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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

On Interior Urbanism: An Interview with Jeremy Senko

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Interiors and urbanism are often considered opposites of one another. But are they so different? Spacing Vancouver’s Erick Villagomez recently had a wonderful opportunity to discuss this issue and the role of interior designers within the larger context of urban planning and design with Vancouver Interior Designer Jeremy Senko

EV_Thank you for chatting with me, Jeremy. I’ve been looking forward to this. But as I usually do before getting into our discussion, do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and your background, for those who might not know you?

JS_Agreed, I have always enjoyed our back-and-forth related to the built environment, so thank you for involving me. My story is pretty simple, all things told. I grew up with a vast fascination with stories and narratives, and I started to see at a young age how connections or parallels to how spaces could make someone feel differently depending on the space. I had no idea what any of it meant, and my understanding of any of it stayed completely rudimentary until I was sketching at my mother-in-law’s house, and she told me I should find a way to do whatever it was that I was doing at that moment for work.

I enrolled at Kwantlen, graduated in 2013, and after a short foray into thinking about architecture as a field, I was steered towards staying with interiors after a dinner and conversation with architect Michael Green. From there, I went to work at BYU Design, or Bob’s Your Uncle Design, a local Vancouver firm with almost 20 years of experience in multi-family developments, where I have been since I graduated. I started here as a junior and have made my way up to now holding the role of Director of Interior Design.

Along the way, I have had a lot of fun and mentally engaging opportunities (some great ones writing for Spacing!) to expand beyond the bounds of my day-to-day work. During COVID-19 and the lockdowns, I was able to tee up with the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) to join a select group of individuals working on their IMPACT Review Task Force, which was an extremely rewarding dive into all the studies coming out at the time about COVID and infectious disease mitigation in general. I find research surrounding the built environment, specifically looking at interior spaces, is lacking, so I try to come at design through a mix of science and storytelling.

EV_A great intro, Jeremy. Thank you! I’d definitely like to chat about some of the issues you’ve brought up—particularly what you feel is lacking in research concerning the built environment and interior spaces. But I want to kick things off from a slightly different angle. I think you are one of a select handful of interior designers in Metro Vancouver with a very strong interest in city-scaled issues, and I know you read a lot about urban design and planning, accordingly. I think this is what you meant a second ago when you talked about engaging issues that expand beyond the bounds of your day-to-day work.

Now, as someone who teaches and practices across a number of design scales and disciplines, I’ve always found it odd that issues about interiors are rarely if ever, discussed at the level of urban planning and design, and vice versa. Yet, it’s well-researched that modern North Americans and Europeans spend roughly 90% of their time indoors. Moreover—and as Emily Anthers outlines in your incredible book The Great Indoors—the area of indoor environments dwarf outdoor ones within most major cities…and is continually expanding. This points to the reality that many find surprising: that by virtually all metrics, the experiential quality of cities and “urban landscapes” is intimately tied to the quality of their interior spaces.

I know this issue has many complex facets to it—an important one being issues around ‘private’ versus ‘public’ space—and I’m sure we’ll get into that but for now, I’d like love to hear your thoughts on this issue in broad terms. Perhaps starting with your feelings towards the division between urban planning/design and interiors.

JS_Well, I have never been known to “stay in my lane” as it were [chuckle], and so I appreciate you seeing that about me. It’s true that I feel very deeply that interiors are, at times, treated as window dressing. We are tied heavily to decorating or are seen as the difficult consultant on the job, and as such, we are typically engaged later on in the design process. I do know that some people love the decorative aspect of interiors and it does play a role in spaces, and I think there is a place for that within the “decor” lexicon. I don’t want to cast an unnecessarily large net on this overall, however. Some developers and/or architectural firms do understand the value and engage interior designers quite early before their development permits go in, to ensure that we are working with everyone from the start. Consequently, those projects have been some of the most successful of my career.

I can’t speak for all interior designers, but I got into this line of work because I wanted to increase someone’s well-being and life satisfaction in the spaces we spend most of our time in. We know that a major concern of urban design and planning is trying to engage people at the street level, but we often hide a lot of the potential uses from our more public-facing spaces. Or, we go the complete opposite direction: making the street-facing design a precious, museum-like box, when we have seen that some of the most successful spaces blend their uses with more public, usable programming.

For example, certain practices have started trying to push having co-working areas—or generally activated lobbies—to enliven the street. But again, it takes a select few to try their hand at it, before it cascades and everyone is doing it. Innovation within multi-unit residential developments is slow. You aren’t steering a speed boat, but an ocean liner, so the pace of adopting change is trying at times.

I look at a project like “The Line” in Saudi Arabia that has polarized so many people: if we leave out the horrible human rights abuses, and other political issues, and look at it purely as a design, interior designers have essentially said “don’t go outside, it is inhospitable, we’re going to give you everything you need right here”. Is it the right call? I personally don’t think so. You just have to look at something like Mark Foster Gage’s Architecture in High Resolution and see how he treated building with, not against, the landscape in the Middle East.

But we know that people are spending more time indoors, so how do we engage with the larger scale design issues if we aren’t at the table to bring in our expertise in at the same time as the rest of the consultant team? Even referencing the above book by Gage, the interiors are there but they aren’t nearly as thought through as the exterior design, the landscape architecture, the building systems, the intricate envelope systems.

We also know that—whether it is another round of isolation due to an infectious disease, or an increase in extreme weather events thanks to climate change—people will find themselves more frequently indoors, yet we are not investing enough in the research and development of making the indoors the best that they can possible be. A large part of that is on us in the profession of interior design for not looking past the trendy or saleable into what we can actually do to increase the livability and well-being of the intended occupants.

So yes, we need more stakeholders to bring interior designers to the table early to have these discussions, but as an industry, we need to push ourselves to be better, as well. We can do so much more than we do now if we’d allow ourselves to venture into that realm and actually take it seriously.

EV_You touch up on some interesting themes here, but before we continue, I want to step slightly off the current path to touch upon something important for our readers. Based on my teaching experience in the Lower Mainland, interior design stands out from several other design disciplines in constantly referring to “we” and related pronouns—like “our” and “us”—when talking about the discipline and their own work. This seems to be ingrained at the educational curriculum level, where even First Year students start using “we” for work that they have created individually.

It took me a little while to get used to when I started teaching Interior Design, coming from the architectural tradition where “I” and “my” is the norm, especially for individual proposals. But I quickly appreciated that this instills in students—and ultimately practitioners—that their work is always done within the context of a larger team: a perspective that I personally think the other design disciplines could benefit from. All this to say that readers will have to decipher the many “we”s that they encounter over this interview [smile]. I’m not sure whether you have any thoughts on this issue, but I do think it’s a telling difference with other design disciplines: very much in keeping with “human-centred” perspective on which interior design is based.

JS_I agree, and it was confusing for me entering KPU as well. All students have to adjust to it pretty quickly, and while I don’t remember the exact textbook reason for doing it, I do know it is exactly as you are saying, a great way to ground yourself without ego in the design. I quite enjoy it actually, and still use it in professional practice to this day. The ‘we’ typically refers to the design team, but as you noted, it kind of ends up having roots in the human-focused level of Interior Design.

I remember reading a book a couple of years ago that tied all this up together quite nicely, it was by Douglas Rushkoff and was called Team Human. It is a manifesto to fix the alienation and polarization of our civilization, but there are many parallels to the world of design. I remember very early in the book a quote that kind of sets the stage: “The first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport.” I firmly believe this. I believe we, as in humans, cannot excel in an isolated, siloed vacuum, and yet it’s becoming more and more of the norm since social media and then ratcheted up tenfold after COVID. I always try to begin with empathy, at the human scale, when working on any project, and I do think the projects are better for it. If the team has a breakthrough, that’s ‘we’, even if myself or someone else on the team contributed 80% of it. It won’t always be that way, so speaking of ‘we’ keeps everyone engaged, involved, and interested in the project’s outcome.

I see this scale across disciplines as well, when we work with well integrated teams or firms and clients that are used to large scale collaboration. They use the ‘we’ as well, but it becomes macro now, encompassing the moves the whole consultant team is wanting to take, which also usually leads to a unified conceptual direction. And ideally, this is where this would sprout wings and people would think of the ‘we’ as being all of us who would use these spaces; the ‘we’ becomes the local population, and continues going outward to spark more change.

It’s like meditation practice, in that you need to remove the ego; there is no ‘I’ there is just this moment of conscious awareness. And someone may say, “well how the hell does that have anything to do with design,” but if you are thinking about spaces as they rightfully should be thought of—long term designs that should create experiences for people over decades, beyond the scope of the immediate ‘I’—then it makes complete sense that it can’t be about you and only you. And if we truly keep this in mind then we (designers) cannot be ok with treating things as passing fads or window dressing because we are not thinking beyond ourselves. It is much easier to build for the ages when you can zoom yourself out to that wide view of your position in the scheme of things. I think a lot of architects do this quite well already when they can, because their contribution is immediately seen to be part of the fabric of a neighborhood.

EV_Tying together the themes of building for the ages, interiors needing to be considered long-term, and urbanism as an interior undertaking, I’m reminded of a story you told me a little while ago where you experienced the history of a city being used as a driver to design a series of interior spaces on your recent trip to Italy. From what I recall, certain elements of adjacent outdoor urban spaces were extended into the interior and it really seemed to strengthen your conviction about how the intimate relationship between the interior and the “outside” urban landscape can be brought together in a meaningful way. It would be great it you could recount the story and how it affected your perception of this idea of “Interior Urbanism” we’ve been discussing.

JS_Yes, most definitely. My trips this year were incredible, and I feel so grateful to have been able to have taken them. I had never been to Europe or the UK (cue audible gasps) but after getting the opportunity to see parts of Italy, and then London & Paris later in the year, I have started to really cement the idea in my head that context is the absolute key to proper human-centric design on any scale.

To recount the story quickly, there was a fashion store just outside the Brera in Milan that I stumbled upon when I was taking photographs of a beautiful church tucked just off of a busy street. The entire square and the church itself was made of pink granite, and as I was snapping away photos, I saw this store and moseyed my way inside to check it out. Amazingly, they had brought the pink granite right through, utilizing it in the flooring and as these amorphous, organic rock-like slabs where they displayed clothing. It was definitely a minimal design, the remaining materials were part of the brand and also striking in their beauty and contrast: stainless steel, mirror, and that was it. They had pink stucco on the ceiling which tied to the pink granite but everything else was one of these other materials.

I ventured into that same brand’s store in Paris and saw the same thing: it was built right next to the Louvre, and they’d used the same travertine on most of the surfaces throughout, unless they used their signature stainless steel or mirrored surfaces. Both spaces struck me in their simplicity, but also the fact that they respected their location to an absurd degree. It didn’t feel like they’d tried to mimic the Louvre, or that little pink church, but to celebrate their existence within this contextual sphere of a neighbourhood.

Without context, these spaces would have made no sense, and may have even been cold or alienating. But the minute they respected what was around them, they were able to add to the narrative of the community at large, and to me, that is what is lacking so much in our local discourse as a profession designing interiors. Humans want to be rooted in place, connected to their neighbourhood and community, and when that is taken away—when we all live in facsimiles of places with zero attachment to the here and now—we are creating spaces of alienation.

This is something you don’t see in all of these places where cultural heritage is so important. Interiors expand on that mesh of a neighbourhood, which inherently creates humanistic spaces. I walked into multiple bookstores in every city I went to, and they were meeting places, coffee bars, debate arenas, and study rooms. And everywhere I went, bookstores were rampant, they were wide open and inviting, and they were on nearly every block.

I’ve heard arguments against my perception of alienation when I got back from Italy, and it always fell into the refrain that because Canada is a melting pot, it is harder to achieve cultural cohesion. But I do not even remotely agree. First off, London was extremely diverse in its population, and their communities buzzed with a life I had never seen here (aside from maybe a big playoff hockey game). We have such an amazing and diverse group of cultures in Canada that we should have no problem creating more inclusivity in our spaces and rooting them to context.

The problem here is that we haven’t defined what any of this means. We haven’t defined it like the Italians or the Parisians. You could argue it is the youth of our country as a nation, but fine, then we need to start that narrative now. Are we cold and shut off, creating bubbles for people to avoid each other in, or are we a culture that wants to foster connection, rooted in local context? Are we just putting useless stuff into spaces because marketing says it’s a buzzy thing that will sell spaces, or are we looking at what communities actually want and need to thrive as hubs of community?

Unfortunately, it seems as though the Interior Design community is keeping themselves out of the loop on these bigger questions, either from a lack of interest, or from a feeling that we don’t belong, which causes us to lower our voices, or back away from research.

I believe we do belong. We craft the spaces that people spend a vast amount of their time in. If we are doing it without any research or thought beyond trends, we are a massive part of the problem.

EV_You bring up a lot of important issues…I love the call to arms for the Interior Design profession! [Smile] I agree: as a discipline that prides itself on being human-focused, not actively contributing to important conversations such as alienation, community-building and cultural values—for whatever reason—is a missed opportunity.

This divide between interiors and “the rest of the city” runs very deep. Your story brought to mind the renowned 1748 map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli  that depicts the interiors of important public buildings across the entire city as extensions of the street. A poignant and important idea: accurately depicting everyday experience with precision and clarity. To my mind, one of the most important drawings in history. Ironically, despite the many advances made within the design fields, we’ve moved further away from this idea even at the level of drawings.

When I started teaching interior design, I was caught off guard—and honestly very disappointed—to see that students left the space outside the exterior walls blank, as though the world beyond the walls of the building didn’t exist! Sadly, this also translated into the profession: far too many interior designers, despite talent, fail to understand interiors as simply part of a continuum that includes the city as a whole, similar to what Nolli drew centuries ago. To my mind, Nolli didn’t go far enough, every building interior should have been drawn!

But even drawing the interiors of a small fraction of the buildings within the context of the larger city would be a virtual impossibility today. One would have to get countless permissions by the lot and building owners, alongside the usual slow-moving City processes. Ultimately, it would be illegal to produce a publicly accessible map like Nolli’s. Perhaps the only exception where it’s plausible would be university campuses since the schools own all buildings and open spaces. Campuses are much different than cities, however.

In 2002, Renee Chow wrote a book, Suburban Space that highlighted this very issue—our inability to depict and therefore think about interior and exteriors as a continuum-as one of the main causes for the poor quality of the built environment. Is this the type of research you’d like to see more of?

JS_There is a lot to unpack here, all exciting stuff, and I fully agree with all your branching-off points, as it all comes back to the fabric of our cities.

I have not read Suburban Space—but will now find it and read it, of course! [Smile] But even just reading the blurb from the Amazon link, I can deduce that it is exactly what I am talking about. The fact that it focuses on direct observations over conjecture is exactly what we need more of, but this type of work goes unseen – it certainly isn’t taught at the level it should be, nor do we do enough post-occupancy evaluations to determine if what we attempted was successful.

When you zoom out and look at Nolli’s map, you do realize that these spaces are extensions of the context they inhabit. You could argue that each “space” is merely a response to the adjacent context; i.e. the interior is contextual to the courtyard (exterior), is contextual to the architecture, is contextual to the street, to the neighborhood, until you reach the fabric of the city as a whole. If we spoke that language, we would quickly see a connection, a diversity of spaces—interior and exterior— unlike anything we’ve attempted in our young cities.

And while you are correct, we wouldn’t be able to recreate this document today, and while we know that homogeneity is not the name of the game anymore with skyscrapers holding a multitude of uses, this doesn’t mean that we couldn’t strive for a “public” level of transparency. Most office lobbies are fully open, yet serve as empty spaces of no importance beyond a “monumental” perception, despite having the opportunity to expand these uses and fold them into the fabric of the neighbourhood in a meaningful way. Is there a happy medium here? Probably. I’d wager that as “Smart” cities move forward, this type of data will be fully front-of-mind again. I could easily see a digital map like Nolli’s crafted by AI capturing data from an IoT connected city.

Thinking of multi-family housing, security is important as a lobby is also a gateway to someone’s home, however, there are other options here. The shift has been that more and more buildings require commercial spaces at grade—like coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, or other retail fronts—but this can to be further explored and prodded. What if these spaces were secondary lobbies that provided a public area, access to retail, and furthered into the private lobby experience of moving into your home? There will be issues with this, of course, leasing discussions and lease line locations, ownership issues, strata issues, fee questions, but we aren’t discussing or exploring it at all, so these spaces are designed as bubbles adjoining other bubbles. There is no connective tissue forming. Urban planners are likely discussing all this, but we aren’t at the table to offer our voice to the discussion. We aren’t researching prototypes of these types of ideas, except in small pockets of data like the Happy City project. There are no Interior Design professionals on that team, but they do fantastic work.

This is where your comment about interior designers leaving a blank void through the windows of our projects rings true—it still happens in practice! We say that it’s because we don’t have the scope to input landscapes information into our drawings, or at the extreme, we just don’t care about the context. And to be fair here, why would we? When you are designing a silo, you only worry about what is in the silo, there is no neighbourhood fabric to contend with. We pay lip service to thinking cohesively about our designs, but it isn’t enough to merely wax poetic about what we hope to achieve, when the final result drops us right back into the removed and detached instead of the connected design. And again, to be fair here, there are some fantastic people in development who frequently ask us to review the connection between interiors and exteriors, but then we must hold each other accountable as we (the profession of interiors) do not do enough to think of this fabric, so our responses are one dimensional (think: we used this tone of wood indoors, lets make the patio furniture the same wood tone). Here, when given the chance to push beyond our boundaries, we fail to reach the possible heights available to us because we have not looked beyond our own field enough to even have a base understanding of those specialties outside of our own.

And finally, I need to pull back a bit and say, there are people doing this. There are architects and urban designers, and I am sure even some interior designers out there, working towards this ideal—or at least poking at the edges of accepted norms to see what is possible. There are clients looking to create communities, beyond just a buzzy bubble of sales, towards a vibrant, walkable, public core for your home. I don’t want any of my ire to be pointed toward any of these individuals or corporations, because my true issue falls within our profession at large. It is easy to blame others, but until we show that we have reason to be at the table, others will continue innovating with us standing in that blank void outside the windows, picking pretty things.

Here is an example of what I mean, and then I’ll let you step in to pick this all apart: I mentioned bookstores previously because they are extremely important to me, and I think, a supremely important part of society (I am including libraries in here as well – generally anywhere we can congregate around books). Through my travels, I have learned that Amazon has to obey laws in other countries that prevent its foothold from being too large. This allows smaller retailers to compete, especially bookstores. There are also tariffs set by book publishers that are egregious in Canada, that other countries do not deal with.

These issues are beyond the scope of an interior designer, right? No. And that is my argument.

If we do not have the respect of our command over the interior environments we craft, as architects have had for centuries, we will not take on any of these issues. Architects are frequently requested to speak on matters of the political, the social, the very fabric of our civilizations. If we, interior designers, truly believe that we manufacture spaces that people spend the majority of their time in, and want to create community like we say, we need the respect to be able to appeal to the government when a big issue arises, and not be sneered at because we focus on the aesthetic over the scientific or cultural. If we want to effect change on the scale that other professions can, we need to elevate ourselves to that level. No one else will do it for us.

EV_Strong words. I think the issue of disciplinary boundaries and silos is critical here. You’ll be disappointed to find out that, based on my experience in practice and as a teacher, issues like rethinking the lobbies and retail space you mentioned—issues that reach across scale and discipline—aren’t in fact even happening at the urban planning level. At least not locally. The pull to specialize is simply too great and we see the negative effects of this all around us.

A great relatively recent example of this was when laneway homes were initially legalized in Vancouver. At that time, planners, with their limited knowledge and understanding of interiors, took to the ‘drawing board’ developing policies focused on building massing—lengths, widths, heights’, etc.—that were meant to ensure the laneway house ‘fit in’ with the surrounding community. This included requiring cars to park within each house to minimize cars on the street.

Despite good intentions, the result was horrible. The living spaces were extraordinarily bad. Between the required car, the mandated setbacks, allowable floor space, window limits, and gabled roof biases, all living spaces had to fit within a 9′ width, including circulation—hallways and such. The houses were effectively two levels of dark bowling alleys. At the time, I was helping out a friend by doing energy inspections, so I went into countless speculative laneway housing units. All brutal, especially given the premium people were charging for rent.

I’m always baffled that planners would not have simply reached out to interior designers at the time when developing their policies…and vice versa, that interior designers wouldn’t be up in arms and tell the City how far off they were in terms of their regulations when the first units were built. As one would expect from any trial-and-error approach, regulations have improved a little since that time, but the standard was so low to begin with that it’s difficult to imagine getting any worse.

So again, things run very deep. In my teaching roles within various design schools, I’ve always attempted to expand the scope and scale of student projects to include the domains of other disciplines in the hopes that it will translate when they are out in their respective fields. But, these classes are often one-offs within a great educational curriculum that pulls them away from integrative thinking towards a more specialized, siloed approach. This makes sense given that most faculty have been trained to think and act through their specialization and teach accordingly. So, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

Let’s be clear: I think the movement towards specializing has offered, and continues to offer, many important and meaningful contributions to the world. But it seems to me that there hasn’t been enough critical discussion about what was lost in that societal movement and what needs to be corrected accordingly. Although we’re talking here about the design fields, the same holds true for most other disciplines. Somehow we need to find a balance between the two extremes.

Now, it’s clear that you’re advocating for interior designers to be much more aggressively proactive at taking part in important societal discussions and breaking through the standard disciplinary boundaries in order to do justice to the field’s larger public ambitions. You mentioned appealing to the government when big issues arise, as an example. Are there other ways you feel the Interior Design Community can and should be proactive?

JS_What a fantastic example. It is disheartening to hear because I do tend to believe that other disciplines are inherently more “in order” than ID at times, if only for our relative newness in the built environment (on a long-term time horizon). But you are exactly right that it is very much what I am advocating for. I think to pull back for a moment, we can look to a few different ideas as examples of how this could move forward.

I have a thing for following fashion, not intensely, but it’s design, and I love design, so I follow bits here and there. The way I picture this would be comparable to saying there are two types of fashion: the aesthetic form, and the functional form. And we’ve heard this argued forever, function follows form, form follows function, etc. and it’s accurate, yet we seem to align ourselves in these two camps. Whether you are a diehard believer of either idea doesn’t necessarily matter to the bigger picture. Gucci or Chanel or LV (pick a name) do some interesting things. However, so much of the world can’t afford it, can’t fit in it, a host more don’t like it, and then another ample amount of people look at it like art, and don’t even worry about it being worn, so they don’t care how it feels, or how it performs. It’s a statement.

Then there are brands that cost relatively the same, but their costs are higher than “normal” because the methods they use for construction are new and innovative. They may be funding further R&D, or are made from fully recycled material, or they use a new type of mycelium-based polymer, they were 3D printed, they can withstand puncture from small sticks or rocks, or are black until car lights hit the material and they become luminescent….you get my drift. They’d be considered the ‘technical product’ – the ‘function’ for lack of a better word.

I don’t think these two camps need to fight each other, but in fact can be two sides to design that work in tandem. You have your R&D side, your functional and technical product, that isn’t always as nice looking or aesthetic, but it has a host of good benefits to its use. The problem is, people do still crave nice things, so there will always be a niche where they’d use anything if it meant they were healthier, saner, more active, safer, and so on. When you steal a bit of the ‘aesthetic’ realm from the ‘functional’, and they in turn steal a bit from the functional and bring it over to the aesthetic realm, both benefit and move forward cohesively. It doesn’t mean we have to dislike or feel superior/inferior to someone based on their view of which should come first, as long as they are both innovating in their own ways.

So, how we apply this to the built environment is key. Right now, I would argue that a lot of designers act like ER Doctors; we are design triage specialists. We have projects that arise that are usually behind schedule from the start of a permitting journey. They are profit ventures, and as such, we are always at capacity or just near it to keep the business going. All of this isn’t bad; we need some version of this productivity to keep the machine turning and spaces being made for people. Let’s consider this the ‘aesthetic’ side of things.

However, what we also need is a research division, and you and I have spoken about this before. There are great firms doing this, but from my review of the work published, it is either architectural in nature or very narrow in its scope for Interior Design. When you look at the WELL V2 standard, the work they’ve put in is fantastic, they’ve cited their sources publicly and you can trace it right back to the original papers or sources, which is exactly what we need. But in doing so, you also realize a lot of their information is not coming from design research, but from other fields and then adapted to design.

Again, there is no issue with that for a while, but the researchers were not tasked with looking at these questions with the built environment in mind at all times. A study on biophilia may report less anxiety in individuals exposed to nature regularly, but does the same effect occur when that nature is a potted plant in someone’s space, or does it require an interior courtyard? What about just painting a wall green? Again, the work is being done, but I would push interior designers to look further, to create a repository of trusted information, and eventually develop our own research. There are one-off research items, but we need to move with purpose within our field specifically. We need to have a group of people who are ok to step into these issues, outside of the for-profit model, without bias, and become a true research arm—researching the things people need to know.

I was recently working with a large governing body on reviewing their Continuing Education Unit (CEU) courses to ensure they were actually meeting the standards of their charter, and after a thorough review and many rounds of discussion, we had to remove quite a few because they lacked transparency in their results, or they were biased by the sponsors. A lot of designers rely on these CEU’s. We’ve mandated as a profession that they are required to keep ourselves in good standing, which is the right idea, however, the CEU’s should then need to meet a stringent standard to ensure we are getting actual factually based, scientifically researched information.

To further the profession, we need deep reviews of how people communicate, congregate, and move through spaces. We need this post-COVID more than ever, as we know that pandemics radically alter societies when they hit. Since the pandemic, I’ve read quite a few books on the subject, and a couple of standouts noted that we go through massive upheaval after pandemics—more specifically Until Proven Safe by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, Plagues Upon the Earth by Kyle Harper, and Plagues and Their Aftermath by Brian Michael Jenkins. A governing body here would be incredible, something removed from a firm, but paid for with dues from members as well as grants and donations.

Why, when we are speaking about how to keep interior environments safer for people during an infectious disease outbreak, did we have to wait for other professions to lead the way?

If we were prepared with expertise and trusted that our expertise was valid, we could have hit the ground running and helped learn from what happened. The change could also be something that starts systematically within schools, providing research opportunities for graduates, or even students looking to pursue this avenue.

We have an advocacy body pushing for recognition among government and municipalities, so why not bump that up a bit more and include a research wing? Eventually, this could grow to be a respected source for important scientific information within the Interior Design community and beyond. And when we think back to the fashion parallel, this allows the aesthetic to keep pumping out work, but with the understanding that as our standards rise, the aesthetic thinkers would follow this logic like they do taking bits of “technical” products, or for us, building codes.

It’s definitely up to us as interior designers, that is clear. No architects or urban planners should need to step up to fix this problem. This is a ‘we’ issue, the ID community. If we truly want to be taken seriously by governments, clients, and even the public, we need to earn that. We need to show that we can officially accept the torch from architects for the interior design of a space. All work should be collaborative, and we as a profession have a duty to work in tandem with others’ ideas. However, we need to be the final word when it comes to interiors, rooted in scientific reasoning. Our spaces are experienced by many people, they deserve to know their spaces were designed by experts at their craft.

EV_To your point, Princeton Architectural Press just released a book by the name of The Pandemic Effect that includes 90 short pieces by 90 experts on the immunization of the built environment. As one would expect, there are countless contributors related to the field of architecture including Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley. But there is also a healthy diversity of contributions from folks from other fields—from epidemiologists to folks in the technology industries, all the way to art curators and physics professors. Yet, I don’t recall one single interior designer in the mix. Not one!!! Assuming this publication is a decent reflection on the research status of the ID profession, your words certainly ring true.

Building from your ideas about how you think ID should have a research arm, I’ve had many chats with architects, landscape architects, and urban designers that lament the fact that few within those professions actually go into politics or government and attempt to change the world through that field. Architects and designers are presumably trained to deal with complex problems and systems: methodically trying to find meaningful compromises between competing and contradictory issues. This is the type of thinking that would be useful to have within government positions, let alone having a voice that advocates for the creation of well built environments at that level.

Now you’ve mentioned governments and municipalities a number of times in our conversation, in a way that subtly implies that you’d like to see interior designers in those types of positions as well…but haven’t been explicit about it. Am I reading that right? That, over and above going further into research and strengthening the discipline’s knowledge base, you’d like to see more interior designers go into government positions and make changes from the inside? Or am I projecting here? [Smile]

JS_So first and foremost, I need to recognize that the American Society of Interior Designers does have research grants being put to good use, but the rate is still slow – they’ve covered 2 studies across the entire US this year. It is still fantastic work that they do, I don’t want to diminish that, but my call to arms is that we need vastly more of this.

In that same e-mail they noted that a government body in an American state (I believe it was New Mexico but can’t find the e-mail) is pulling their professional status legislation for Interior Designers, so this very nicely ties to your point about government positions. I do think that we need more designers in these roles, and while I understand that being mayor of a city or working that fully in government is likely not what a lot of design professionals look toward, I am also consistently shocked to see all these fantastic proposals for tall wood, or carbon neutral concrete, or net-zero building designs languish through red tape by people that don’t understand what the professionals are saying at a root level.

So yes, I think we need further expansion of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, mechanical, electrical, and interiors, to all come to the table. I would love to see government offices holding more panel discussions with these professionals, or hiring consultants to work alongside them on policy decisions. Again, I know this happens, and I don’t want to speak in generalities, but it needs to happen at a much higher level, and in order for that to even be considered for Interior Design we have to overcome the hurdle of being thought of as the “aesthetic-only” consultants, by working more on the items I’ve highlighted.

The book that you are referencing sounds amazing, but it proves this point to a tee – interior designers need to bring something to the table to be seen alongside these other big thinkers, especially when you think that the majority of the pandemic related to indoor transmission and pathogen control in interior spaces, as well as the health and wellbeing (psychological & physical) for the inhabitants. I hope we can get there soon.

EV_To that point, the Introduction of The Pandemic Effect explicitly speaks to the significant role of interiors in the transmission of the illness, making it even more telling that no interior designers were included in the book.

Wow…well, we’ve covered a lot of ground here and I sincerely appreciate the time you’ve taken to chat with me. Do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to share?

It has truly been a pleasure! This discussion has made me question and rethink a whole bunch of positions and interesting avenues in design. I think my grand takeaway or final thoughts would be that this will likely fall on the next generation of designers, so—no pressure as an educator [Smile]—we need to ensure that they are being set up in a way that they can explore these topics and take them on full force if they want to.

If they want to take a research route, they should have the option. If they love the aesthetic part of the design field and want to make beautiful things, they should have that option. And if they want to pursue legislation and large-scale change at a municipal level, they should have that option.

The biggest disruption to the interior design profession—in the best sense—will be this incoming generation of individuals, and I have really high hopes for what they can achieve with their work and their advocacy. It’s an exciting time, and interior design is an incredible industry to work in. I’m extremely lucky that I get to be a part of it, and hope that others see this as a chance to start a conversation or raise counterarguments. It has to be a debate or we will never grow.

EV_Great thoughts to end on. Thanks again, Jeremy!


You can learn more about Jeremy Senko and BYU Design by visiting their website.


Erick Villagomez is the Editor-in-Chief at Spacing Vancouver.

Jeremy Senko is happily lost in the world of theoretical architecture and design. He is forever a student at heart, consistently reading, experiencing and learning about the world he inhabits. More specifically, he is a Registered Interior Designer with a Bachelor of Interior Design from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where he pushed the limits (and the patience) of his professors.