How the pandemic is changing home design
For two years, life turned inward, and living spaces responded
The Colliers had to reassess their domestic situation from top to bottom. They painted, renovated a bathroom, added shelving, built a patio, updated the landscaping. And after a particularly hard collision with that dining table, they decided it was more important for their kids to have room to play than to have formal dinner. The dining room became a second living room.
For the past two years, homes have had to work overtime, serving as schools, offices and gyms. We were confronted with the brokenness of our homes — the leaky faucet, the dated sofa, the patchy lawn — and the limits of our walls. The rush to buy real estate in the suburbs and rural areas was about gaining existential square footage as much as physical. We craved space, places for our children and our minds to wander.
Impossibly tight housing markets prompted many to stay put and make the most of their dwellings. Renovations and furniture sales soared; home design shifted to accommodate the new rhythms of people’s lives. Life turned inward, and living spaces changed too, accelerating movements toward wellness at home, nostalgia and maximalism that were already underway.
For families like the Colliers, the adjustments they’ve made have proved beneficial for their family dynamic and allowed them to settle in comfortably for the long haul. “If you put the work into your home, you really feel like being there,” Reid says.
Boundaries have been in short supply the past two years, especially in the home. Bedrooms became offices, dining rooms became schools. Family roles morphed as parent became teacher, child became colleague. Work time, school time, mealtime often bled together into one long, chaotic slog without the physical and mental demarcations that helped make sense of the day. And 9-to-5 became a thing of the past.
When gyms shuttered in 2020, many people needed somewhere to work out at home, which meant adding equipment and installing mirrors. As D.C.-based designer Zoe Feldman found, clients didn’t just want an attractive, functional area to exercise in. They wanted a separate one.
“They need to have a dedicated space — and the kids also don’t play in there and the husband doesn’t man-cave in there,” says Feldman. “You can have those boundaries within our home and with your family too. When Mommy is working out then this is Mommy’s space and Mommy’s time. It helps with the ability to spend more time in our homes.”
“Drawing the line — it’s more important now than ever,” Feldman adds. “We are asking so much of our homes, and we are living in our homes in such a harder and deeper way.”
After more than a year of working side by side at the same table, in a cramped guest room surrounded by baby gear and clothes, the Colliers decided to put a pint-size studio in the backyard. Designed by Reid, the studio added just 119 square feet but offered a new world: a quiet place for Heather, an ad agency executive producer and vice president, to conduct calls with clients and a workbench to tinker with jewelry for her vintage-fashion side hustle. It also gave Reid, a creative director, a distraction-free place to do his graphic design work.
“If you put the work into your home, you really feel like being there,” Reid Collier says.
The studio “allows us to concentrate, which we haven’t been able to do at home,” Reid says. “The act of leaving the house and walking across the yard — there’s a change that comes over you. Now I’m in a creatively dedicated zone.”
While some boundaries within the home need to be rebuilt, at least one has been eagerly erased: the line between inside and outside. Confinement has caused many to turn our homes inside out, transforming outdoor areas into entertaining and dining hubs and taking interior design cues from nature.
Memphis-based designer Carmeon Hamilton started her interior design career 14 years ago in the health-care sector, creating spaces for hospitals and nursing homes for dementia patients. She focused on stimulating memory, using color, texture and scent to activate the senses and energize the mind, and bringing the outdoors in — all techniques she has seen playing out in residential design for the past two years.
“I was dealing with people who couldn’t escape years ago,” says Hamilton, now host of HGTV’s “Reno My Rental.” “And now most of the world can’t escape, and that’s been a huge part of design.”
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Patio furniture sales skyrocketed in the spring of 2020 as people moved social gatherings outside; many customers still face limited selection and back-ordered listings for outdoor pieces. Noz Nozawa, a San Francisco-based designer, says her clients continue to invest in their outdoor spaces. Plopping down a beach chair and card table is no longer cutting it. Two years in, clients are prioritizing high-end upholstered seating that holds up against moisture, heat and UV rays, and people are willing to buy covers and storage to protect their outdoor cushions.
Indoors, people are opting for an outdoor feel: foliage; earthy color schemes; natural fibers; and materials like cane, jute, raffia and wood. “Being inside for two years, people are realizing how important those exterior elements are,” Hamilton says. “… That is where that boom in what I call the ‘wellness aspect’ of interior design has been — bringing the outdoors in, bringing in textures and plants and diffusers with essential oils.”
Scenic murals have made a strong comeback to create a landscape within the home. Wallpapers with natural motifs, like Josef Frank’s whimsical patterns for Svenskt Tenn, also have been rediscovered. And of course there are the houseplants.
“It was a $2 billion industry by the time the pandemic rolled around, and then houseplants became the trendiest thing,” Hamilton says. “… It’s important to have things alive in your space. Things that have been trendy over the past two years have been good for people.”
For the better part of a decade, the Danish concept of “hygge” (meaning “cozy”) has been popular in the design world, as people sought to imbue their spaces with not just a look, but a feeling of intimacy. During the pandemic, hygge has taken on a new, all-encompassing dimension. Feldman has been transforming family rooms, studies and dens into intimate refuges.
“We are doing a lot of textured walls, almost like having people feel like their room feels like a warm sweater or a hug. People are really liking cozy right now,” she says. “The fire is going and it’s very tonal and textural. There’s tons of soft fabrics like sheepskin, chenille, mohair and velvets.”
Color schemes, many nature-inspired, are moving to the warm end of the spectrum, too — russet and oxblood, hunter greens and moss tones, navy hues, earthy oranges and curry yellows, along with grays with green undertones.
Instead of starting with a design aesthetic or inspiration piece, Feldman and her clients are using feelings as a launching point. “Really anything that makes you feel really, really warm, put your feet up and read a book, have a big glass of red wine, and put on some music,” she says. “And that’s also the hard part of it. We aren’t relaxed — politically and environmentally. The home needs to feel like a safe space and reprieve.”
“The home needs to feel like a safe space and reprieve,” says designer Zoe Feldman.
Nozawa says clients during the pandemic have come to her less for resale-friendly designs and more for highly personalized looks that they can enjoy for the long haul. “They want their homes to tell their stories and be surrounded by something that means something to them,” she said. “That’s happening a lot earlier in the design process.”
In her past work designing for memory care patients, Hamilton incorporated pieces to reflect those individuals: culturally important objects, family heirlooms, travel mementos. “That personal connection with people is important to help people feel grounded and well in their own space,” she says.
“It’s more about feeling great in your home now than it was before.”
The pre-pandemic era was dominated by all-white interiors and minimalist straight lines. “Everything was white. It was sterile and boring,” Hamilton says. “And I think once people had to live in it during the pandemic they were like, ‘This isn’t the most exciting thing to be surrounded by,’ and that’s when the resurgence of color came back.”
The tedium of the pandemic might be behind a shift toward pieces from the postmodern era. Think psychedelic murals, abstract art, asymmetry and curves. “There’s a boldness and confidence to 1980s and ’90s furniture and art that’s just very appealing during these times of questioning and uncertainty — and also as we’ve continued to emerge from the long period of polite aesthetic neutrality that dominated the design scene,” says Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director and director of fine art for 1stDibs, an online marketplace for high-end home furnishings and fashion.
The retailer reports that its top sellers include furnishings by Venini, Karl Springer, Mazzega Murano, Ligne Roset and Directional. And in the art sector, pop art and street art by greats like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hockney have been popular.
As buyers grow tired of the “Mad Men” aesthetic and millennials look to echo the surroundings they grew up with, they are turning their attention to recent history. “It makes sense that we’re marching into the brash ’80s and ’90s,” Freund says. “Those are decades that are only now distant enough for us to feel nostalgic about them.”
As the pandemic moves to endemic, those of us who have made our dwellings more comfortable may have a newfound appreciation for the steadfastness of our homes — the fortresses we have relied on during this trying time.
“I think people want to escape a lot less now that we have had two years to make changes,” Hamilton says. “People are thinking home is an okay place to be. I don’t have to leave my space to feel connected to something or myself.”
While it feels good to leave, we also now have the pleasure of returning, of opening the door and encountering the sweet familiarity of home. Knowing what we have endured within those walls, we can appreciate it more than ever.
“No matter how sick you get of anything,” Nozawa says, “you have to come home.”
Marissa Hermanson is a writer in Richmond.