Five experimental designers reimagine spaces of the future for our new reality

We tasked Marina Willer, Kirsty Minns, Bas Van De Poel, Sthuthi Ramesh and Samar Maakaroun with rethinking spaces, both public and private, that were dramatically reshaped last year.


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Towards the end of last year there was a lot of talk of “building back better” as we begin to see the light at the end of the virus-tunnel. The slogan had us thinking: What kinds of spaces would we want to reimagine? If we could tear up the playbook for how public and private spaces – from art galleries to town squares – “ought” to be designed, where would we go?

When you start considering this, you quickly realise that it goes far beyond Covid and the virus’s effects on the way we view, and exist in, our environments. Some physical spaces were in need of an overhaul long before our shared pandemic year; the virus perhaps simply expedited our realisation. Taking a further step back, there are also deeper trends that will come to shape these spaces in the future, whether we like it or not. From the urgent necessity of better co-living to the evolution of the office from a place of work to the physical embodiment of a brand’s values, powerful forces are at work here.

To help us unpack the opportunities and pitfalls that await us as we start looking to “build back better”, we enlisted the help of four top designers from around the world. Inspired by the hilariously savage annotations of Kate Wagner in her blog McMansion Hell, we asked them to take a stock image of a particular space and to annotate it with their thoughts and feelings about it and what they would change. The results in some cases say as much about the individual designers as they do about the spaces, but that’s no bad thing.

Marina Willer

The art gallery

Marina is a partner at Pentagram’s London office and well-known for her identity work for the likes of Tate, Amnesty International and Oxfam. As the lead designer behind the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum in 2019, we thought she would be the perfect person to tackle the gallery as a space.

“The image we started with was the most pristine and polished white-box kind of space, and I started just wanting to annotate the questions that I had around how we’re going to perceive and experience exhibitions, art and museums after Covid. And not just Covid – this year has been so insane and brutal, with all the violence and racism that we’ve seen as well. When designing spaces and the way we do things, we need to ask so many more questions about what's relevant and appropriate, and how we tackle things.

“As I started to annotate, it was just like a river, like a brain dump of all the things I was thinking. The questions were mainly around relevance and inclusivity. Because spaces like the one in the image can seem so exclusive, like they only talk to a certain kind of person, and people can easily feel intimidated. How can we make all of that different? With the Kubrick exhibition, I’m really happy and proud about the work and I think anyone can relate to the content there – and yet even then, I bet some people don’t feel it’s for them. There can be a pompous kind of presence in those buildings.

“In the end, visually, my response here became like the opposite of that really pristine space, which feels like you’re putting art on a pedestal. It became this sort of mad tapestry, which is about diversity and the real world, where things are not all super structured and orchestrated. It is an organic thing and the opposite of what sometimes you see in those displays, the way that some museums organise their narratives.”

Sthuthi Ramesh and Samar Maakaroun

The town square

Sthuthi and Samar are London-based designers, who met while working at Pentagram London. Bringing in elements from their respective worlds (Samar is from Lebanon and Sthuthi from India), the two designers collaborate on a broad range of projects. Earlier this year, they reimagined London’s Granary Square as part of the Where We Stand initiative, which meant they were well placed to tackle the future of the town square.

“This year has been eventful, full of change, rules, tiers and isolation. We found ourselves using our homes as offices and became weary of public spaces, travel and proximity. However, there is now a vaccine on its way, so we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet at the same time, nobody knows how the habits we lost and the new habits we forged will affect our future lives.

“For this exercise, we do not claim to have a clever solution or a clear vision, because we don’t. We wanted to use the image as our own public square, so we had a conversation over it, pinging comments back and forth throughout the week, letting our incoherent thoughts flow organically. In doing this, we’ve reclaimed the carefree mentality pre-Covid, albeit on a digital image of a public space.”

Bas van de Poel

The home

Bas is creative director at Space10, Ikea’s experimental research and design lab in Copenhagen. Together with a team of architects, engineers, technologists and designers, he works on innovative solutions to some of the major societal changes affecting people and the planet. With his links to Ikea, we felt Bas would be perfect to reimagine the home of the future.

“Amidst the global pandemic, we have become even more aware of the need to reevaluate the way we design, build, finance and share our future homes, neighbourhoods and cities.

The new normal has only accelerated the feeling of loneliness within our cities, which was already a major problem even before the pandemic.

“Although counterintuitive in times of social distancing, new living arrangements – such as shared living – could increase in popularity over the coming years. Shared spaces enable new ways of socialising with others and have the potential to create more sustainable and affordable housing solutions.

“This recent global wake-up call gives urban communities an unprecedented opportunity to rethink, adapt and design our homes and neighbourhoods to be places that are better for more people.”

Kirsty Minns

The office

Kirsty leads the creative output of the Mother Design team in London. Before moving to Mother, she worked for a range of future-focused organisations, from Google Creative Lab to Fabrica, Benetton’s experiential research laboratory in Italy, and The Future Laboratory. Which is why we desperately wanted to get her thoughts on the future of an apparently endangered space: the office.

“Where do I start? Covid has brought about some changes in how offices are used and many are here to stay. The office is shifting from a place of work to a place of collaboration. It used to be that the office was for everyone working 9-to-6 hours; now people will dip in and out of the space, so the space will need to reflect that.

“One thing we might see disappear are those personal trinkets on each desk. They’re identifiers, they show what you as a person want to project, which is simple human nature. Maybe people will start wearing their personality more literally in how they dress to the office? At Mother, we have individual trolleys that hold our belongings and we swap our desks every six weeks to make sure we’re not getting siloed in our teams. I can see more companies trying something like that.

“Having more flexibility is here to stay as well. It’s not the death of the office, though, as some people are saying. Not everyone is going to work from home all the time. We like to interact with other human beings in the same space. Technology has a long way to go before it can replicate that.

“Another thing about the space in the picture is that it doesn’t feel like it reflects culture or values; I have no idea what this space says about the organisation. It just feels a bit soulless. Your space is so reflective of your brand and that is going to continue this year and beyond. Offices will become distinctive homes for brands. Aside from anything else, it’s a great way to attract talent. But a word of warning: People think they can chuck gimmicky things into their office and that will create ‘culture’. But you can’t just chuck a beanbag in and instantly you’ve got a happy, healthy environment. And please no nap pods either! I tried it once when I was hungover and it just didn’t do it for me.”

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Annotations by Bas van de Poel

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Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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