The Domestic New Deal

An Essay by Ilse Crawford

Reassessing the home post lockdown, in the light of weeks of 24/7 occupation, Ilse Crawford argues that there is a new appreciation for the role it plays in our wellbeing. Its location, the kinds of spaces it offers and the materials of which it’s made all play their part. At its best, a home is a haven with both comfortable, quiet work settings and ample room for our multifaceted downtime, all created from hygienic yet tactile materials. Above all, it is a place that allows us to reap the benefit to life’s simplest pleasures. Historically our homes have been slow to change, yet, just as the pandemics of the late Victorian era gave rise to modernism, so the current crisis could prompt a domestic revolution.

As we emerge, blinking, into the post-lockdown world, many of us are reflecting on the homes where we have been hidden away for the past months. It has been a vast social experiment, revealing that we must focus on our homes as places we consciously and actively inhabit rather than just fall into at the end of a busy day or week, without concern for their impact on our physical and mental health. Lockdown has taught us a great deal about how homes can function – or not – as places where we are able to both live and work, with others or on our own. Going forward there will be a renewed interest in our living spaces. Many of us – those lucky enough to have a half decent one – are seeing them in a whole new light.

The context of living in one place 24/7 for months at a time has brought us down to earth. We have had a chance to focus on what works, and what really doesn’t. To test our priorities and our design choices. And we have discovered unexpected simple pleasures. Fundamentally we have had a chance to realise how the things we live with and the spaces we live in change us. They change the way we feel, change how we behave and change how we connect with each other. And we have seen how they can affect our wellbeing.
Moving out of the centre
In the UK there is already a detectable rush to the suburbs by those who realise that flatshares, tiny urban flats or homes without gardens are just not tenable for families in the face of a pandemic, and not necessary in a future where many of us will work from home at least some of the time. There is also much discussion around requirements for future urban housing. The attraction of local neighbourhoods over city centres is on the rise. At the same time property prices in central London are plummeting, with the latest data suggesting declines of 8–18 percent. Access to green space features highly on people’s wish lists and is becoming a non-negotiable criterion, along with balconies and shared courtyard spaces, bike storage and allotments.

Back to the cave
How will the lessons from lockdown translate into our interiors? While many of the insights are practical in nature, one major takeaway is that the home has been reinstated as our emotional heartland. It is personal, intimate, a safe place and more like a highly functioning cave. For all the focus on hand sanitiser and physical distancing in the outside world, once we are home and have washed off the dirt and detritus of the outside world, we are free to be human again. Home is an antidote to the stress of the outside world, more closely connected to our true selves and our daily rhythms.
Working from home
One major practical realisation is that individual rooms make a lot of sense, and are a lot more adaptable than one-room living, or kitchen-living rooms. Working from home day in and day out, for example, was tough for many of us, especially for those living in shared spaces with family or friends. But now we have a more realistic understanding of how living space actually functions for work. When doing VCs all day, rooms with doors start to seem a lot more important. Soundproofed, too, if possible. As does consciously planning the backdrop – just how much do you want to communicate of what is going on at home, how neutral, how groomed, how professional, how ‘completely relaxed’?

Plus, when you spend much of the day online, the comfort of that small spot is of primary importance. Ergonomics no longer sounds like a bore after a day in front of our screens. The kitchen table works for a while, but having a desk at the correct height and a proper chair makes all the difference in the world. On our evening walks in the park, it seemed that we had all turned into hunchbacks. Getting lighting right matters too, for task-based work but also for video calls. And is a lot more flattering. Smart companies are giving employees money to make sure they are technically and practically on point. Home schooling has also been extremely challenging. For the lucky ones, a set-up in a spare room has worked. For those living in a single shared space, lightweight, easy-to-move tables are workable – but again good chairs and good lighting are invaluable.
At the same time we have recognised how important proper downtime is – the things we do to frame the working day and to prevent one day from blurring into another.To facilitate this our homes need to be adaptable and loose, with spaces that morph easily from one activity to another, from online exercise classes, to online lectures and adult learning, to supper time and movie night. We have discovered the joy of lightweight, easily movable ‘everything furniture’ – and ideally not too much of it.
Extra ordinary
Staying home has also meant that many of us have rediscovered the satisfying pleasures of the ordinary and have realised how simple things can matter. Reading books – the refreshing tactility and absence of backlighting after hours of screen time. Gardening, even on a balcony. Taking care of our clothes. Baking. And cooking as an essential way to stay healthy and bring pleasure to our lives. Apparently during lockdown we ate smaller meals and threw away less, because we paid more attention, and cooked with what we had on hand.

There is likely to be a greater focus on how to make these ordinary activities more enjoyable and not frustrating, with more consideration given to the tools and associated storage. A good reading light, a comfortable chair for reading. A place to keep your gardening kit outside. Sufficient storage for ingredients and extra equipment for cooking, so you can store what you need and find what you need when you need it. Even repurposing a space as a larder/utility area if possible. It is said that to be properly functional, 15% of any living space should be storage, although it is always the first thing to be eliminated when space is tight.

Health and cleanliness
And finally our health and wellbeing, personal and systemic. Starting with the obvious. Cleanliness. This is a practice rather than an aesthetic, but what has become a priority in the current situation could become the basis for better habits that would serve us well in the future. As in the Middle East, India and Asia, the ideal home would have an entry area where we can leave our shoes. Ideally we would have a sink near the door to wash our hands and masks. And a spacious utility cupboard for all our newly acquired cleaning equipment.

Once past the threshold and inside our homes. we don’t need to become unduly obsessive, but easily cleanable surfaces, and those with anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties, e.g. cork, copper or brass are obviously going to become more appealing. It’s not always obvious who the good guys are. If you look at the science (such as the New England Journal of Medicine), plastic, glass and steel are the materials that keep the coronavirus alive for the longest time – it might live for 96 hours on glass, while it only survives for 4 hours on copper – so again it’s the habit of cleaning rather than the optics that is important here. What’s more, we are increasingly in thrall to what Naomi Klein calls the ‘Screen New Deal’.

She speaks compellingly about a world entirely mediated by technology, where we are working online, shopping online, learning online, meeting our doctors online, doing our fitness online. We will be badly touch deprived, so a focus on the physical qualities of our homes must be a priority. The toxicity of our homes will also come into focus. Air pollution is increasingly cited as a contributor to weakened immune systems. This is pollution not just from the outside but also from paint, textiles, gas and candles made with petroleum wax. Tap water also has varying degrees of toxicity, usually from old pipes. Hence water and air filtration systems make sense, and open windows for through-ventilation. And textiles. So many of our textiles are chemically processed; bleached, dyed, finished etc. It’s good to check the details – even if it is currently not so easy – and buy from trusted sustainable sources.

The home is historically one of the slowest areas to change – but dramatic social change such as the one we are currently experiencing can accelerate that process. And the choices we make now in an intermediary and post-pandemic future will shift us towards a different reality. After all, aesthetics is not only about the way things look. Rather it is a medium where values are made visible, so that our material and immaterial world reflects the concerns of a particular moment in time, and mutates to make sense of them. Design can be an agent in this process of change and is always responsive to social and cultural changes. The Bauhaus movement in Germany, for example, was exactly that. It was a response to the late-Victorian pandemics; a response to the dirty industrialised cities. It basically set out to invent this fresh, light, clean, new reality. So in a funny way we’ve come almost full circle. Now 100 years later, at a time when we are focused on environmental responsibility, to marry this imperative with a more humane, more realistic, more liveable perspective on design seems like a win-win.
Ilse Crawford is a designer, academic and creative director based in London. Her mission is to put human needs and desires at the centre of all that she does. As founder of Studioilse and together with her multi-disciplinary team, she brings her philosophy to life. This means creating environments where humans feel comfortable.

Publication date: 10.8.2020
Author: Ilse Crawford
Images: © 1. Gavin Elder; 2. Caspar Sejerson; 3. Lorenz Cugini; 4. Felix Odell; 5. Caspar Sejerson; 6. Tom Mannion

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