Floored by design flaws

Image of Tyler Brûlé

You may have noticed there’s a lot of design around in the media at the moment (this paper included – see my column in the Design & Craft supplement). From specials on Italian sofamaking dynasties in the Brianza region of Lombardy to reports on the emerging stars of the world’s top design schools, magazines, newspapers, websites and TV channels are gearing up for the biggest design event on the international calendar, the Milan Furniture Fair.

If you haven’t had the good fortune to be in Milan when the event takes over the city, it’s worth a try – at least once. The fair sees the glittering and the gritty from the worlds of design, manufacturing, procurement, retail and media zigzagging around, trying to figure out what’s on trend, what’s off, who has the best giveaways and where the prosecco flows most freely.

At the massive exhibition grounds in the suburbs, entire apartments, offices and kitchens are built to show off the latest walk-in storage units for people with too many shoes, sectional sofas are arranged “diwan” style to attract the attention of wholesalers selling to Saudis, while special field kitchens keep the snapping, sketching, scribbling masses fed with dainty plates of risotto and finger sandwiches.

Back in town, firms big and small carve out spaces to show prototypes of new stools made entirely from paper fibre developed deep in the forests of Finland. Danish students in skinny jeans traipse around photographing pieces of lighting (and each other). Scrums of Chinese businessmen in shiny tracksuits and outdoor slippers record everything with at least three legs and beam the dimensions back to factory floors in Wuhan and Shenzhen.

In the hours, days and weeks to come, there will be exhaustive coverage of what’s about to hit living rooms and hotel lobbies around the world and of the colours and forms that will drive the market.

Having done more than my share of shuttling about Milan covering the fair over the past 15 years or so, this time I’ll be watching from afar (Okinawa) and getting regular updates from my colleague Hugo Macdonald, Monocle’s design editor, who’ll give me his sharp take on what the market, for better or worse, will fall for.

At a time when Italy needs all the manufacturing orders (and full hotel beds and busy restaurants) it can cope with, the fair is a key event to keep the wheels of Italia Inc turning. The problem with the interior design world, however, is that it’s turned into a lawless free-for-all that Italy’s design community might want to take a leadership position in correcting.

Given the environmental, physical and mental impact interiors have on all of us, it’s surprising, even shocking, that this is a completely unregulated business. Anyone able to print a business card can call themselves an interior designer.

We demand letters and licences for people charged with examining our eyes, sticking drills in our mouths, designing buildings and flying aircraft. But, for some reason, we’re content to let people who can make mood boards and throw fabric swatches around a table spend billions “designing” environments that have a direct impact on our mental health.

Think about the last time you checked into a large hotel and you felt your jaw hit the floor as you checked out the space and wondered who was responsible for the nauseating expanse of carpet as a backdrop for chairs that already look dated, and lighting fixtures so menacing they look like they might spring to life and shred guests into tiny pieces.

As your heart sinks, do you call your office and ask for a fresh reservation elsewhere? Or, do you check in and brace yourself for seeing the actual room?

When you get there, the room is worse than you could have imagined – the surfaces and profiles are sharp and angry, the lighting has one setting and all the lights are chilly and low energy, while the colours are fit for a toddler’s nursery.

For those who have had a tough day with their clients, a row with their spouse or are prone to mood swings, there’s a very real chance that these types of environments can drive people to put their fists through walls or hurl things across the room.

Of course, depressing interiors are also the norm in the workplace, in new housing developments and on many modes of transport. Poorly designed interiors not only waste stacks of money, they also have a massive environmental impact as they need to be ripped out months later because they simply don’t work – ending up in a dump near you.

Just as civil engineers need to be regulated to ensure buildings don’t topple over on the public below, interior designers should also be licensed to ensure that same public isn’t exposed to toxic colours, trims and tip-over chairs.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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