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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!

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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!

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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. 

The “other” 90%, or why interiors matter

Last time I wrote, I promised to post soon on the value of Interior Design. If you’re wondering what on earth I am on about, read on.

Here’s a stat that might surprise and shock you in equal measure. On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors (no, there is no typo there). In other words, we spend most of our lives interacting with some form of interior (yes, we even interact with some form of interior when we sleep). It follows that what we do with our interiors has a significant effect on us, certainly bigger than I had imagined.  

The state of our built environment and interiors affects our wellbeing, mood, health, productivity, interaction with one another, comfort, safety and more. Not many regard Interior Design as overarching as this, but as the inspirational Shashi Caan argues (a guru Interior Design thinker and practitioner), Interior Design is the design discipline that is “most profoundly connected to human concerns” (http://www.sccollective.com/profile/publications – this book is my bible!) 

I first came across the 90% statistic when researching the concept of Healthy Spaces (more on that soon, in a different blog post); and have never looked at the built environment quite the same way again. Let’s break down the argument and look at some examples. 

MOOD

Can you recall a time you entered a space and your face lit up? A swoonsome new restaurant, a cool and relaxed co-working space, or the most amazing hotel bedroom you have ever slept in in your life. By the same token, you probably remember some drab spaces that have made you feel down in the dumps, wanting to turn around and leave. A miserable old-fashioned office, a cluttered and dingy home, or perhaps a drab function hall with ridiculously high ceilings, freezing temperature and cold lighting. In these instances, you will note that the state of a given interior has had a direct influence on how you felt. Well, this happens all the time, with every single space that we enter. It happens so much that we don’t even think about it, but perhaps we should?

Perrachica Madrid

Uplifting restaurant interior (Perrachica Madrid) – how would you feel entering this space? Source: http://perrachica.com

HEALTH AND WELLBEING

As for health and wellbeing, don’t even get me started. I’m sorry to say, but I have recently found out that more often than not, interiors contribute to making us physically unwell (in addition to making us less happy and less productive!) There is a growing body of authoritative evidence suggesting that indoor air quality can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest most industrial cities. E.g. the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates indoor air quality to be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air, on average. I will go into the detail of why this is the case, and what can be done about it, in a separate post. Do make a mental note to check back soon and read it, if interested. The bottom line is, that just like healthy food and healthy lifestyles are becoming mainstream, something similar is sure to happen in the sphere of the built environment. The transition will take time, and will be uncomfortable for many in the industry (but it will happen). 

Symptoms of Indoor Air Pollution

A less cheery topic: indoor air pollution.
Source: https://www.aplusinspections.net/indoor-air-quality-mold-inspections/

INTERACTION WITH ONE ANOTHER, COMFORT

Moving on to interaction and our dealings with one another. I cannot help but notice how much these are affected by the way our interiors are set up. Example. I take my children to a gymnastics class, and the organisers have been clever enough to separate a small part of the hall for parents and children to sit in before and after their class. Now unfortunately the cleverness ends there, as the chairs are always arranged in long rows, all facing into one direction. In addition to being uncomfortable and impractical (oh, and you are literally staring at a wall), the arrangement also discourages interaction. How about putting them in a circle, into clusters, or even scattering randomly around the space. This is just one example. Time and time again, I notice people: A) not interacting with one another when they could be; or B) being visibly uncomfortable when dealing with others, in settings where interiors have been poorly designed. At reception desks, commercial counters, offices, you name it.

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Comfort (or lack thereof) in an office setting. Source: http://www.hysdfurniture.com/?p=2984

Sure, these are just little things and situations, but they all add up to a bigger problem. When interiors are poorly designed, their users suffer (I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, to be clear this may be literal or metaphorical!) I know that some people will be sceptical, suggesting I tone down my cheerleading for Interior Designers. But maybe try this thought process. Most of the housing, commercial, institutional and retail building stock that we will come across in our lifetimes has already been built, i.e. it exists. It follows that what we do with these existing buildings and their interiors, the very definition of Interior Design, can make a meaningful difference to our lives (and our planet – more on this in another forthcoming blog post). Interior Design is at its most useful when it concerns itself first with people, and second with spaces (not vice versa). 

What is Interior Design, again?

This post was meant to be called The value of Interior Design. However, as I was writing it, I got too carried away with defining Interior Design, and so I am afraid you will have to come back soon to read said post on the value of Interior Design. Rest assured, this one is at least as important.

Honestly, there are so many misconceptions out there about Interior Design that I feel there is a need to clarify what it really is. By and large, Interior Design has become known as a luxury sector, associated with lavish lifestyles, picture-perfect room sets in glossy magazines, and bloated budgets. In this blog post, I set out to rethink and redefine Interior Design as what it is at the core.

WHY I CARE ABOUT THIS SO…

I recently retrained at KLC School of Design, completing an Interior Design Diploma course. In my previous life I worked in the completely unrelated world of Investment Banking (a hotbed of creative talent it is not!) and studied International Relations at the London School of Economics (well, another place that is not a hotbed of creative talent). 

When I decided to retrain as an Interior Designer, my intentions were met with some scepticism. “What exactly is there to study? Aren’t you just going to be matching curtains with cushions?” Etc etc. I don’t think my friends are the only ones out there who think this is all it’s about, and I don’t really blame them.

Interior Design is often confused with the related, but different, practice of Interior Decoration. In fact, many projects will involve both processes, and many professionals will wear both hats [puts hand up]. To be clear, I am not saying that Interior Decoration is inferior to Interior Design. However, many people think that Interior Decoration is all there is to Interior Design, and that is not the case. 

Interior mood boards and plans

Examples of some of the Interior Decoration and Interior Design elements of a project

SEMANTICS, SEMANTICS

It’s in the dictionary, so it must be true. Actually, not always. A cursory look at online dictionary definitions of the concept Interior Design yields a range of answers, all of which look incomplete to me, if not outright incorrect. Let’s see…

Cambridge Dictionary:
The art of planning the decoration of the inside of a building such as a house or office. 

[The art of planning? What’s that about? I thought planning was very nearly the polar opposite of art! Not just the art of planning, but the art of planning the decoration. How about the art of decoration; or perhaps planning the inside of a building etc. I’m not sure about this one. From personal experience, I can say there is definitely more to Interior Design than planning the decoration of a space.]

Collins Dictionary:
The art or profession of designing the decoration for the inside of a house. 

[Firstly, Interior Design does not solely concern itself with houses i.e. people’s homes. Far from it. The most important Interior Design interventions, in my opinion, involve much larger buildings – schools, hospitals, airports, you name it. Secondly, listen to this: designing the decoration. I thought you are either designing or decorating, or perhaps doing a bit of both, simultaneously. However designing the decoration is in my opinion strangely and confusingly worded. Well at least this definition goes beyond art, and also suggests there might be a profession in it. Phew, I didn’t retrain in vain.]

Merriam Webster Dictionary:
The art or practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings. 

[So we’re still stuck in this idea of art, referring to the creative aspects involved in Interior Design, but at least the word practice is introduced here. I like the use of the words planning and supervising, as they do give a little more weight to the role a designer plays. However it falls short, as the subject of the intervention is deemed to be architectural interiors (technically there is a separate profession of Architectural Designer, but let’s leave that out of this discussion) and their furnishings. Better, but we are only talking about the most obvious elements of Interior Design. How about space planning, ergonomics, building regulations etc…there is more to it.]

Other online dictionaries offer more definitions along the same lines. The bottom line for me is – these are all incomplete and somewhat confusing definitions. (No disrespect to whoever wrote them. I mean it.) I found some better ones…

IIDA (International Interior Design Association) is more familiar with the matter, thankfully. Here is what they have to say:

The profession of Interior Design is relatively new, constantly evolving, and often confusing to the public. [My underlining.] NCIDQ, the board for Interior Design qualifications, defines the profession in the best way: The Professional Interior Designer is qualified by education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces. 

Not only are we now talking about a profession and qualifications (as opposed to the vague art of something), but we are also moving away from decorative elements and towards function and quality. I feel this is much closer to the day-to-day reality of an Interior Designer’s work. 

However here is my favourite one, by the people in the industry who I personally respect a great deal and can relate to the most: IFI (International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers). The BIID (British Institute of Interior Design) in the UK also adopts this definition as their own:

Qualified by education, experience and applied skills, the professional Interior designer accepts the following responsibilities:

  1. Identify, research and creatively solve problems pertaining to the function and quality of the interior environment;
  2. Perform services relating to interior spaces including programming, design analysis, space planning, aesthetics and inspection of work on site, using specialized knowledge of interior construction, building systems and components, building regulations, equipment, materials and furnishings;
  3. Prepare schematics, drawings and documents relating to the design of interior space, in order to enhance the quality of life and protect the health, safety, welfare and environment of the public

Wow. Are we really talking about the same concept as the dictionaries are describing, as above? Research, problems, quality, programming, design analysis, specialised knowledge, building regulations, schematics and most importantly: enhance the quality of life. It’s to do this that I retrained. Not to practice some vague art of decorating (as much as I enjoy the decorative elements of a project). 

Come back soon to read part II of this discussion: where I think the real value of Interior Design lies.