Shrunken worlds, reconfigured spaces: How the pandemic is altering interior design

Camden Whitehead, wearing an orange shirt and standing with his hands on his hips, stands on the patio of a rooftop garden

By Dina Weinstein, University Public Affairs

One effect of the pandemic is a changed sense of space, whether it’s staying 6 feet from other people to prevent the spread of the virus or hunkering down in our homes to keep socially distant. Interior design professors in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University have adjusted curriculum in the studio-based program, which focuses on creating conceptually driven spaces with the principles of space, form, color and light. The past year in particular, interior design students have been learning to solve challenging and timely spatial problems.

For one class, assistant professor Emily Smith assigned sketches focusing on the smaller places students were in as they studied remotely.

“We had them start with their desk and we said, ‘Think of the project site as your desk, and then your room, and then your home,’ because many of the students were at home last summer, whether it was an apartment or a house or somewhere, and then their city street and then their block,” Smith said. “We said, ‘When you think about it, your world feels really small right now because all of us are locked down. So let’s think of examining this as a site and then scale it up.’

“Students were able to use their sketchbooks and it was actually really fun because people withdrew and then shared these drawings of their room or home,” Smith said.

With the focus on studying their homes, one student found her personal workspace was really in the middle of shared family space, Smith said.

“One result of that assignment was that students questioned why their homes look the way they do.”

Solving spatial problems

Students in VCU’s interior design program gain skills and tools that can be applied to design hospitals, airports or residences, using hand drafting, computer design, modeling and understanding different components, pieces and parts that make up buildings.

“We are not a decorating department. What we do is much closer to architecture,” said Camden Whitehead, an associate professor in the interior design program who is also a working architect. “We are dealing with building codes, as much as the science and art of interior design.”

“We’re not a department that trains people to solely select colors or solely arrange someone’s furniture for them,” said Whitehead. “We are really looking at things at a larger scale, like commercial projects. We’re educating our students to look at design more systematically to both solve spatial problems but also to deal in the same world of ideas as architecture and all of our companion professions.”

The 1970s era Pollak Building at 325 N. Harrison St. houses many VCU interior design classes. It also serves as the focal point for a classic design assignment that reinforces Whitehead’s words. The building has an underutilized 70-foot by 45-foot courtyard and covered area that extends out to the entrance columns.

“This is the first time a pandemic has been a consideration as a reason for a face-lift,” said Richard Rozewski, an interior designer with the ENV design and architectural firm who is an instructor at VCU.

This past year, Rozewski’s art foundations course assignment asked students to reimagine an existing section of the Pollak building courtyard for the larger VCU community as a space to learn and come together, specifically addressing the pandemic and the need for more outdoor meeting areas. Students were to design spaces for people who might be reading, eating, working or resting alone or in a group.

“The harshness of the concrete and the materiality chosen for that space make it a really big challenge,” Rozewski said. “Concrete makes it very loud, which would make it very challenging to actually have a class or hang out there without experiencing some noise.”

Inside the Pollak Building courtyard. The underutilized courtyard serves as the focal point for a classic School of the Arts interior design assignment. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
This past year, instructor Richard Rozewski’s art foundations course students were asked to reimagine an existing section of the Pollak courtyard as a space to learn and come together, specifically addressing the pandemic and the need for more outdoor meeting areas. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
View from above the Pollak courtyard. “The harshness of the concrete and the materiality chosen for that space make it a really big challenge,” Rozewski said. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Rozewski asked the students to visit at different times of day so they could see the courtyard in varied lighting. Some students added more lighting fixtures or sculptural lighting. They approached the assignment by marking areas with color, arranging fixed or movable furniture, or bringing people through the space with signs that made statements about social distancing. They also explored partitions that responded to needs made real by COVID-19.

“Learning how to adapt an entire space to the new safety measures required more creativity,” said Leen Sylvain, a student in Rozewski’s course. “It was like reinventing a new lifestyle. When I thought about taking an interior design class, I never imagined having to redesign a public space to fit the new public health requirements for a pandemic. When thinking about outdoor spaces such as the Pollak building courtyard, we would typically create a place for students to gather. Social distancing is not something we generally think about for an outdoor space.”

Sylvain considered designs that would both create a safe gathering environment and also help art students in their learning. Designing a socially distanced environment in a relatively small place required using other elements such as light, sound, materials, textures and colors to facilitate social distancing. Sylvain considered having fewer seats or shared spaces, but also chose cleanable textures and materials in the design, while still allowing students to keep a sense of normalcy by using bright colors and taking advantage of the few light sources.

“What I’ve been most inspired by is seeing students who are new to design tackle some issues that are in front of all of us,” Rozewski said. “The students are interested in making the space a better place to actually just hang out.”

Classroom adjustments and innovation

Spatial adjustments during the pandemic are of course more than academic exercises for interior design students and faculty. They, like everyone else, also had to pivot how they gathered to teach and learn. That their modifications to classrooms and lesson plans were teaching moments for their field is ironic, but also telling: How we use space is connected to just about everything we do in the physical environment.

Smith, the assistant professor of interior design and also a certified interior designer, made a point to meet with students to conduct sketching exercises outside when they were on campus. The interior design department emphasizes drawing, with faculty and students often working together.

“We sit side by side with students,” Smith said. “It was really tough [when we were studying remotely]. There’s something really organic, very much like a back and forth, when we draw on the same pieces of paper together. Trying to replicate that in a virtual setting was challenging.”

To continue with traditional critiques, Smith and other faculty fabricated a mobile cart that resembles a chariot that supports a frame for a board where students can pin up their artwork to help them discuss their work as a group outside.

Lexy Holcombe, an assistant interior design professor, believes educational spaces will have to become even more flexible after COVID-19.

“I see some trends toward more outdoor learning environments, which I think is really great because that also encourages students to move around more,” said Holcombe, whose research focuses on active design of interior spaces and the areas around buildings that encourage people to move more often. “Physical activity is connected to the ability to concentrate.”

To continue with traditional critiques during the pandemic, professor Emily Smith and other faculty fabricated a mobile cart that resembles a chariot that supports a frame for a board where students can pin up their artwork to help them discuss their work as a group outside. Here students Stephanie Wilburn, left, and Nishta Chawla discuss work with associate professor Camden Whitehead. (Emily Smith)
Emily Smith (standing left in jeans) and Camden Whitehead (standing on the right in jeans) lead an interior design department class critique outside using a mobile cart where they can pin up student work. (Emily Smith)
Students in the Pollak courtyard discuss their work. (An Liu)

Holcombe also expects changes to educational settings — scheduling so that classes are smaller, changed classroom configurations, assigned seating and constant cleaning — to encourage people to carefully distance themselves. This past year, the interior design department adjusted the set up in studio classes.

“We got rid of having desks configured in these group pods where students are facing each other. We stopped doing that in the fall for those few classes that actually were being conducted in person,” Holcombe said. “Now they’re just in rows and everybody faces the same direction. At the same time, we reduced density of the number of humans who can be in a classroom at any one time.”

Whitehead said being in class made a big difference to the students.

“I think they were grateful to be meeting together, seeing and talking to people. Traditionally, architectural and interior design education has been in a studio environment available to students, mostly 24 hours a day,” Whitehead said. “Students will be in the studio much more than the class meeting time. What many students will tell you is that they learned more outside of class than they did inside of class from their colleagues. You kind of bump up against others who maybe aren’t in your direct field and you talk to them about what you’re working on and how you’re doing it. And older people would make suggestions about how you might adapt.”

Whitehead is also tackling some design projects for the School of the Arts, working on furniture design and fabrication for the green roof on the Pollak building so that Carmenita D. Higginbotham, Ph.D., dean of the School of the Arts, can hold meetings there in the open air.

“When we got into the pandemic, the dean started having meetings up there,” Whitehead said. “It gets nice sun, particularly in the morning, and they’ve been just toting furniture from inside the building out every time she has a meeting, and that furniture sits right inside the door on the fifth floor. It always looks kind of cluttered and out of place and I think it’s a pain to move the furniture out there.”

Whitehead’s solution: a portable conference table and chairs that are lighter weight and can be broken down and hung on the wall, just inside the door.

VCU student Leen Sylvain’s sketch of a pocket park, which Sylvain used as inspiration for an interior design project. VCU interior design students have long explored design as more than the study of decoration, furniture and color, and expand their study into companion professions like urban design and architecture. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the importance of this approach. (Sketch by Leen Sylvain)

COVID-19’s imprint on interior design

Rozewski said COVID-19 required quick shifts in workplaces to separate people, such as individual chairs as opposed to sofas.

“I think people are interested in more antibacterial or microbial finishes for furniture, which we would maybe see in health care, now being applied to the office environment,” Rozewski said. “We’re not seeing as much traditionally shared space or communal tables. In apartment design, we’re seeing floor plans shift to show work-from-home spaces. Even if they’re small, they’re intentionally being built in, like you would see in a kitchen. I think that’ll be here to stay post pandemic as we think about working from home more regularly.”

Smith said COVID-19 has forced us to think about why we gather in certain ways, why we use space, why buildings are designed certain ways and “how we could think more intentionally about materiality in some places.”

“At the beginning [of the pandemic], it seemed like the immediate shift was to create environments where you could create as much separation between people, whether it was plexiglass panels [or] identifying routes within an office so that people are not crossing paths as frequently,” Smith said. “But I think we’ve kind of moved away from that now.

“People are questioning, do we need spaces for certain activity types if those activities can be done in more flexible ways? If we don’t have to be in a space, how does that change the way we think about what deserves, or what needs, a space physically versus what doesn’t?”

We’re not a department that trains people to solely select colors or solely arrange someone’s furniture for them. We’re educating our students to look at design more systematically to both solve spatial problems but also to deal in the same world of ideas as architecture and all of our companion professions.

Camden Whitehead, associate professor, Interior Design

Whitehead said people spending so much time at home is having an impact on design and the economy.

“[People are] looking more and more at their houses, at their living conditions and adapting where they live more than where they work,” said Whitehead, who sees COVID-19 changes at this point as an interruption and not as a permanent impact on design.

“There are a whole lot of people either planning or building additions. Now there are a whole lot more people rearranging how they live in their houses rather than where they work. The workplace is to a certain extent coming into question, and it will be interesting as people get vaccinated to see how much it goes back to the way it was versus how much companies re-examine how they work.”

Whitehead predicts more flexibility in workplaces where businesses might have a furniture library workers could borrow from for a home office.

“A lot of people, maybe for the first time, have really gotten a strong sense of what it means to fully live in their homes,” Holcombe said. “A lot of people have been re-examining their relationship to their homes, [and] how they see and consider space.”