Signature Spaces: Do They Achieve Human-Centered Design?

When I walked into one of our client’s buildings for the first time, I was struck by the design of one of the spaces — a seating area outside of their cafeteria. It was a nice space with long tables and punches of red. I asked my escort who designed it, already suspecting what his answer would be. No surprise: It was a competitor of HDR who designs high profile interiors. I recognized their “signature” having seen their work showcased in a lot of interior design magazines.

What was surprising to me was how empty it was. Yes, it was beautiful, even worthy of a magazine spread. But still, it was empty. I wonder how the client feels about that?

That experience reminded me of a time several years ago when I was looking for inspiration for an interior renovation project. I noticed that there were similarities in the look of interiors, based on geography. San Francisco used brick and wood (warmth and color), everything was clean and white in Los Angeles (bright and sunny), and New York City used a lot of concrete, metal and glass (grey and gritty).

Clearly I was drawn to these spaces — otherwise I would not remember them so many years later. I wonder if those spaces represented their occupants as well as they represented their geographies?

I guess the question I have is: Should an architect or a location be recognizable upon entering a space? Does signature matter? Or should the stamp be client-based?

My own feeling is that the best designs have clarity about them. We need to constantly ask ourselves: what problem are we trying to solve? And then strip away any element that is superfluous to that problem or that is trying to solve a different problem.

Throughout the duration of a project it is easy to get distracted by our own desires for a design. What really matters is how well and how often a space gets used. A space which does not get used is a failure. That sounds harsh, I know. But if a space is occupied by “messy” people, but it is able to adapt to whatever use they put to it, it is a great compliment to the designer.

We need to remember that.

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