At the Intersection of Commercial and Residential Design

As the lines between the spaces we occupy continue to blur, designers should take a lesson from the marketplace

by Stephanie Clemons, Ph.D., FASID, FIDEC

The marketplace is changing and interior design is responding. The work/live/play communities designed for today’s mobile, multitasking lifestyles is driving this change. Coffee shops and casual dining establishments serve as offices away from the office, and hotels as one’s home away from home. Like our lives, the spaces we inhabit are blurring the lines between our working, social, and private selves—and design is following suit.

For some time now residential clients have been asking for corporate-style home offices, restaurant-like kitchens, boutique hotel bedrooms, and spa bathrooms. In urban and contemporary design especially, commercial furnishings, fixtures, materials, and lighting often are used to replicate luxe commercial environments. Consumer interest has reached such a level that, for example, the Wynn hotel chain opened a home furnishings store in Las Vegas several years ago. Interior designer Roger Thomas, executive vice president of design for Wynn Design and Development, remarked at the time, “Today, residential design is looking at hotels to be the leaders in residential style.”

More recently, we have watched the pendulum swing the other way, with an increasing number of commercial designs incorporating residential elements to create a more homelike environment. This is a natural evolution of the live/work/play community, where people want to live closer to their workplace or, in some cases, even in the same building. Looking to boost productivity and innovation, employers are offering employees a more personalized workspace that furnishes some of the comforts of working from home. Fast Company, for instance, reported in January that one of the popular trends in office design for 2015 will be the addition of breakout areas or zones outfitted with casual furnishings, such as comfy couches, hammocks, and bean bag chairs, where employees can relax, recharge, and, it is hoped, be motivated to spend more time at the office.

Healthcare facilities are employing a similar strategy to improve the overall patient experience and increase satisfaction levels. The idea of applying a hospitality model to healthcare, popular a decade ago, has given way to a more residential approach. Furniture and furnishings have a more homey look and feel. In addition to more natural light, designers are also using warmer colors, brighter fabrics, wooden floors, live plants, and beverage stations to create more welcoming and familiar surroundings that help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Hospitality has had a strong influence on residential design in the past decade, and hotels recognize that travel-weary customers appreciate more personalized, homey accommodations. Along with residentially inspired sitting or living areas, many now offer stand-alone soaking tubs, personalized lighting controls, and in-room exercise areas. High-end retailers have also added den-like seating areas and sectioned off their merchandise into small spaces to make shoppers feel more at home and encourage them to linger longer.

Further, the intersection of commercial and residential design is correspondingly evident in the number of partnerships and merger/acquisitions taking place. In February 2014, Knoll announced it was acquiring luxury design brand Holly Hunt Enterprises Inc. Then, in July, Herman Miller revealed its intention to purchase Design Within Reach. And West Elm released a statement in November confirming its partnership with contract manufacturer Inscape to create a residentially influenced commercial line, West Elm Workspace, which will debut in the second half of 2015.

This trend toward integrating residential and commercial design should serve as a wakeup call that we have been operating under a false assumption for too long. We have allowed our profession to be defined by our clients’ business needs, not by what we do. If we take an occupant-centered approach, we will soon realize that, aside from some specialized functions, people have similar needs in whatever space they are occupying and thus, as designers our projects share similar goals. In an interview with Hotel Management magazine, noted designer Jamie Drake, FASID, pointed out that upscale boutique hotel guests are the same residential clients he designs for and who look for the same amenities at home as on the road.

As healthcare designer and evidence-based design pioneer Rosalyn Cama, FASID, has observed, “Regardless of the interior activity, be it living, learning, working, playing, shopping, or healing, the human body is dependent on a balance of environmental factors that promote health.” It is the job of designers, says Cama, “to find informed design interventions that can be applied to their design projects benefiting all who come indoors.”

So, with all the blending of design spaces and specialties, our profession should take a lesson from the marketplace. Too often, we hear designers define themselves by the types of projects they do—a “commercial” designer or a “residential” designer—when the fact is that we are designers of interiors that respond to our clients’ various needs and deliver quality, project-specific solutions. In fact, member data shows that nearly 50 percent of respondents work across disciplines and more than a third design for both residential and commercial markets. We anticipate that cross-specialization among our members will keep growing as ASID keeps pace with the changing nature of the built environment.

Stephanie Clemons, Ph.D., FASID, FIDEC, is national board chair of ASID, professor of interior design, and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or online at asid.org.