Dispatches from Designers Around the Globe

The world has changed—inarguably and perhaps irrevocably—over the past few weeks as COVID-19 has spread, shutting down travel, borders, and communal gatherings across the globe. At the same time, we are reorienting our attention to the large-scale effects of microscopic infections in our bodies, our communities, and the built environment.

Each of us is in a different place, geographically and psychologically, dealing in our own ways with uncertainty and the new normal, which for many involves working from home—alone. Yet we are in this together. As Interior Design Editor in Chief Cindy Allen recently said in a message to the design community: "We are all rewriting the playbook as we go. But we can take heart: Designers are well equipped to help solve humanity’s most complex problems, including this one. Facing real-life challenges is what we do on a daily basis...building, being positive, and being strong together."

More grateful than ever for the ability to connect virtually and by phone, Interior Design travelled around the world (from the safety of home) to check in with members of our community from Shanghai to Milan to Washington DC, documenting how the pandemic has affected designers, industry leaders, and architects who—in the midst of uncertainly—also shared their hopes for a safer future.

Editor's note: This story marks the first installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic. 

Read more: A Message From Editor in Chief Cindy Allen



Arthur Casas, Studio Arthur CasasSão Paulo, Brazil 

I believe that, like everyone on this planet, we are scared and trying to adapt to a situation that is unprecedented. We are working from home; all face-to-face meetings have been cancelled. No project has been cancelled yet, but there will certainly be a negative impact. It all happened so fast. Habits will change; today, more than ever, it is in our home—and not in the city—that we will find our refuge, our shelter. We need to have serenity.

In the 90s, the home office started to be recommended, but people still preferred face-to-face contact. I've always wondered: Why would it still be so necessary to move around so much for meetings or lectures? I think that, from now on, we will start to be less wasteful with our time.

Today, I’m going to have lunch with a friend. We had set up lunch a month ago, so we didn’t want to miss this meeting. Now, it will be via FaceTime. It will be fun. However, I don’t know if we will ever be able to replace a hug. Yesterday, the Brazilian Minister of Health asked for people to not allow children to visit their grandparents, considering the possibility of physical contact, kissing—getting closer would be inevitable. I believe that there is nothing that the industry can do to replace the irreplaceable.

Debra Lehman Smith, LSM, Washington, D.C., U.S.

I’ve been on the phone the past few days with our clients who are worrying about supply chain issues and deliveries. How do you manage a client’s nerves at the other end and deal with the people at the forefront who are working hard on our behalf? You stay calm and deal with them all. You have to keep everybody informed and safe. Our offices are teleworking and still visiting construction sites if they’re open, but we’re wearing gloves and masks. Most people are teleworking right now and we’re encouraging that. 

Design is a collaborative profession and sites need eyes to walk through them, so we’ve been focused on: How does our senior leadership work on teams with clients, internally and externally? Then we challenge our construction sites to be creative, but to stay safe. We saw a lot of consultants last week send us emails that said 'we have closed our offices and are working from home. We didn’t want to say that.' We say: 'We met on your project and here’s how we’re handling our responsibilities, and here’s when the teams are meeting and here are the teams who are working on your project.' Because everyone’s nervous right now and we need to be proactive. My job and my partner’s job is to be calm and look forward and be realistic, but not to be overly nervous. Great design needs a collaborative back and forth. We’re learning and doing it in real time and it’s really hard. Anybody who says it’s not hard is not being honest.

This is going to change the way we think. What I’ve been dealing with in the past few days is people who hopefully won’t say, I only want to use products made in the United States. We have supply chain issues so we probably need to be more eyes wide open in being able to answer that. We probably need to give ourselves more time to organize things. We’ve been telling our people and our clients let’s focus on what we can affect right now. That’s why we call our Italian suppliers each morning and look at our chains in Europe and in China. How can we be proactive with delivery to construction sites? How can we track who’s working and getting things done? How can we be helpful? Creativity isn’t over. Great design isn’t over. It’s just harder right now.

Piero Lissoni, Lissoni & PartnersMilan, Italy

Luckily, for the moment, we are not infected, which is a great success. Our office in Milan is closed, we closed everything weeks ago and moved into teleworking. We closed the office in Manhattan and everyone is working at home in good communication. But we started to work outside the office [in Italy] more than three weeks ago and so we were saved. All the factories are, in a very slow way, continuing to work. The situation is very dramatic. But we need to keep in our minds to be very positive. We are for sure a little bit hurt, we have broken our legs for sure. But in time we will need to start to run. We need to stop being so egotistic, because can you imagine if we start playing again by the same rules? We need to think in new ways. We have to think of hospitals, of ways of using the intellectual economy. Not only for profit, but to be humanized...

Two weeks ago feels like another world. Now, we have to be more honest. We don’t need to change our devices or our car every two years. Design needs to be both sophisticated and secure. When we design buildings, we need to be intelligent: To use the last generation of the façade and not throw out half the materials, to not decide to use carbonate again in 2020. For so many years, 100 percent of architecture was done in the wrong way. Now, it’s closer to 20 percent and I hope we can keep designing with these attitudes.

Homes should be designed more for the social qualities of life. As for me, I listen to music and work a lot and design a lot of stuff and read every day—but from home, not from my studio. I need to learn, to understand. I don’t want to think that this is just a terrible time and it will pass and life will come back to as it was before. That’s not true. I want to understand the positive parts of this new life and to improve the future, too. I make drawings, write letters, talk to my people, exactly like regular life but with incredibly interesting improvements. 

Yu Ting, Wutopia Lab, Shanghai, China

We worked from home until the middle of March [in Shanghai]. Now we go to the office every afternoon. We will work all day at the office from the beginning of April. No projects have been cancelled, but as workers couldn’t go back to work and designers couldn’t visit sites, the schedules of construction are delayed. In the past, most design periods were fast-paced and intense. But with the pause as a result of the coronavirus, we get more time to think.

Most infections are happening in public space. Nowadays, buildings do not take these crises into account during their design. We need to consider how to face crises both in design and technical ways. For example, some hospitals tried to introduce robots into medicine delivery and daily examination, to reduce unnecessary contact. But the buildings are designed for the sight lines of humans, not robots. The stairs, the doors, and the walls bring a lot trouble in a robot’s motion and getting feedback.

But most importantly, we need to be optimistic and calm. To be self-disciplined. And to keep a distance from others.

Patrick Jouin, Jouin MankuParis, France

I’m fine. I’m confined. Everyone is home and using GoToMeeting or Skype all day long. It’s a little scary because some projects are on hold, some are cancelled, but we still have to design and produce new ideas. It’s like Janus with two sides of your head: One pretty amazed about the situation, happy to be with my children and to live in a suspended moment; the other, super worried.

Right now we are working with Architecture Studio and Artelia on a competition for one of the biggest hospitals in Paris. We started the design of the project two months ago, imagining the future of medicine. It’s not a military hospital but it is one of the future hospitals, in case of a war [it] is supposed to be there for the Parisians. Right now, the hospital is a machine where real people are working, and some patients are getting better and some are dying. All this is in front of me. It’s a source of inspiration that is very strong. And I’m working in my bedroom. It’s a suspended moment. Beautiful ideas come when you are in a moment like this, feeling lonely. Loneliness is an amazing flame for invention. Sadness is also super-efficient in creating beautiful ideas. Just look out the window and many good ideas will come.

As a designer, you have to learn from this moment. Usually, you become a designer because you want to do something for humans. This moment places humanity in the middle of the game. It’s a profound moment for us to critique the society we should have. We can compare this moment to another important moment in history, Hiroshima. That was the end of modernity, when we understood that scientific progress can have a dark side and believing in a future with that kind of progress was the wrong path. This virus is already telling us something. They are the result of our blindness to what we’re doing to the earth and its equilibrium. We have to be better. To consume less. As a designer, it’s hard to see this clearly and with honesty, because we act like kings and say what we are doing is something better but every time it’s linked to consumerism. We have to be better with everything we do. Our role in this is not easy.

Yves Béhar, Fuseproject, San Francisco, U.S.

My fantastic ops team had been preparing for working from home three weeks prior, so everyone was trained and ready to go. I would also say that this is a team that constantly travels and works with clients to vendors and partners from every continent, so working remotely or on-the-go is engrained at Fuseproject already. I was initially really worried whether we could continue to collaborate with a high degree of quality and speed remotely, but I have been so impressed in the last two weeks with the client presentations we have given. So far, fingers crossed, we haven’t had projects cancelled. But look, I am not naïve. I don’t believe anyone will come out of this crisis unscathed.

Design is full of people who are flexible and can be creative in how they adapt. We are lucky because we are in the conceptual phase of a couple of exhibit design projects, so exchanging ideas and directions with our clients can be easily done via Zoom. It probably gets more complicated when in-person inspections and sample reviews are required. Hopefully we will be passed this whole debacle when that needs to happen.

Meanwhile, we have started working on an emergency project to support efforts to test everyone in small towns. These are new initiatives, so we are supporting these efforts with branding and informational websites. It feels right to apply our skills to these fast-paced response efforts. More long-term, I think architecture is about bringing people together in physical environments, so it’s hard to imagine architects and designers doing this work without this human element. From an industrial design, user experience, and technology standpoint, we will need solutions for ongoing monitoring and testing, at a minimum when traveling and possibly on an ongoing basis in everyday life. While these ideas feel Orwellian today, I think designers will have to play a role to minimize fear and privacy intrusions, while emphasizing the common good and benefit for all in these pandemic preventative designs.

In the first few days of meeting my team virtually, I found that some of the formalities such as dress codes and isolation from home life have fallen away. The result is that I see family members and pets showing up during Zoom calls, and those previously frowned-upon moments are actually humanizing. We have more patience and tolerance for those interruptions. The new normal is less formal, and less formality means more humanity. I do miss the hugs though.


Up next: Designers Look Toward the Future in Uncertain Times

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