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Spatial thinkers needed for the digital and physical overlap

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The interface between digital and real is where the most exciting design opportunities are happening, says Rory Olcayto

Interior Design: Dead or Alive?  That was the provocative title of Ben Kelly’s symposium last week on the future of his profession, which some think is on the verge of extinction because of inroads by corporate architects, property consultants and the menu-driven, roll-out programmes favoured by big business.

Interior design, said Kelly, kicking off the day-long event at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, is more like ‘themed authenticity and lifestyle. It is suffocated by the swell of bureaucracy and a lack of maverick, visionary clients.’  That might sound familiar to you – unsurprisingly, given that both professions operate in very similar spaces.

Just like those who fret about the state of the architectural profession, interior design has its own gang of defenders – ‘a small group of guerrilla activists’, as Kelly described them, whom session chair Peter York described as flagbearers of ‘avant-gardery’, many of them no doubt attending the symposium.

There were some great presentations: writer Paul Gorman explored the history of 430 King’s Road, the infamous home of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s ground-breaking shop-cum-pop-cultural HQ ‘SEX’; while artist Lucy McKenzie explained the moral quandary she faces as she restores and transforms the interior of her Belgian home in Ostend, which was designed by Nazi-supporter Jozef De Bruycker. This was a tough, provocative design event, which architectural gatherings can learn from. Who else was there? Legendary graphic designer Peter Saville, music writer David Toop, New York Times design writer Alice Rawsthorne, photographer Bridget Smith and Ace Hotel hotshots Barber & Osgerby.

Mostly the speakers said smart things but one observation stood out, and has huge implications for architecture, too. It was something Fred Deakin said. Deakin is worth listening to and you may have done so already. He’s one half of pop group Lemon Jelly, which, as his website reminds us, has sold over half a million records, and he’s played countless gigs from Glastonbury to Bestival to T in the Park. In other words, he has popular appeal. He’s also a designer and, significantly, professor of Interactive Digital Arts at the University of the Arts London. In terms of the internet, Deakin said we’re in the phase of ‘monetisation’ (the noughties through to now) having moved on from ‘experimentation’ (begun in the 90s); but he was more interested in the next phase, when the digital universe begins to break out of screenspace and into the physical world.

‘Where the digital and the physical overlap,’ said Deacon, ‘is the new creative, experimental space.’ And, for all the architectural guerillas in the house, it remains unsullied by bland-happy corps. In other words, this real-virtual Venn bubble is today’s equivalent of the fag-end of King’s Road. The opportunities for spatial thinkers – interior designers, architects and urban designers – this writer, at least, thinks, are huge. Will you be the creative hand behind this virgin territory’s SEX?

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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