Materials expert and author of Why Materials Matter, Seetal Solanki, is more circumspect about the effect the pandemic will have on our interiors. ‘Touch is inevitable,’ she explains. ‘I really don’t think we’re going to move into spaces that are “touchless”. I don’t think we’d be able to understand that world. It wouldn’t feel safe and comforting.’ Moving forward, we are more likely to see a rise in natural, sustainable materials that perform more than one function or, as she puts it: ‘Familiar materials being represented in an unfamiliar way… There are ways that we can start to consider the full potential of a material in an interior space.’ It’s something that was happening well before the virus struck but, like many things, may be accelerated by it. At Margent Farm in the Cambridgeshire countryside, for instance, owner Steve Barron commissioned Practice Architecture to design a house from the crop growing in his adjacent fields. The Flat House is constructed with prefabricated panels infilled with hemp (left unfinished inside) as well as using experimental hemp-based cladding on the exterior. The result is a rich materiality that conveys palpable warmth and fibrous tangibility, while reflecting the local bio region. ‘There are lots of ways of interpreting a single material that can offer many outcomes,’ confirms Solanki. ‘Fuel, textiles, solid surfaces – all these things can be generated from algae easily, for example, and all materials are versatile.’ Hemp, meanwhile, is being used for clothes, food, medicine, paper and as a plastic substitute in car interiors. It’s remarkable stuff.
This celebration of material origins and locality is also captured in Martino Gamper’s Tutti Frutti, a collaboration with the material research lab Atelier Luma in Arles. Gamper worked together with local craftspeople for 5 months to design the new canteen Le Réfectoire in the Parc des Ateliers with materials developed from local resources and know-how. Processes involved weaving, felting, tufting and embroidery to create a richly sensorial and restorative environment that both resonated profoundly when it opened in the pandemic summer of 2020, and offers a direction for the future.
Another timely opening in 2020 that explored a very different sort of future was the Weird Sensation Feels Good exhibition at ArkDes in Stockholm. This was the first museum show about ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It turned out to be a particularly appropriate moment to showcase this new online culture that inhabits the intersection of the virtual and physical worlds by using particular audio-visual cues to elicit pleasurable bodily sensations and relaxation. The exhibition, designed by ĒTER architects, manifested the experience of this phenomenon by creating a display of slick, caressing hands that offer headphones to the audience as they lie down on soft, squirming cushions to experience the ASMR tingles.
As we’ve understood more about the virus, like de Waal, we have started to re-establish the importance of touch. As part of the AHEC-sponsored project 'Connected', Thomas Heatherwick set about creating a product that appealed to all senses. The studio thought around the brief and, rather than design a desk as they had been asked to do, instead created a series of contoured legs made from maple and finished at the top with planters. The effect is incredibly tactile – all of a sudden the workstation resembled a mini Kew Gardens, with legs you felt compelled to stroke.
The truth of the matter is that the virus has emphasised the important things in life, the stuff we need to preserve or regain. What is certain, as vaccine programmes are rolled out and restrictions ease, is that the ability to touch has never been so important.