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Friday18 August 2017

Cushion-plumpers will inherit the earth

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Interior designers — or cushion plumpers as they are sometimes called — are seen at worst as second-division architects, at best as potential TV presenters. Ornament was crime, Adolf told us a century ago and ever since there have been no more wicked criminals against the verities of modern architecture than decorators and their friends. My students often surprise people when they explain that they are actually doing a degree in the subject.

This week, students of interiors in scotland are meeting for a national symposium at Edinburgh Napier University, under the aegis of the newly formed Society of British Interior Design. Foremost on the agenda will be a subject familiar to architects: the politics of professional accreditation. At present interior designers lack a body of sufficient scale and authority to protect and articulate their interests.

But the modest event taking place this Friday may be more relevant to the fate of architecture than it appears. Two weeks ago, BD asked architects what they imagined architecture would be like in 40 years time. Almost everyone agreed: impending environmental doom would require a new generation of buildings that were smart, responsive and flexible.

Flexible, responsive, temporary? The spaces of the future? Sounds like interiors to me. Interiors has not suffered the crunch as badly as architecture. If people have to make do with the buildings they already inhabit, then they need people trained to help them do it. Blessed by a faster turnover, and smaller liabilities, interior designers reap salaries in excess of architects; and in the work they do they change the immediate experience of millions of people.

You see, all that stuff about responsive environments is already happening. It’s just not being done that much by chartered architects. It is the interior — the part of a building we actually touch and inhabit — that is, and needs to be its most flexible tissue.

It’s also the most ephemeral, undergoing minor rearrangement every day, redecoration every couple of years, and refit every decade or so. The distinction between interiors and architecture is perhaps less one of inside and outside than of duration. Buildings don’t need to be fixed artefacts or monuments. In fact, they only very rarely are. When we make choices about material, construction and structure, we are making choices about how we want time, as much as space, to unfold.

Last year, we ran a workshop in which we invited students to make urban interventions whose only parameter was the span of time they were expected to survive. Solutions ranged from a five-minute flashmob to a design that involved sending messages to whoever might live among the ruins of Edinburgh in five millennia. The messages were inscribed on slabs of solid gold, my favourite being “Keep your feet warm and your head cold”. Somewhere in there, between 50 and 500 years, some students designed buildings, but not many of them.

If you want to know who’s going to make the flexible, responsive and, above all, temporary environments of the future, watch out: the cushion plumpers are coming.

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