Design and Illusion

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Each month, in collaboration with a leading manufacturer, we will discuss challenging and fascinating subjects – there’ll be no chatting about latest colour trends or ‘new ways of working here’. For this inaugural event, we collaborated with our friends at Karndean Designflooring. Having put our heads together, we quickly developed the subject matter – ‘Design and Illusion’ – and then set out to pull together a crack squad of designers, each of whom would be happy to spare us a little of their time and share a lot of their knowledge and expertise.

Said ‘crack squad’ comprised HLM’s Lisa Don, Morgan Lovell’s Ray Chu, Ben Murray from Peldon Rose, Dan Callegari from Area Sq, Federico Toresi from Aedas and, of course, Richard Strong and Francesca Taylor, who represented our sponsor, Karndean Designflooring. With high tea (and a real ale or two!) served, Mix Editor Mick Jordan took the reigns, starting things off by briefly outlining the subject matter: How design can be used to play tricks on our eyes, with our minds and even our emotions.

From finishes and colours, through to the use of mirrors, lighting, furniture and even walls, illusions can be created throughout interior schemes. How can these elements be used and combined to set a scene, to play with our senses and create a sense of theatre in the workplace?

Natural materials and clever planting bring the outdoors inside, smart artificial lighting levels keep our body clocks on track, despite the lack of natural light available, Tardis-like interiors open up before our eyes, surprising and lifting us, and even Lewis Carroll-inspired schemes challenge and wow us.
Similarly, the old can look brand new – and vice versa – and the relatively inexpensive can look incredibly opulent. So, Mick asks, our esteemed panel what first came to mind when faced with the word ‘illusion’?

Federico
You’re selling a dream, a vision, every time you do a pitch. How do you make that real? How do you take that illusion forward? You can’t really sustain that illusion in a commercial environment – which is where I guess most of us work. I have worked in private environments where, given enough money, you can keep that illusion going – as long as you set the stage. In a commercial environment, I think you have to take that illusion from the presentation and be able to turn it into a practical solution. I’m a very practical person, and I’m interested to hear what the others think about this…what we do is try to imagine ourselves in that space and what we can see and then we gather other information and put that into a pitch – sometimes it can be a video, sometimes a sound and sometimes a drawing – to show that illusion of space, so that we can then go on and sell it. But then we have to turn it into reality…maybe I can pick up some tips this afternoon!

Dan
I thought a bit about the semantics of what illusion means – stripping back the layers, looking at the layering of things, whether we’re talking about a physical space or an implied space, and what brand means in terms of illusion. There can be very literal ways you can play with illusion and you can also be very subtle – and that can be across all budgets and scopes.

Lisa
The majority of the work we’re involved with right now is healthcare and custodial. A lot of this work is pure illusion – we’re creating spaces that are extremely clinical but are designed to look and feel homely. The main objective is to take those spaces and turn them on their head – make them into a totally different reality.

Ray
I think every project we get is an illusion – from the grandeur that the client has in their head to the budget that we’re given! We’ve been dealing with illusion for a long, long time – from first putting mirrors into interiors to give that illusion of space – and what first struck me was how that has evolved from simply using mirrors. We’ve now got lighting, textures, sounds…all these things come into effect to create the atmosphere within an interior.
It’s not just about colours on walls, carpets and finishes. It’s now about how we can give the illusion of intimacy by lowering the lighting levels, for example, and then you move through to a main office space and the lighting goes brighter again.


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Federico

But is that illusion or is it reality? If you create a space and you feel something in that space, it is no longer an illusion because you are feeling that specific thing. It’s like I was saying, once you’ve turned any space into something that you can experience, it then becomes real – the illusion is gone. This is something I’m really interested in finding out. We’ve just got a brief to do a new concept for a new restaurant with food that doesn’t even yet exist! It’s a whole new concept – there’s no space, there’s not even a plan. It’s simply a concept. We were told that we’re up against one other firm and what we have to do is pitch them the illusion – and then show them how we’re going to turn that illusion into a reality! I can sell an illusion – but the trick is how we’re going to take that illusion and turn it into a reality.

Dan
I think it’s about creating a narrative – about working with client and how you interpret that ‘brief’. What is the catalyst for that illusion? Is it about brand, is deceit – are you trying to hide something – is about surprise, is it about playfulness? Maybe you want the hidden to be found so that it’s no longer an illusion – and that’s the practicality. It’s about how you take people on that journey. There are vehicles where you can carry the illusion and translate it through into materials and geometry – in a number of different ways. But ultimately it reveals itself at the end of that journey through the space.

Ben
I think it’s at the end of the journey when the illusion can live on for the people who use that space. On average people spend 100,000 hours of their life in an office – and people don’t want an office that is designed to be an office. They want to be transported to somewhere else. They want to have different environments that create the illusion of being on a beach or in a forest or in a café or in a home. You have to sell and design the illusion – but once it’s complete you hope the illusion will live on in the spaces you create.

Lisa
We’re working on a project where we’re taking the technology on to the next level of illusion. Again, it’s a healthcare project – but it could be anywhere really. We’re using augmented reality within the images on the walls through the theatres and on through the living spaces, which then adapt to age and gender – every individual is having their own different illusion. We’re asking about how we create illusion – do we even need to create it anymore or do we just need a vehicle where people can access it for themselves?

Ben
The technology can sense and adapt – so it can sense if it’s a warm day or a cold day and can then adapt accordingly, changing wall colours and lighting levels and emitting smells. It’s incredible when you think about it.

Dan
You can then start playing with light tunnels, social media can affect the light and you can start intertwining things so that it becomes an all-inclusive experience. It’s an interesting point about how literally you take that illusion – in sense of the scale you apply to it. You can be very literal in terms of false perspectives and oversized furniture – or you can go to augmented reality where you don’t need lots of space or scale at all because you are creating your own environment in an introspective way.

Ray
It’s a bit like the Rain Room at The Barbican. It’s constantly raining all around you, but as soon as it senses you walk through, the rain stops so you don’t get wet! It’s all about how we interpret technology now, incorporate it into our designs and move that one step forward. I think there’s no end to the illusion of how you can play things.

Dan
Similarly, talking about sensory experiences, you can use sounds – it’s something you can’t see but physically experience as you walk through and past. Or you can suddenly find yourself walking though a micro-climate. It’s about bringing those things together.

Ray
It’s a play on emotions – how does your mood change? How do your emotions change?

We move on to discuss the subject of the illusion of opulence – or, to put it another way, how clever design and smart products and finishes can override budget constraints.

Richard
Projects are often client-led and our products – what we offer – are an illusion to a degree because we’re emulating real wood and stone. Whether people want something that’s more refined or rustic is very much client-led.


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Francesca

Once we understand from designers what the illusion is – what the client brief is, I think it is then our job to help interpret that into something that makes the room look longer or wider in terms of the floor layout. It’s not just about a vinyl plank or a floor. It’s about enhancing a space and turning it into a different environment at the same time. People in their social lives are going into places – such as the cinema – where sounds and smells, looks and feels are almost thrown at you. These are things that people want to do and I think these things can enhance a workplace, where you spend most of your time. This can help enhance staff wellbeing and retention, creating a happier and more productive workforce. I think the onus is on designers to pick products that are going to enhance those spaces and make this happen.

Federico
We do a lot of work in hospitality where we do exactly that. Everything is almost curated to give that sense of illusion or to set that scene. It can be really difficult – especially when it comes to budgets. You want to sit on silk, but you can only afford Trevira! The more people we see, the more fairs we go to, the better we get. Our office is like a warehouse full of products – and clients love that. We want to help them live that experience and we love anything that can help us deliver that in terms of products and finishes. We had a guy come into our office who is a lighting artist. What he does is projects a high emission image, at very high frequency, as big as Piccadilly Circus’ billboards, for example, from a tiny box. You can’t actually see it, it doesn’t exist – but as you walk past, it stays on your retina for a millisecond! You don’t even need planning permission for this. It’s essentially a virtual screen. We’re going to use this somehow – I don’t know where yet. It’s so damned good – and yet it doesn’t exist. These are the tools of the trade that we need. It’s all about experience.

And our experience tells us that we have no more space to fit our esteemed panel’s fascinating thoughts into – and we would, of course, like to thank everyone involved for their time, efforts and expertise.