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Are hybrid spaces the future?

Conran and Partners’ Tina Norden asks if a hybrid approach to spaces could see bricks and mortar retail thrive again.


3 min read

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 219

One of the design industry’s most recognisable figures, we welcome Tina Norden to the extended Mix family – as she prepares to helm her own regular hospitality-centric column. A partner at Conran and Partners, Tina joined the firm in 1997 and has been a board member since 2016. An interior designer and architect, in that time she has overseen a diverse portfolio of projects – from hotels and restaurants to high-end residential and boutique retail–leading design teams in both the UK and Hong Kong.

Difficult moments have always given rise to great ideas. With the pandemic, we have seen many clever adaptations and businesses twisting themselves into new ways of working to cope with our new realities.

Already noticeable long before 2020, our high streets are looking distinctly bereft these days. This has been rapidly accelerated over the last couple of years, with more of us buying online. Add to that not being allowed to visit restaurants and bars for months on end. Why go out when someone brings it right to your door?

We do want to go out though, now more than ever, but possibly for activities more interesting than browsing the shelves of a shop. Are single-function spaces over then?

The idea of hybrid spaces in the true sense of the word has gained more currency and may well hold a clue for the future of redundant spaces. Hotels have been onto this since Ace revolutionised the lobby and they are always looking at new ways to utilise their public spaces, both for activation and revenue. Even the humble community centre has been doing just that for ages –maybe with less stylish interiors.

We have seen all sorts of eccentric combinations, such as restaurants in a launderette, which have come a long way from the bookshop with café that was probably one of the first hybrid ideas. Concept stores have been on this path since the days of Colette, with a curated range of stock, but also other functions, whether a tailor, water bar or lunch spot. There are also clever new ideas like Denizen in Berlin, combining co-working with recreation and community in a very different way to WeWork and giving the concept revitalised currency.

We have always used our spaces in a hybrid way. The less space (or shall we say the more expensive it is) the more inventive we are with it – and there is always someone using a space differently to how it was imagined. Just think of all the places we worked in over lockdown. We are highly adaptable as human beings and always looking for new ways to shape our environment, finding alternatives for unused spaces or how we use them.

For us as designers, the question is how we ‘design hybrid’. Is there a set of rules or does it swiftly become like designing multi-purpose function rooms: something for everyone that becomes nothing very quickly? Or do we design spaces that address the hybrid brief functionally and then allow the space to flow and facilitate a number of uses organically – creating layers of options and possibilities that are based on a strong overall (visual) identity? If other incidental uses happen as a result, even better, but it is important to set an initial ambition and narrative to expand upon.

That leads onto a key part in the equation: a clear intent as to what the space is setting out to be and how that may monetise itself. If commercial rents are paid, even if reduced, the space will need to pay for itself in someway. So consideration as to what the space can do as a service and charging for this – maybe in indirect and inventive ways, such as memberships – needs to be part of the creative thinking.

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