In a virtual panel hosted by ThinkLab President Amanda Schneider today, The Future of Materiality: Exploring new technologies, ideas, and inspiration for the design ecosystem, designers and material experts made clear that while there is "no magic ticket" to solve the many challenges tied to creating safe, socially distant spaces, the future of the industry remains bright.
Kicking off the conversation, Schneider asked panelists—Primo Orpilla, Interior Design Hall of Fame member and cofounder of Studio O+A , Yorgo Lykouria, founder and creative director at Rainlight, Suzanne Tick, founder of her namesake studio, and Dr. Andrew Dent, EVP of material research at SANDOW's Material ConneXion—to weigh in on recent material innovations, particularly those with virus-fighting properties. To that, the group agreed that behavioral shifts, such as frequent hand washing, offer more known health benefits than adding antiviral, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties to products. "The idea that somehow our products can keep us safe, I think we should probably stay away from," said Dr. Dent, noting that these newer technologies should be used with caution. Lykouria echoed this sentiment. "It is really about assessing each opportunity, or each problem, or each challenge in a fresh way," he said.
But owners of commercial spaces, such as office buildings, often demand immediate and clear solutions to facilitate reopening efforts. "Ownership wants nice little things they can just go to—the problem is, there isn't a nice little thing they can go to," said Orpilla, who put together return-to-work toolkits with his team at Studio O+A, drawing on a sourced pool of information about designing in the midst of the pandemic. The kits offer guides for interacting safely in shared spaces, and even include playful stickers that serve as safety reminders to encourage behavioral shifts. "We want to make sure that we don’t strip out what made spaces great and comfortable by overdoing it to make spaces safe and cleanable," he added.
As designers begin to address the physical and psychological impacts of the pandemic in their work, an increasing importance is being placed on sustainable materials that imbue a sense of comfort and beauty. Tick shared that her team is "not so intensely driving high-performance" products, rather they are focused on the sentiment that each material adds to a space. "When we’re touching on this point of design and beauty and about human consciousness and state of mind… the responsibility to create is great," added Lykouria. "I think this is where design needs to have a lot more authority in this world—and it’s not design as in it’s nice to have, but design as a must have, as an essential quality of our lives.
Panelists agreed that well-balanced environments, rather than clinical, sterile spaces, will continue to pave the way forward with careful planning and a bit of imagination. For instance, in lieu of plastic screens, Orpilla and his team are experimenting with using planters as alternative ways to guide people through a space. "We don't want to strip out the joy and the fun that we get out of work," he said. But in order for lasting change to take hold, the A&D community needs to work together, sharing institutional knowledge as well as innovations to create a safe and sustainable future. As Lykouria said, "what is going to change the world is new behavioral patterns, and that begins with design."