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The design event this year I’m most excited for is the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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All the feels

Sahra Samnani is a Vancouver-based interior designer with a distinct eye. Her palettes are minimal – white, grey, the occasional hint of oak – and her lines are razor straight. But in the future, she doesn’t think her clients will necessarily come to her because they feel an affinity for her aesthetic. “Increasingly, people are aware of the importance of wellness,” she says. “They want a sense of health and mental well-being in their homes. So rather than coming to my studio and saying what they want their space to look like, I see people describing how they want their spaces to make them feel "calm, well-rested, happy.”

The approach is fundamentally different from the way many interiors are currently conceived. For one, “it’s aesthetically flexible,” Samnani says. It can be modern or traditional or something else entirely." Instead of prioritizing the visuals, the focus might be how to let natural light into the house during the day to promote a wakeful energy, then block it out at night to improve sleep quality. “Lighting has a big impact on sleep schedules,” Samnani says, “and sleep has a big impact on our health.” Picking materials for their health attributes, and not just their appearances, is also essential. “It can take hours of research to find truly sustainable finishes that don’t off-gas or have VOCs,” Samnani says. “But wouldn’t it be a comfort to breathe the air and know that it’s clean, and not full of toxins? It’s the kind of thing that in future, we’ll be asking ourselves: Why wasn’t it like this all along?”

Rise of the north

In spring 2019, the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, Canada’s newest architecture school and the only one with a focus on northern and Indigenous design, conferred its first masters of architecture degrees. For David Fortin, the school’s director, the degrees signify an important shift that will hopefully play about over the next decade and beyond. Of the class of 29 students, three were Indigenous – a small number compared to the tens of thousands of architecture graduates in Canada, but a significant increase to the number of prospective Indigenous architects. Currently, there are only 18, including Fortin himself.

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Among Fortin’s big hopes is that Indigenous architects “will learn from elders such as [architect] Douglas Cardinal, who teach us that our decisions should focus on taking care of the planet or taking care of each other first, before looking at any aesthetic questions.” That includes focusing on what he calls regenerative buildings. “Buildings have the potential to be more than just less bad for the environment,” he says. “They can have a positive impact on the environment. For example, they can house humans and also become habitats for plants, pollinators and other insects as opposed to wiping out nature entirely.”

Critically, Fortin sees Indigenous and northern architects playing a leadership role. “Instead of the south supplying what it thinks the north needs,” he says, “I see a change happening where things are more regionally focused, with ideas coming from the north and stimulating the economy in the north. It’s important that our architecture reflects the lived experience of being in a place, because that experience is meaningful, and ultimately provides a deeper knowledge.”

Going forward by going back

In 2014, according to Designlines magazine, Brooklyn-based Jamie Wolfond established “the king of New York housewares brands” with Good Thing, an affordable yet stylish collection of furniture and decor. In 2019, West Elm snapped up the business and Wolfond moved home to his native Toronto – still several years from his 30th birthday.

Over the next decade, he hopes to see two things happen in design: “On a more superficial level, right now, I think that design is very conservative,” he says. “I’ve read that during politically unstable moments people seek comfort in their objects. And when people feel more confident about their circumstances they seek more challenging objects. I’m hoping soon, people will start taking risks again.”

But that doesn’t mean that at his new, eponymous studio, Wolfond will cravenly pursue the novel. Quite the opposite. “There’s a tendency to get caught up in the idea of newness,” he says. “But in thinking about sustainability, we can’t just make new materials and technologies all the time. We are going to have to be better at recognizing the merits in the things we already have that have been working well for a long time.”

An umbrella stand that he designed, for example, is rendered in age-old terra cotta. “Terra cotta has been used forever for potted plants. Using it for umbrellas makes sense because it absorbs the water and evaporates some out into the air. There’s no complex engineering required, no plugs or humidifiers.” It’s what Wolfond calls backward design: looking at something that works well, then taking it apart to figure out what else the object can do. “It helps make resilient objects,” he says. “Not just things that somehow get squeezed senselessly into existence.”

Luxury reimagined

As architects, Montreal’s Jean-Sébastien Herr and Charles Côté, principals of MU Architecture, work with developers who sometimes ask them to design projects in rural areas. “We always had mixed feelings with the concept of ecological developments since no matter how green the buildings are, the impact on nature is considerable,” Herr says.

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The mixed feelings continued in 2019 when a developer asked them to design a luxury tower of 50 suites in the middle of Quebec’s Outaouais region, the forested wilderness surrounding Gatineau. “At first, we believed it was a crazy idea,” Herr says. “Luxury, by definition, is less sustainable since it implies more quality and more quantity. … We were very skeptical until [the developer] mentioned the implantation of a wildlife sanctuary and keeping the building to the smallest footprint possible. … The vision is to bring nature up to the walls. We tried to picture a moose eating a few meters away from the lounge.”

Herr says the resulting design, called the Pekuliari Tower, is “a radical solution to urban sprawl,” and encapsulates their idea for the next generation of sustainable, yet still luxurious design. If built over the coming decade, the structure will ideally be fabricated with maximum efficiency by builder robots in conjunction with sophisticated design software. When finished, it will be clad in energy-producing materials, including photovoltaic glass that creates all the energy for the building and equipped with a “nervous system” of sensors in “each element of the construction,” Herr says, that monitor, analyze and help improve all aspects of the tower’s performance. “By optimizing structural elements and envelopes,” Herr says, “we will create living buildings.”

What I’m looking forward to in 2020

The design event this year I’m most excited for is the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Yes, the Olympics! True, my favourite spectator sport is RuPaul’s Drag Race and, to be honest, I don’t tune into the Olympics for the athletics (except for the equestrian events, because horses are pretty). But the Olympics are always a huge showcase of innovative design and architecture. For Japan, that includes Olympic medals made from recycled smartphone bits (ingenious), autonomous Toyotas that will carry athletes around (the future), robot ushers to help guide visitors to venues (again, the future) and a near 70,000-seat stadium built mainly from timber, a refreshing warm change from the typically austere, concrete creations.

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