The past year has seen most of us spend more time at home than ever before, meaning that optimising our living spaces is at the front of our minds. But redesigning the interior of a home isn’t just about changing the colour of the walls or moving furniture into new positions. It’s also about the finer details – the grain in wood, the feeling when you sit down in a chair, how fabric feels under your fingers or how light falls through a window. Interior designers have to take into consideration a whole range of factors that make all the difference when it comes to spending time in a room.
Given this, the digital video meetings we’ve all become used to can only take a designer so far. Nonetheless, the sector itself is proving resilient; eight out of 10 people, according to a survey conducted by the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) in October, wanted to change their homes as soon as it was safe to do so. “The impact of Covid-19 will affect how and where we choose to live for years to come,” says Riba president Alan Jones. “For many of us, our homes are our sanctuaries, and this research indicates that many people are keener than ever to adapt and improve their homes.”
Many interior designers across the UK report an increase in the number of new clients they have taken on. But as the process relies so heavily on being physically present in a space, they have had to adapt.
Zoe Hewett is no stranger to finding creative ways around problems. When she first started her interior design business, Stylemongers of Bristol, the former set designer for theatre and TV productions lacked the funds to make over her own home to serve as a showcase – so instead she built a doll’s house to demonstrate her style. As a result of the pandemic, Hewett scaled back her face-to-face work, but has still found ways of expanding her business – one of which is a range of interior design kits to help people design their own homes.
“At first, I was thinking about making my services accessible,” she says. “A one-to-one design consultation is worth doing for a bespoke service, but it’s always going to be out of reach for some people, so I wanted to offer something affordable, at a price point more people could afford.” The pandemic meant the project became a priority for her business, and the packs became a reality. “I may have created an envelope-stuffing role for myself,” she says. “But I love that people are getting something physical and tangible to work with.”
The packs are made of recycled card and paper and are delivered in letterbox-sized packages. Hewett sees them as a way of sharing the information and techniques that she previously discussed in face-to-face workshops, where she would guide groups through the principles of interior design – from creating moodboards to where to place furniture. They contain, among other things, quizzes to help buyers explore design choices, advice on using colour and materials to create 2D-scale layouts of rooms, plus a link to an ebook with further information. Hewett says the take-up of the £50 kits has been “pretty good. I hope people find them fun as well as useful. One lady who bought one said she’s using it again with her seven-year-old to reimagine their shed. Her daughter’s got really into it, apparently.”
Hewett – who has recently taken part in a new BBC Two show, My Unique B&B, where a team of designers make over glamping spaces – was able to move some of her consultation work online: “Before [the pandemic] hit, I had made a secret area of my website where people can download a questionnaire, to fill in and send back with photos,” she says. “I initially put it in place because I’m a Send (special educational needs and disabilities) parent, so it was about being able to work around appointments or needing to do school pickups at the drop of a hat. In that way, I was already geared up to keep working when lockdown hit.”
From each commission, Hewett makes a donation to the homeless charity Crisis. “Creating nice places is what drives me,” she says. “So it makes sense to me to also help people who haven’t got anywhere to live yet.”
The community focus is also important to Liselle Milner of Zenterior Design, based in St Austell, Cornwall. She works with 12 others, including builders, carpenters and upholsterers, to create indoor and outdoor spaces and bespoke furniture, all with a focus on using sustainable materials.
Much of her work involves second homes or holiday lets, so the owners have not been able to travel to meet her. “We’ve always focused on the relationship with the client, getting an idea of exactly what it is they want and then making that happen, so to never meet someone face-to-face has been very odd,” she says. “Although, if you are talking to someone via Zoom, there is the advantage of seeing their house in the background, so it’s a very quick way of seeing what they already like.”
Milner uses a lot of secondhand or upcycled furniture – “I want the space to look as amazing as possible for the budget we have” – but her pre-pandemic visits to charity shops and auctions have been replaced by Facebook Marketplace, and ever-greater resourcefulness as a team.
“We’re looking at things we would usually outsource, like quilting, for example, and thinking: ‘Can we do that ourselves?’” she says. “It’s good creatively, and it also means we can keep to a schedule. Big furniture retailers have set specifics they work to. If a piece is made of oak, and if the oak isn’t there, then that sofa won’t be with you in 12 weeks’ time. But if we are making it, then we can use beech or another suitable wood that we can actually get hold of.”
Besides changing their ways of working to comply with pandemic-related restrictions, such as visiting sites individually instead of together, the Zenterior team have also adapted some of the other physical parts of their jobs, finding ways to keep to social distancing rules, and have stopped working on occupied domestic properties.
Milner has also doubled down on Zenterior’s commitment to using local suppliers, not only to avoid delays with supply chains but also from a sense of local responsibility, as the regional tourism sector has been hit especially hard by restrictions on movement. “And there’s also the fact that Cornwall has always been a hub for artists and creative people. It makes sense to work with people who are here,” says Milner.
The pandemic may have affected their traditional ways of working for now, but both Milner and Hewett are determined that its lasting effects on our homes are sustainably positive.
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