This article appears in Volume 22: The Design Issue.
I’ve always been slightly scared of the word “design”. There’s something about it that feels intimidating, even inhuman. I imagine the hyper-perfected angles of a robot’s arm, the hulking curves of a super villain’s lair, or the sculpted cheekbones of a model stalking the runway. Whether it takes the form of this manicured minimalism or of a moustachioed graphic designer criticising my choice of typeface, there’s a sense that design is an exclusive club that exists outside and above the everyday.
At its best, however, design isn’t this abstract, disconnected concept. Instead, it represents the very human urge to experiment, to solve problems and to imagine realities beyond the one we live in. It has purpose and empathy, thrives on chaos and contradictions, and can occur, like lightning, in the most madcap of people or places.
When it comes to travel, design isn’t just the latest luxury hotel, but rather the endless remoulding of destinations as they adapt to changing climates, whether cultural, political or environmental. To design is to indulge our capacity to construct an alternate future – it is the ultimate act of optimism and even defiance, creativity coming to the fore when challenged or repressed.
Our Digital Editor, India Dowley, discovered exactly this indomitable spirit when she visited the South African city of Johannesburg. Formerly a hasty stopover for travellers en route to sun-soaked safaris or the more conventional charms of Cape Town, “Jozi” is emerging from the shadow of Apartheid as a cradle for democratised, do-it-yourself creativity – as local artist James Delaney told her: “Creatives have the audacious curiosity to actually do stuff here.”
I found a similar phoenix tale unravelling in Detroit, a city built on its design credentials and now regaining its sense of confidence and pride through a series of ambitious, community-centric design projects. Meanwhile, in former Soviet cities such as Moscow and Kiev the architectural legacy of the union is resurfacing through bold, contemporary buildings.
A reverence for the past is informing the renovation of Taipei’s Dadaocheng neighbourhood, where Chinese, Japanese and European flavours collide. In Bangkok the next generation of architects are turning away from shiny superstructures to embrace the heritage of its warehouses, side streets and hole-in-the-wall hotspots. While some destinations draw inspiration from days gone by, others are diving into uncharted territory. The Dubai Design District is repositioning this desert dreamland as a place where more than shopping centres and skyscrapers can take root. The power of art to reshape narratives is also being experienced in Shanghai’s dazzling, futuristic galleries.
The convergence of technology and imagination informs the poet Himali Singh Soin’s futuristic vision of life on Mars, while in the present day charities are using virtual reality technology to help engender empathy for refugees. Design with a positive impact is also becoming a cornerstone for many hotels – thanks to a rigorous waste-to-wealth programme at Soneva in the Maldives trash islands are becoming treasure troves, while at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in South Africa tourism is creating a symbiotic relationship with the land.
Perhaps one of the more surprising discoveries of this issue concerns the ability of buildings to affect our sense of self. Stranded on the Norwegian archipelago of Fleinvær, Rosalind Jana found a muse for her poetry in the cubist structures of the artist’s retreat Fordypningsrommet. Over in Wales I experienced becoming unmoored and then anchored through architecture at John Pawson’s extraordinary Life House.
As we enter spring, the season of restlessness and renewal, it’s worth remembering this two-way relationship as we dream up new designs for how we live, work and play. In the words of Alain de Botton: “We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”