Design Experts on How the Pandemic Is Influencing Our Spaces


We asked six leading designers to envision what comes next for the spaces we inhabit.


With everyone working at home and wondering when they’ll ever return to the office, surrounded by cubicles, I would like to pump the brakes on too much speculation about the corporate headquarters ever truly going away. For me, it’s entirely too early to tell whether this moment becomes an inflection point in how we design working spaces. I hesitate to sound the death knell for cities and the ability of 20 to 40 people to work together in the same space at the same time.

The pandemic has sped up many trends in the design of large offices; smaller corporate satellites are increasingly the norm. The question becomes this: Will the suburban environment where so many of the corporate class live evolve to take on more urban elements if we’re not commuting into the city center? For Europe that’s something more difficult, but perhaps the United States is already in position to move faster in that direction.

Another trend that’s already underway is the increasing informality of the office. With that—think hot desking, open cubicles, and so on—more and more room is given to facilitating public spaces that are flexible.

But all of this leads to the key evolutionary moment that’s happening with the corporate head-quarters: character. The push for more transparency and integration with our surroundings means that the architecture of an office must embody the values, traits, and aspirations of the company and its brand. For example, I recently worked on a design for the headquarters of Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of the Russian energy giant. It wants to move toward more sustainable energy sources, and so its headquarters will embody that. Making this new building completely sustainable, powered solely by solar and wind energy, would have a huge impact on the project and how the project will evolve.

What will these spaces look like? I can foresee the office interior as almost a village giving employees the work-from-home feel they expect, while on the outside extolling the virtues of transparency and community integration that are key to the company’s brand.

Maas is a cofounder of the architecture practice MVRDV in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Related: These Changes to Your Home Office Can Help Ease Your WFH Transition

THE AIRPORT by David Rockwell

A rendering by the Rockwell Group reimagines the airport lounge as “a landscape of adaptable personal lounge pods juxtaposed with biophilic and high-tech elements.” COURTESY ROCKWELL GROUP

Back in 2008, I was on a break-out panel at a TED conference about air travel. At the time I was working on an airport project in Singapore that I didn’t get, and a question was raised: What would the most amazing airport experience in the world look like? Someone from the audience raised their hand and said, “The airport I want to go to is one where I get to the curb, I get on the plane, I get off the plane. And I don’t have to deal with anyone’s stuff in between.” Being a designer who thinks about the world in terms of experiences, that was hard to hear.

What I’ve learned from working on airports since then—my design for the JetBlue Marketplace at JFK’s Terminal 5, for example—is that you’re dealing with a very anxiety-driven moment in people’s lives. Will my flight leave on time? How do I get to my gate? Why do the graphics that tell me where to go seem to have been designed by sadists? And that was before the virus. But I’m an optimist. People will start to congregate differently, but design is going to have a vital seat at the table.

When it comes to first-class travel, what’s needed now is security and tiered privacy, not isolation. The idea of sanitization isn’t going to be hidden away. For the first time, it’s going to be celebrated. Most airports will need to retrofit their existing spaces. For lounges, seating will have to be clustered in a system of small, medium, and large pods that could be popularly priced or expensive, depending on what the amenities are. I think that would be a really interesting way to signal privacy and still have a sense of transparency.

In terms of food and amenities, we can all agree that the era of the buffet is absolutely over. I keep thinking of the Automats of long ago, brought into the present day. But instead of a wall serving cherry pie behind little glass doors, I can imagine a system where food moves around the airport—like the dessert cart in a Milanese restaurant—instead of people.

And it’s going to be much more digital. You’ll make selections before you even get there, including where you’ll sit at the lounge, and even what your cocktail will be. That way, there’s less clutter and less stuff.

This crisis has also allowed us to rethink luxury. I remember the first Nobu restaurant I designed, in 1994. Back then you couldn’t find a three-star restaurant without tablecloths. You associated luxury with 21⁄2 hours of dining. It’s the same with airports today: It’s an opportunity for reinvention. You’ll see a compression between luxury and economy that will be beneficial, because the luxury area will be less generic and the economy area will be less barren.

That’s because a lot of what we associate with first-class travel today is a miniature version of what we associate with a myth of first-class living. Pajamas on the plane, for example. Well, I don’t know many people who actually get into pajamas at home. I think the practice of creating simulacra of certain symbols of luxury so they can fit into the flight experience needs to be reimagined. We need substitutions that don’t involve using as many resources or that don’t take away from people flying economy by crowding them out in terms of space and resources. Instead, using fewer resources will be its own kind of luxury.

Rockwell is the founder of the design and architecture firm the Rockwell Group.

Related: Architects Are Designing Spaces to Make People Happy

THE HOTEL by Deborah Berke

As an architect, an adventurer, and a traveler, I never think of hotels in isolation. I’ve learned lessons designing academic buildings, houses, and art spaces that have influenced my thinking on hotels. I’ve thought about the hotel in a post-pandemic world a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the “after” is not an absolute. Instead, it’s going to be a path. Probably, a long one.

Part of this journey will require spaces that can be pleasant with just two people in them today, maybe ten next year, and eventually enough for a big celebratory event. To do this, we need to think about architecture and the built environment as something nimble, and perhaps nimbler than we give it credit for being.

I believe there’s a lot to learn from our projects with 21c Hotels, most of which are in smaller cities and take advantage of the adaptive reuse of old buildings: turning a former garage into a restaurant, for example, or a factory into an art museum. In the short term, could an 800-room hotel in a dense urban environment be better suited as part of a university? Could the lobby become a library? We’ll need to rethink usage in ways we haven’t dared consider before.

For this in-between period, we will use furniture, plants, art, and sound to make hotels welcoming, functional, and non-threatening. What we might discover is that these spaces are changeable: to have the ability to reimagine the lobby depending on the time of the year, to open the windows in good weather, and replace the plants seasonally. We’ll be more aware of what’s going on with the planet, and maybe even want to be more connected to it.

Next, hospitality needs to adapt, because without it, a hotel doesn’t stand a chance. Localized and personalized experiences will become key. Dining at an outdoor barbecue run by a local family; sampling local beers or wines. But, of course, in this new reality, the option of no contact at all will become its own luxury. Instead of just stripping away amenities, why can’t a hotel room have a dial near the front door? Turn the dial to zero, and you’re left completely alone; turn it halfway, and you get turndown service and your sheets changed; turn it all the way up, and you get a massage in your room.

Long-term, we need to stop thinking of hotels as isolated refuges. Instead, we need to create spaces and experiences that move into the world outside, safely and seamlessly. Let’s say my hotel in New York overlooks Union Square. From my room I want to be able to watch the farmers’ market, hear the protests, and feel like I understand the action of the city I’m in. A hotel balcony can offer not just solitude and privilege, but also participation and an invitation for interaction.

Berke is the founder of the architectural firm Deborah Berke Partners in New York.

THE RESTAURANT by Christine Gachot

Right: An illustration by Deborah Berke Partners that depicts a hotel balcony with a more meaningful connection to the outdoors. From left: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN GACHOT; COURTESY DEBORAH BERKE PARTNERS

I spent a lot of my career working in-house at the Standard hotels and other André Balazs properties, and what I’ve seen happen to so many of our colleagues and friends in hospitality has been devastating.

As a designer, I’m receiving calls from people who are taking the time to rethink or reenvision hospitality, service, and what they offer in terms of programming. I’ve spoken to so many people looking to hit the reset button. It goes without saying that in this moment when we’re in and out of lockdown, there’s going to have to be a temporary restructuring of how space is planned, and how HVAC systems and other back-of-house practices work.

But ultimately, it really goes back to the old idea of service being paramount. I don’t think restaurants are going to get away with tricky anymore. Customers certainly won’t put up with it.

Instead, authentic environments will become more appreciated. Trust will be everything. We all have our local spot: I miss my friends on Manhattan’s Bond Street. The Smile. Acme, which we designed. And I’m hoping that people will support their local businesses first. You know them, and you know they’ll do the right thing when it comes to preparation, interactions, and presentation. That’s really going to be essential.

But as I start to think about the design of restaurants, there are things I hope never truly go away. I travel alone a lot, and I love to eat at a bar alone. I miss things like omakase sushi. I don’t mind, nor am I afraid of, somebody passing me food with their hand. I find that connection powerful, and I’ll be crushed if that goes away.

For me, the reason why we go out is for the intimacy. It’s not for the design. And many times, it’s not for the food, either. It’s about the human connection that you have with the people you’re with, or the person across the bar from you.

Design can play a role. There’s a great opportunity for restaurateurs to get creative with their takeout and how they serve food. Some places say their food doesn’t translate to takeout. I disagree with that. There are many doing it really well. Like Sugarfish sushi here in New York: Its packaging is incredible. They give instructions. Firms that design the interiors should consider the packaging as well, and more than ever before.

But these new innovations will come at a cost. One way out of this will be more landlord participation, since rents in many cities are simply out of control. This means landlords and developers taking a few percentage points of ownership in new businesses and participating holistically. We’ve done it as designers, and it’s something that has been going on for a long time. If landlords took that initiative, we could save a lot of the places we love.

Gachot is a cofounder of Gachot Studios, an interior design firm in New York.

Related: Where Does Fine Dining Go From Here?

THE ART WORLD by Valentina Ciuffi

As the founder of a creative consultancy based in Milan, I find myself and my community to be at a crossroads. We specialize in the worlds of contemporary interiors and design, producing everything from websites for galleries such as Nilufar to creative direction for home brands and our own projects, like Alcova, an annual exhibition of emerging talents that takes place during Milan Design Week.

As you can imagine, I’m fascinated by what’s going on in my industry. I see institutions, galleries, and art fairs trying to quickly jump on a virtual bandwagon: Virtual viewing rooms! Virtual salons! You enter them, and if you’re lucky there’s a big arrow that points you to a YouTube video. Or you might get a 360-degree photo that was taken with a five-year-old technique or be directed to a recorded panel discussion. To me, it’s completely unappealing.

After the lockdown, can we really stomach watching anything more on Instagram? I’m convinced that there’s nothing that can be compared to the experience of seeing something in real life. What we’ll see is a revenge of the real. You still need to see a Lina Bo Bardi piece before buying it.

Once the pandemic subsides, and after we gorge on what people thought were such interesting online experiments, we’ll find ourselves with a clearer feeling of missing the real, and more than ever before. Remember that before the pandemic, the worlds of art and collecting were already becoming more digitally minded.

What this crisis is telling us is that the way in which we were doing things physically is going to have to change. Not necessarily to become expensive or more elaborate, but more intimate and adapted to individual spaces. Things need to be curated, and with more of a narrative. I can see art becoming multidimensional: existing both online and in real life in very tailored and individual ways, both elements being part of a greater whole. If we treat the Web simply like an empty cube to exhibit virtually, it’s going to fail for sure.

Ciuffi is the founder of Studio Vedèt.

Related: Here’s What Luxury Hotels and Resorts Will Look Like Post-COVID, According to an Expert

THE KITCHEN by Jaime Hayon

From left: A conceptual take on the search for online space by Valentina Ciuffi and Asia Trianda of Studio Vedèt; A snapshot by the designer of a meal at his home studio. From left: STUDIO VEDÈT; COURTESY HAYON STUDIO

During the lockdown I’ve been in Valencia, Spain, with my family. My own personal experience during this crisis has me discovering new ways to be creative, and it’s helped me to become super productive. I’ve been doing a lot more work, and I’m closer to the people I love too.

Hand in hand with this is that I’ve been cooking nonstop and taking care of myself more in the process. I was raised in a restaurant because my parents had one, and I always wanted to have one myself. I always wanted to be a cook but became a designer instead. To me, the two careers aren’t that different.

For my most recent personal kitchen, I designed things more like normal furniture, with cabinets that could be closed completely and make the kitchen disappear. That way, the room looked more like an office or a hotel lobby. Moving forward, we can’t think of the kitchen as just another room anymore. It has to be part of everything we do. I’d love for appliances to be completely wireless and good looking. If I designed them, they wouldn’t look so clinical. We’ve seen this evolution in the bathroom already, where new cute materials are being used so it’s not just a white-tiled box. Why can’t an electric kettle look like a beautiful Japanese jar that I’ll actually want to bring to the table?

As a designer, I’d like to have different interactions with the things in my kitchen. I want the shelves to be more like an installation that leads to a gorgeous table surrounded by your groceries on display, almost as though you were in a museum. I want to change the perspectives we have there, with different kinds of seating and with materials to make the room more tactile. To get out of the clinical and up the amount of joy and color you find there.

Hayon is a product designer for brands such as Cassina and Fritz Hansen.