The COVID-19 pandemic made us dramatically reassess our relationships with our homes. As lockdowns forced us to live under stay-at-home orders, we made significant changes to cope with the pressures of juggling all aspects of our lives stuck indoors for prolonged periods of time.
Now, as we move beyond the pandemic and permanently adopt some of the lifestyle changes we’ve made, what are the lasting implications for the design of our living spaces, furniture and home products? What opportunities are there to transform our homes for the better going forward?
The rush to multi-modal living
By April 2020, 50% of the world population was in lockdown, and while we adapted to the “new normal”, many took the opportunity to adapt their homes as well. Sales of consumer goods surged – garden furniture, storage, printers, TVs, games consoles, computers, audio equipment, exercise equipment and cooking equipment all became massively popular. Meanwhile, DIY retailers reported huge growth in sales and profits as consumers tackled home improvement projects or engaged builders to “press go” on more significant renovations and home extensions.
All these purchases helped turn our homes into multi-modal living environments. Those not blessed with enough space for dedicated spare rooms resorted to setting up laptops on dining tables to become makeshift home offices or classrooms, or put exercise machines into corners of living rooms to become home gyms or upgraded audio-visual equipment to become home entertainment hubs. As a result, many homes were filled with new products with nowhere to live after use.
In between the extreme ends of a spectrum with standalone consumer products at one end and fixed architectural spaces at the other, a largely untapped opportunity remains – the potential for movable furniture and structural elements to help us to zone off our living spaces as our needs change throughout the day.
Products which solve this challenge already exist, although they remain relatively niche. One good example is the space-saving, ‘robotic’ furniture range by MIT spinout Ori. Their Pocket Studio Plus is a true expression of how to carve up a living space into discreet, separate zones as part of the relatively new trend of broken-plan (as opposed to open-plan) living. At the touch of a button. it transforms from a bedroom with a walk-in closet to a home office, then to a living room. This is achieved through the clever use of a motorised L-shaped ‘bulkhead’ travelling along a runner mounted on the floor.
Just before the pandemic, mass-market leader Ikea showed interest in manufacturing a cost-down version of Pocket Studio Plus. Unfortunately, ROGNAN is yet to see the light of day, which considering our new-found multi-modal living requirements and our ever-shrinking dwellings – the Guardian recently reported that homes built in the 2010s had shrunk 15.5sq metres on average compared to those built 40 years ago – seems a missed opportunity.
Whichever way you look, our living spaces are ripe for innovation. In the coming years, we expect to see property new-builds and refits start to integrate furniture and partitions that can robotically (or at least quickly) redeploy to aid zoning off of spaces and enhance privacy, as well as maximize storage within a compact footprint, especially within city dwellings. Whether such innovations become mainstream or continue to be the preserve of niche, interior design projects remains to be seen.
Integrating our tech within our homes
For over a decade, futurologists predicted home-working patterns would eventually become mainstream, but the pandemic accelerated this trend practically overnight. What started as a band-aid solution to an extreme situation has evolved into a mode of working set to continue. Across the world, as we return to a ‘new normal’ many workers and business are opting for a hybrid approach of both home and office working, and that trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future. In other words, hybrid working is here to stay.
The tools for home working however – laptops, peripherals and accessories – were designed to go travelling on business trips, sit in offices and only occasionally be taken home. Instead, these predominantly gun-metal grey slabs have sat in our homes for prolonged periods of time and have failed to blend in. Again there are solutions to this – there are some great furniture pieces designed to exist seamlessly within a multi-modal home environment and hide our home working tech away when not in use. Such examples include the Hella wall desk by True Design, a modular shelving system with a flip down WFH desk, and the Celerina Table Desk by Reinhard AG Sachseln, a neat solution to the very real issue of shared eating / working spaces, and how to rapidly redeploy between those two modes.
The alternative to hiding our tech away is for it to visually integrate better into our home environment. Apple’s iMac all-in-one computer, through its many iterations over the years, has sought to do just this – to be an item of desirability from all angles available in a broad range of pastel colours to supplement our interior décor rather than fight against it. Another great example is Samsung’s The Serif television – its atypical picture frame / shelf design language positions it more as a furniture piece which co-exists within a home environment rather than as a mercurial high-tech slab.
Getting up off the floor
For bulkier home tech which couldn’t easily hide behind a partition or masquerade as furniture, the solution lies in reducing footprint, and the best example of this is in the smart home gym sector. As gyms shuttered over the pandemic, people required space-saving exercise options that still allowed them to connect to others and maintain exercise technique.
Many brands rose to this challenge, coalescing towards a similar form-factor using a large LCD display in portrait orientation, either as a freestanding or wall-mounted proposition. Notable product examples include the Tempo Studio, a compact freestanding AI-powered home weight trainer with integrated screen and dumbbell storage which can track your form and make recommendations, and the Tonal Home Gym, a similar technology proposition but wall-mounted with a built-in resistance training mechanism.
The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for these products to establish themselves, and now the investment in time and money has been made by users, we expect their popularity to continue, either as an accompaniment to reopened gyms, or to replace the gym experience altogether. Their compact footprint enables a seamless integration into home environments, and continued R&D investment in software and sensing to refine the user experience will further cement their customer base in the coming years.
We do so much more in our homes nowadays. They are not just traditional sanctuaries of rest anymore, but also where we work, exercise, socialise and play. As we move away from the pandemic, certain lifestyle trends are set to remain, such as home working and home exercising. Paired with the longer-term trend of shrinking dwellings sizes, it’s clear the expected hybrid functionality of our homes requires innovation and joined up thinking to deliver fit-for-purpose future living spaces.
To make the most of that opportunity, different sectors have to align – consumer product companies must work to visually integrate products better into our homes, furniture companies must develop mainstream, affordable, flexible solutions which can transform our spaces from one mode to another, and the architecture of our homes must be able to accommodate these innovations. Designers, technologists and architects all need to collaborate and understand people’s evolving needs around the home, to create better, more connected experiences.
The potential payoff is simply huge. At PDD, we are already deeply involved in projects that tackle this challenge, and look forward to seeing what other innovations emerge over the next few years as we continue to push the boundaries of how we live.
Posted by Tim Wooller
Principal - Industrial Design
The last thing that inspired me: The fascinating way kids interpret the world around them.
My dream project: Designing a truly sustainable product - something that gives to ecology rather than takes away.
My obsession: Space flight - Its really taken off the last couple of years (excuse the pun!)