is in fact near-on fully recyclable if sent back to the manufacturer. It is unveiling facts like these that changes our perception and understanding of materials used throughout our projects; and can help create more sustainable spaces and products.

Reform installation
Reform installation at Clerkenwell Design Week by Bakers Patterns: polystyrene is not always ‘bad’.

Behind Closed Doors was a thought provoking and intriguing miniature interiors installation — a collaboration between Hakwood and Shape London. Conceived as a showcase of design styles, I noticed that in fact a number of the architectural practices that took part made a point on sustainability, in one way or another. A focus on sustainability is not entirely new for architectural practices; however Interior Designers too appear to be catching up in increasing numbers.

Behind Closed Doors
Part of the Behind Closed Doors miniature display at Clerkenwell Design Week, by Grey Griffiths Architects

There was the GCSE students’ pavilion design, within the scope of Scale Rule’s Next Generation Design Pavilion project, which also focused on the theme of Sustainability. Meanwhile the Your Tote Counts installation made many people question ingrained conceptions about what is and is not environmentally friendly. Visitors were told that totes are only more environmentally friendly than plastic bags if used literally 100s of times, and were encouraged to bring along unwanted totes in order to have these reprinted with new designs.

There were biodegradable water pouches made of seaweed handed out (a surreal experience of ‘eating’ water, but a fantastic idea if it can be made to work on a larger scale); talks on plastics, sustainable materials and approaches, and more. It is clear that visitors were being steered to think about a broad range of subjects through a certain lens, that of Sustainability.

Nip & Sip
‘Eating’ water at Clerkenwell Design Week: Nip & Sip

Grand Designs Live: Green Heroes

This year’s Grand Designs Live, the end-consumer oriented self-build and home improvement event, also had a firm Sustainability focus to it. GDL patron Kevin McCloud’s own passion for innovative eco-friendly and green building products dictated the spirit of the event; including a spotlight on Kevin’s Green Heroes.

Ranging from eco-friendly fuel sources (eco briquettes made from recycled coffee grounds) to self-build bamboo bicycles, and recycling of plastics (THE hot topic of the day); there was plenty on show at the event to engage the visitors’ imagination in respect of all things sustainable. Among the designer installations, the winning room set design by Finch London was a sustainability and health-focused kitchen. Topics of public talks at the event included sourcing sustainably and an introduction to natural building techniques.

Finch London Wellness Kitchen
Winning room set design at Grand Design Live: Wellness Kitchen by Finch London

Ultimately, successful designers are those who create spaces and products that clients want to live in or buy. It may be that in the coming years, Sustainability will increasingly become one of the top priorities for consumers and as an extension, Interior Design clients. If this is the case, designers will need to adjust and respond to this shift, or better still, anticipate it through their own strategies and decisions.

I am pleased to report that Sustainability is one of my own special design interests. Constantly looking for new ways to design more sustainably, I look forward to bringing this paradigm to more client projects in the future!

MAXIMAL minimalism: an ethos, not a style

The design world can get rather fixated on the notion of style. While helpful as an indication of what look a designer might achieve for a client; thinking in terms of style alone is not always relevant. Instead, I believe that profiling a design practice in terms of ethos or approach is in fact often of more use to a client. It is in this context that I present my design ethos: MAXIMAL minimalism. A notion that initially sounds like an oxymoron, but is hopefully adequately explained in this post!

Design with a message

At its core, my design ethos amounts to a very simple notion: everything that is in a space is there for a reason (the reason can be functional or aesthetic). William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement (or Mr Liberty patterns, as many know him), is credited with saying: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

Incidentally, I am appreciative of the work that he and his associates produced, even if what I create is visually very different to it. Perhaps it is therefore his ethos rather than style that I can truly relate to? His designs are world renowned, but his ethos, writing and social activism are far less well known. Oftentimes, good designers also have a lot to say about what they’re doing and why…

Minimalism — simple, small, untrendy, imperfect, more sustainable

The starting point for my design work is Scandi-inspired clean and simple lines and planes. Less stuff, clutter and ornament. I suppose this element could also be attributed to Japanese influences — after all, Scandi and Japanese designs are markedly alike in a number of ways. I do not have a problem with large plain surfaces, simplicity and continuity. Rather than adding ever more to enhance a design, sometimes it is best to leave the materials, shapes or colours speak for themselves. 

1c262e06338ffa75745f35a3e72c13a6
Interior by Alvar Aalto, the father of Scandinavian Modernism. Source: http://plastolux.com/alvar-aalto-captured-bruno-suet.html#.Ww_rlC_MxcA

My other minimalist feature is an interest in working with small spaces. I am probably less good at making a grand statement within a giant space, than making the most of a small space. Space is at a premium in most of the world’s large cities. I once put it to an audience of fellow Interior Designers that in 20 years time, we will all be designing micro-homes. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but we will certainly all be designing many more micro-homes than we are today. In small spaces, less is definitely more (literally).

I am also minimalist when it comes to trend. Seriously, I try to steer clear. Of course I keep an eye on what is trendy at a given point in time — it is hard not to, as it is everywhere around you. However I do not consciously make design decisions based on trends. Blindly following trends is akin to headless chickens running around: you can never quite keep up. If trends drive design decisions, then it is likely that not enough thought is put into the process by the designer in the first place. 

I equally try to be minimalist on perfection (“OMG did she just say that?”) Designers tend to be notoriously perfectionist. The problem is, people and their lives are not. Done is better than perfect, good is better than perfect, there are so many things that are better than perfect… I like to design something good, that is suitable for the users of the space and their needs. This notion was strengthened in my mind when Ronan Bouroullec, one of my design idols, answered a question I posed to him at a recent event by saying that he and his brother (a leading product and furniture design duo) aim to create products that are good not perfect. 

Vitra-slow-chair-main
Good not perfect (apparently!) Slow chair, Vitra. Design by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec. Source: https://www.nest.co.uk/product/vitra-slow-chair-ottoman 

It follows from all of the above, that my designs also have less environmental impact; and yes, less budget impact! (I.e. less spent on the project and more left for you. Yet to hear someone complain about that.) On the environmental side, I admit that I have a bit of a dilemma. I try to think and act sustainably, but I also design for a living. Surely the most sustainable option is doing nothing; no Interior Design whatsoever. This isn’t always possible, as spaces change uses and users, who all have different needs and wants. However, having a Sustainability focused mindset can result in better and more interesting solutions to design problems, while being less taxing on future generations. Whenever possible, I try to reduce, reuse and/or recycle; as well as sourcing more responsibly if the option is there. Always on the lookout for ideas on how to do things more sustainably! 

MAXIMAL — functional, practical, thought-through, colour and pattern, personality, happiness

First and foremost, it is functionality that I try to base my designs around. MAXIMAL function and practicality, irrespective of the size of the space or the budget. In fact, constraints such as these (size and budget) can often lead to lateral thinking and better solutions to design problems. (What’s a design problem, you’re wondering. Design projects are full of them. It is the designer’s ability to address these that makes all the difference.)

MAXIMAL thought also goes into my projects. Sometimes designers can get carried away with doing, at the expense of thinking. It’s for this reason that my blog is called a Think Tank, and I post pieces that do more than present latest colour trends. The more thought that goes into a project — researching the location, understanding the clients and their needs, studying space planning alternatives in great detail, genuinely comparing materials and products, and so on — the better the outcome. 100% of the time. 

IMG_4065 copy
Analysing space planning options for an apartment.

The other thing that is MAXIMAL in my designs is colour. Not so much colour as a statement, or just for the sake of it, but colour with intention and meaning. This is where I really start to move away from the Scandi theme; adding a layer of vibrant colours in order to bring life and energy to a space. Over the last decade, greige has taken over our lives and certainly the High-end Interior Design sector. The problem is, it just doesn’t do it for me; and it appears that many clients feel the same. 

Alongside colour, I also try to add 3D effect to 2D surfaces through the use of pattern. It is easy to throw in one pattern into a scheme, but harder to make two or more work in unison, alongside everything else that is going on in a space. Again this is a departure from Scandi simplicity, the MAXIMAL to my minimal. Patterns help add interest, movement and depth to a space: I’m all for them!

0d806c6a-f027-4c7f-a1d6-9ddfa7e7e940 3
A recent design that showcased colour and pattern in a space that was actually minimalist at its core.

MAXIMAL personality — yours not mine. There is nothing more annoying for a client than employing a designer to create a space for you, only to see them bring their vision to life, instead of yours. As a designer, it is easy to take your own style, and design something in that style. It is much harder to understand and interpret someone else’s vision, turning it into reality. Clients will often gravitate towards one designer or another based on their portfolio; however ultimately they will want to live in a space that is true to them. 

Last but not least, I set out to create spaces that generate MAXIMAL happiness. Poorly designed and/or executed spaces can make their users miserable. Be it through the visual or practical elements, my intention is to create spaces that are a pleasure to be in, and put a smile on people’s faces. Warm, uplifting, welcoming, comfortable etc is what I try to aim for. I recently wrote that we spend c.90% of our time indoors. With this in mind, it is imperative that spaces make us feel good, and are good for us.

To sum up, MAXIMAL minimalism is a blend of visual characteristics and underlying thought processes that drive my design work. There is no right or wrong when it comes to a design vision and ethos. What I do know is that this is the one that works best for me: minimalist spaces with MAXIMAL impact.