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POV--White Sofas and Design Accessibility

Feb. 12, 2016

EIC Kadie Yale discusses the importance of equating good design to accessible design

There’s just something about a white interior: the sleek sophisticated lines; the crispness of the silhouette; the contrast against everything else in its vicinity; the absolute ease in which you can destroy it forever and ever.

The allure of white is that it is a sign of elitism; the fact that it can be damaged so easily means the shade is typically off-bounds to anyone who isn’t able to replace it when stains set in. And because we're a society that combines elitism with highbrow, and highbrow with good taste, we find white interiors lauded as a symbol of good design worth attempting to emulate.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in white wedding dresses. Curator Edwina Ehrman explained to BBC, “The connotation of purity was not important. It was about wealth. Throughout the 18th and 19th Century, women who could afford it got married in white.” Originally, white wedding dresses were donned by royalty—Mary Queen of Scots in 1558 and Queen Victoria in 1840 being credited with starting the trend—as the easily-destroyed luxury was out of range for most brides. Imagine a world where all your clothes were pieced together, created, and sewn by yourself or others in your family, and even then, you only had a couple options to your name. Then someone comes along and tells you that the most beautiful, desirable thing is a fancy dress you couldn’t cross the dirt floor of your living space in, much less work, without damaging it considerably. Even in current, much (much) cleaner times, you can see the anxiety blossom across the bride’s face every time a guest stumbles over, red wine in hand.

That’s how I feel about white. It’s lovely, but it separates those who *have* space from those who actively *live in* a space. It sets the bar for luxury higher than most of us with children or just the tendency to spill can obtain.

Design has the amazing ability to open doors to be more inclusive, to solve problems around the world, and to change lives—if only to increase one’s happiness for a moment—but I notice time and time again that it’s treated as if it’s this thing that’s out of reach; as if good design can only be a white sofa and your world is a child with a Sharpie in hand.

Recently I saw an article passed around my friend group on Facebook entitled “I Hired an Interior Designer Without Going Broke (& I’m Only 23)” and for a second I laughed at how ridiculous that is before remembering every time I have told someone I’m a designer or a design writer and heard, “Oh wonderful! Maybe you can help me with my house!” Design isn’t necessarily easy, and I think much like having a good ear for music or mind for mathematics, it’s something that comes naturally for some folks while others have to work harder to figure it out.

That being said, this idea that good design makes you broke or that it’s something that someone can only dream of achieving some day is not only untrue, but I think it’s actually harmful.

In the last few months, I’ve heard a lot of people in the industry discussing wellness in design. This past January, Forbes told the world what some researchers and designers have known for a while in an article titled “Is Sitting the New Smoking?” To put it bluntly, our sitting constantly is killing us.

And just as words like “recycled content,” and “VOCs” exploded into the vernacular with the introduction of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as well as the realization that pollution is tied to Global Warming, the design community as a whole has really taken up the charge against unhealthy spaces. NeoCon was filled with sit-stand desks, circadian rhythm is no longer confused with a sci-fi weapon, and the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) found Health & Well-Being to be the number one most important macro-trends for interior designers in 2015.

It’s got me thinking a lot about why this information isn’t more accepted by clients and the mainstream. None of this information is new; Forbes didn’t leak some massive story that left everyone staring at each other in disbelief because no one had heard of it before—they simply put a scarier, easier-to-understand label on it all. Wellness in design has been around for well over a decade, even being included in the same LEED certifications that made us terrified of paint that stinks up the room. So why are we more likely to find a range of cradle-to-cradle recycled-content materials when we’re stuck with only a couple of options when it comes to products that get us up and moving? To me, the answer isn’t an unwillingness by designers as much as an unwillingness by clients in thinking they’re constrained by the perceived cost of "good" design.

When the Recession hit, the design industry took it hard since new carpeting wasn't worth someone’s paycheck, and companies seeing downsizing weren’t eager to build new offices. We also saw, in my opinion, a shift in how the workplace functions in the years that we’ve struggled out of the downturn: we were introduced to the open office concept with start-ups who offer employees paid lunches of healthy foods and see a 2 o’clock ping pong game in the board room as team building, but we also saw companies that believe good work requires hard work, and hard work is achieved by putting your nose to the grindstone every Monday-Friday, 8:30 on the dot to 5 (if not later.) While companies in the former category are more likely to accept new wellness design in favor of their employees’ health, the later are more likely to see design as a luxury which won’t aid their bottom line. And with the nightmare of the Recession still hiding under their bed, they’re more likely to claim, “If it was good enough for my grandpappy, it’s good enough for us!” (while conveniently forgetting that Grandpappy lost a finger in the mills and had to return to work the next day because worker’s comp didn’t exist) rather than risk what can be seen as a poor investment.

However, there’s a massive incentive to providing wellness in the workplace which comes from a surprising source: the Affordable Care Act. As David Krantz, Vice President of Research & Knowledge Management for ASID, explained for an article I was writing on the design trends we’re seeing in the industry, “Business owners and managers are understanding that having a healthy workforce is to their benefit. Insurance costs have been growing for some time, and if you have a healthy workforce, you can cut your costs.”

Carol Rickard-Brideu, Partner and President of Little’s DC office, agreed with that sentiment when I interviewed her for an article on wellness in the workplace. However, she said, while offices are looking towards wellness more and more, “I think a lot of times people are hesitant to do it because they’re afraid of the cost of it, but there are a lot of things that can be done that are relatively low on cost.” An office may fear a designer will suggest a multi-million dollar project to allow in more natural lighting or knock out all the walls for an open floor plan (which she also states isn’t necessarily the answer to our workplace challenges), encouraging better wellness could be as simple as moving the coffee pot to the other side of the office or getting rid of at-desk waste baskets to force employees to get up from their desk every time something needs to be thrown out.

But when the advice of designers is assumed to come with a hefty price tag, these types of suggestions go unheard or are considered the lofty ideals of crazy start-up founders with millions in crowd-funded campaigns. Rather than seeing good design as being necessary and easily obtainable, design is relegated to the white sofa’d sitting room clad with a white bear skin rug and a gold chandelier in people’s minds, and they find themselves blocked beyond thinking that design—what really can be considered *good* design—has the ability to transform lives regardless of stature, or whether or not they have to work on a dusty, dirty floor (or a cramped office bay in a dark box building.) By breaking down what design has come to mean by showing the power design can have at an affordable cost, we open the door to a world that is excited and willing to change with the times.

As beautiful as white sofas are, it’s important for us as designers to show clients the ways in which “good” is removed from the labels “luxurious,” “expensive,” and “easily destroyed” to provide new solutions to those workplaces that will be coaxed out of their dens of fear of change in a world recently rocked by recession.

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