Why design is more political than you might think?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, design is political and it’s shaping both the spirit of the age and how you live your life. Much more than pretty aesthetics, it’s an enabler of social interaction. It’s reactive and iconoclastic. It provokes and challenges. Without question artists – be they architects, interior designers, painters or sculptors – play a role in defining, articulating and improving society's perception of itself and its perception of its aesthetic reality. As Hamilton once put it: "The artist, whether his medium is verbal, pictorial, plastic, or musical, is the man equipped with radar to penetrate the cultural fogs of the age."

It could be argued that architects and designers interact with society much more than other artists. They can’t function in isolation and their work is irrevocably linked to the reality of society and its myriad dimensions – be they religious, economic, political, social or even in the frivolities of popular culture. Buildings are often a ‘mirror of progress’ up to which a society, or an elite, holds itself.

So how do those creating hotels, restaurants and bars of the future navigate the dichotomy between cultural self-awareness and complete creative freedom?  Here, some of the designers behind Sleep + Eat’s curated hotel, restaurant and bar installations – the Eat Sets and Sleep Sets – give their takes on the relationship between design and the zeitgeist.

Design as a metronome of socio-political change

To London-based interior architect Shalini Misra, design represents a metronome of social and political change around us. “With its synchronised visual motion of a swinging pendulum, it measures the rhythm, depth and tempo of the spirit of the age,” she explains. If design is the metronome, though, who sets its beat? “Initially, we set it based on the cultural and social conditions, but then its regular pulse carries us aesthetically beyond the strictly socio-political realm.”

Take two current trends as an example – maximalism and minimalism. “Both result from the polarised millennial desire to break free from the rigid structures of the system,” she says. “By embracing extravagance on one hand and returning to the simplicity of a quaint life on the other.”

These styles resulted from the socio-political conditioning of the XXI century, but they have now developed far beyond their original purpose. “With time, they reached new audiences, that may, or may not, have been fully aware of their cultural origins. Audiences, who started adopting these styles as a pure aesthetic exercise stripped of its socio-political meaning, and thus laying the foundation for the next generation of cultural impulses.”

Architecture and design offer time stamps of each era

One half of international luxury design powerhouse AB Concept, Ed Ng has made his meticulously crafted mark across the world – from Central Park to the Cote d’Azur and everywhere in between. It’s this worldly experience that has made him somewhat of a design tastemaker: “I definitely think design and architecture are clear timestamps of a certain era, with very recognisable characteristics and design features,” he explains.

“This impression is practically strong for someone like me, growing up in the era that saw Mainland China open its doors again from the cultural revolution where tradition and culture was denied. And then witnessing a craving for the new and the reconnection to the world, the economic boom and prosperity.”

So how did experiencing both sides of the cultural revolution shape his take on design? “Being part of this evolution, and being based out of Hong Kong, it feels we have always been at the hinge of the east and the west,” Ng says. “We clearly see and feel the shift from adapting the design towards a western ideology, into an era that we are missioned to define the meaning and interpretation of design in this part of the world, as it is today.”

Design shouldn’t keep up with social and technological change

Rather, it should respond to the social landscape and drive change on its own terms. So says Angela Dapper, director of Denton Corker Marshall, an international architecture and urban design firm behind projects including Bali’s Maya Ubud Resort and Spa and, closer to home, iconic spaces like London Edition and its cult dining room Berner’s Tavern.

For people in society, design reflects aspirations, artistic sensibility and economic wealth. It embodies the level of technological advancement and elements of climate. And it melds itself to the structure of social organisation. “The most exciting design changes the way people think and uses buildings for the better, says Dapper. “I don’t think it should be keeping up with social and technological change, as change is continual. Great design allows flexibility for spaces to change and be responsive, in any era.”


Engage with the entire hospitality supply chain at Sleep + Eat. Taking place November 20-21 at Olympia London, Sleep + Eat is home to next generation of hotel, restaurant and bar designers, where you'll meet the Europe's foremost designers, consultants, architects and emerging talent.

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