4 Coast-to-Coast Designers Stand Strong and Look to the Future

The COVID-19 pandemic continues with an unprecedented attack upon urban centers of the United States, particularly on the coasts. Meanwhile, stoppages and pauses of construction and design projects continue to impact the industry. Here, Interior Design goes coast-to-coast to hear from architects and designers in California and New York about the challenges and opportunities our communities continue to face.

Editor's note: This story is the fifth 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.

Andy Lantz, RCH Studios, Los Angeles, U.S.

We made some big decisions early on, which involved updating our provider services and planning for a work-from-home situation in anticipation of what a response to COVID-19 could look like. As a result, our transition was seamless. Many of our projects are moving forward. And we are incredibly fortunate that our industry is capable of moving forward and stewarding projects through all phases of development, from early project ideation with clients to new ways to coordinate safe procedures on job sites, using extended technological capacity that allows us to work at home.

Our office talks a lot about adaptation—everything from climate adaptation to our professional adaptation in how we work and deliver for our clients. This situation has given us an entirely new perspective on adaptation. The ways we inspire and encourage innovation and ownership within our staff allows for teams to quickly discover way to reinvent project collaboration and delivery in our new normal.

We are starting to see the impacts on this situation on sourcing materials, nationally and internationally, so we need to find ways to approach work and foster engagement with local sources and industries. It is important to quickly shift directions to minimize impacts on construction by specifying local products where and when you can. Keeping your community thriving during these times—where allowed by state and when safe!—is a positive way to find opportunity in adversity.

Seeing your teammates outside of the day-to-day project needs is vital to maintaining the personal connection that happened in the office, so keep those lunch dates, even if they are on Zoom. As leaders, we can advocate for daily rituals such as “good morning” at 8:30 a.m. and “good night” by 5:30 p.m. We can place focus on wellbeing, and push staff to establish boundaries in their schedules for their own daily rituals, while alleviating the fatigue of endless meetings by challenging teams to shift from 60-minute meetings to 30-minute conversations. And we can empower our staff with information, not anxiety, but taking the time to read and review state and federal orders as they come out, giving access to new information through HR teams and leadership groups as a resource. Just because we are all working from home doesn’t mean we should stop being good collaborators.

David Oldroyd, ODADA, San Francisco, U.S.

Working through a third week, while understanding it’s going to continue for another four to six or longer, is humbling. That first week was a difficult transition, having to learn all at once in real time all the new technology for connection. It’s really hard to describe what a fabric feels like, over the phone, or the nuance of a color. The emotion and atmosphere we try to create is tough to convey. We have projects that are in the middle—they stopped when construction was halfway through and some of the furniture has been ordered and some of it hasn’t—so we’re trying to keep the momentum going by refreshing our clients’ memories on the materials they’ve chosen with photographs and using that as backdrop for future decisions we have to make on those rooms.

Almost none of our clients have put their projects on hold; they realize we are all in the same boat. They think this is a temporary thing, not a long-term thing. I’ve been very heartened by everyone’s willingness to just grab ahold of the reins and keep going, clients included, and that there hasn’t been a panic. Over the last two weeks a lot of wonderful inward thinking has happened and I think we’re going to reevaluate what’s important in our lives. That is going to translate to how we evaluate aesthetics. It might shift to what’s more practical—is it family-centered, is it comfortable, does it say hearth and home? It could also increase the perceived value of what’s been made before; it feels to me we might revert to things that feel like they’ll last for twenty years or more.

My instinct is that we’ll probably want to do with less rather than more, going forward, focusing on quality and purpose and longevity and letting those be the guiding principle for the beauty we chose to surround ourselves with, going forward.  I have always believed that people are better human beings when their surroundings are organized, logical, and beautiful. I think you stand up straighter, treat each other with more kindness, appreciate your neighbors and families, all when your surroundings are appropriate for you. That doesn’t have to be expensive. When you walk into a room, you may not understand or even like all the choices, but if it feels right, it can stir your soul. The definition of richness and beauty is going to shift and take on more urgency.

Andrew Kotchen and Matt Berman, Workshop/APD, New York, U.S.

MB: There will always be some glitches when you relocate nearly 50 people to home offices at once, but within 24-48 hours after we closed our physical space, every member of our team was up and running with the hardware, software, and connectivity needed to do their jobs remotely. We’ve grown to love Microsoft Teams for internal communications. We want to be mindful and respectful of the times and their financial and emotional implications, but we also know that it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the work moving forward. There’s a lot of reading between the lines, managing anxieties, and making sure clients feel comfortable and informed.  Some clients are just better equipped to move forward, and there are others whose first instinct is to hunker down and pause.

AK: Thankfully we’ve only had one project cancelled—primarily because of the pandemic’s economic implications—but like everyone else we have also had a few clients put projects on hold. Or, projects are slower to move to the next stage once a phase is completed. Relationship management feels more important than ever right now with our clients. The projects that are active are absolutely still active. At this point it’s a matter of solving for and guiding clients through the logistical challenges that COVID-19 presents: staffing, construction delays, supply chain concerns, and local and federal rules around essential and non-essential work.

MB: On the flip side, there has been unprecedented connectivity within our industry. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with architects, designers, consultants and manufacturers across the country in the last few weeks. The community has galvanized to share information, discuss problems and solutions, and figure out how to support our most vulnerable members. Architecture and design are creative and collaborative, but in the end this is still a competitive service industry, and information that we might not have shared previously is out on the table right now.

AK: So we need to address the crisis on two fronts. The first is financial. We’re focused on securing the business and know that at this point we can’t just be looking at tomorrow. We’re working to further recession-proof the business for the long term. We’re glad to not have all eggs in one basket, something we learned in 2008. We’ve grown our hospitality business tremendously since then but are grateful that we’ve maintained a diverse project portfolio.

MB: The second is in addressing the crisis’s implications for humanity. How do we ensure that our team, our clients, consultants and collaborators are healthy? How do we use our talents for the greater good? And how do we take the lessons we’ve learned from our time trapped at home to build even better living spaces moving forward?

AK: Across industries, establishing a strong culture within the work environment seems to be the key to keeping people happy and engaged, and in this instance we’ve seen that it translates to remote work. For Workshop/APD, the work ethic and culture hasn’t changed. It’s not just confined to an office.

MB: We’ve also worked tirelessly over the last few weeks to foster that culture—we’ve encouraged video chat over phone calls and emails whenever possible, and have hosted regular all-team meetings. We also have a daily lunch break in the virtual “kitchen,” Friday virtual happy hour, birthday celebrations, virtual project and vendor presentations, a collaborative Workshop/APD Spotify channel with themed playlists, and the team has compiled a tremendous guidebook that features everything from streaming fitness options to resources for parents balancing work and remote learning. We’re disappointed in the federal government’s response to the crisis, and the news is disheartening, but our industry is not. We’re especially pleased that designers are getting together to supports small and local craftsmen and manufacturers, who are particularly vulnerable right now. I know there’s a group of designers gathering a list of local workrooms that are still open, so we can support their businesses whenever possible. In a scary time, there is still a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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