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Follow the New Leaders

The ‘new normal’ for interior design is complex, collaborative, fast moving, and purposeful.

By Sari Graven, ASID


The ‘new normal’ for interior design is complex, collaborative, fast moving, and purposeful.

Over the last year, I've spent a lot of time talking with people and asking them a couple of fundamental questions: How will our industry look, feel and function on the other side of this Great Recession? And, what will become the "new normal?"

At the same time, I've stressed a need to acknowledge the struggles of others and to reach out to all those upon whom we rely to conduct the business of interior design—our industry partners. My philosophy? Designers and others involved in the design industry have many topics of mutual interest; let's talk about them. It helps everyone to weather the current situation, it builds relationships, and it leads to opportunities small and large.

This is the spirit I took with me to New York in May as a participant in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. I attended a series of discussions and walked the floor to get a sense of what's happening in the world of contemporary furniture. As is often the case, I was energized by the show; specifically, its diversity, visual treats and provocative programs. I also came away with a few more clues as to the mystery of the "new normal."

The mood of the show was upbeat. My time spent roaming the floor introduced me to a plethora of smaller, "boutique" suppliers from around the world, many of whom are doing inspiring work in inspiring ways. Companies like Sebastian Carpenter Design (SCD), a small-volume business dedicated to the design and fabrication of mid-century modern and Art Deco furnishings, bring a different sensibility to the marketplace. It is the people behind the business—in this case, Sebastian himself—who bring with them a sense of optimism and a sincere desire for design quality, craft and exploration into new forms and ideas.

If I had just one word to describe the entrepreneurs behind businesses like SCD it would be: open. Give me two and I'd add: caring. Warm and fuzzy? Maybe. But don't think for a minute their values get in the way of business. In many ways, these people are the heart and soul of their business, and that's what makes them powerful … small as they may be. They are truly a very passionate bunch.

Participating in a series of discussions regarding the future of design, I saw more evidence as to how this open, caring ethic plays out: Suppliers working with NGOs, working with design firms, working with government agencies on various projects to solve social and environmental problems using design as their common tool and passion. As I saw this new brand of multidisciplinary cooperation in action, I saw a glimpse of the new normal—people and companies sharing their resources and working together to take design to the next level by adding collective value to products, processes and practices.

Companies like HDR are working with academic institutions and government agencies in the creation of a design tool that helps define "profitable" approaches to sustainable design. Individuals like Dan Wood are working in concert with the Brooklyn School District to create "edible schoolyards" which educate children about nutrition and how healthy and sustainable food can be grown. On a larger scale, companies like Dornbracht, a German manufacturer of bath fixtures and furnishings, have commissioned a series of artists in pursuit of a vision that supports its mission to create beauty, develop form, and understand the human condition—a fascinating blend of culture and mission.

I could not help but compare these discussions to much of the dialogue I hear coming from other stalwart members of industry. Many appear to be standing by, using their "down time" to refine tools or to deepen relationships in the hope that business will resume as usual.

The question is, will it? I think not. I think it is more likely that what is happening in this marketplace is similar to what we're seeing in other industries, such as music, entertainment and the media. Fueled by the freedom and information afforded by technology and the Internet, we're seeing a groundswell of small enterprises reach for big ideas (artistic control, better health, a safer environment, political authority … the truth as they see it).

Collectively these enterprises represent a sharp thorn, if not (yet) a genuine threat in the sides of their behemoth corporate brethren. They may be small, but they are nimble. Their niches may be narrow, but they are deep. Most importantly, they are listening, passionate and they are gaining ground (in some cases, the media in particular, they're overtaking, even eliminating entrenched and seemingly unshakeable leaders).

It is clear to me that this is not really about the current economy (although it has likely accelerated the process). It's a fundamental change in how we do business. I am not the first to say this; many influential thinkers and leaders have been parsing this idea for a while now. But, I've seen it with my own eyes and feel it in my bones. The new normal for interior design is open, complex, collaborative, fragmented, fast moving, and purposeful. It's messy, multi-faceted and decreasingly dominated by a few big names.

The most successful will be those who are genuinely interested in collaborating outside their expertise—evolving their craft and willing to work together on ideas that support something beyond the selling of a product or service. How should we as interior designers respond? The questions seem simple enough, if not the answers: Are we ready to be open? Do we care enough to share?

ASID president Sari Graven is the director of planning and resource development at Seattle University's Facilities Services. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the Web at