What does the post-pandemic home look like?
The pandemic forced us to rethink the way we live, not least how we exist within the confines of our homes. As we continue into “the new normal” the way our homes function has been forever transformed. Let’s delve deeper into the post-pandemic home, and what this looks like.
At the mercy of the global pandemic that hit our shores in early 2020, Australia experienced loss and uncertainty, waves of closures, rolling lockdowns and constantly changing rules and regulations. The pandemic left an imprint on our mental, physical and financial wellbeing, and it changed our relationship to our homes and the way we design and decorate our spaces. With restricted opportunities for travel and socialising, our priorities pivoted and the focus became hyper-localised and personal.
For those lucky enough to have a place to call home during this time, private dwellings represented security and a buffer for anxiety. “The pandemic has changed the way we live in our homes more than any other event in recent memory,” says Lauren Li, the founding director of the Melbourne interior design studio Sisällä. “Pre-pandemic, we may have never really thought about how our homes make us feel when we’re just hanging out, or maybe we only tidied up when visitors dropped in. Now, it’s all about you and how you want your space to make you feel.”
Under government-mandated stay-at-home orders, private dwellings became the central hub for work, rest and play. The functionality of each room was put to the test, and homeowners became painfully aware of each piece of furniture. Vanessa Colyer Tay is an interior stylist and the head of styling of Temple & Webster, Australia’s largest online retailer for the home. As an interior design insider privy to information about how a large proportion of Australians decorate their homes, Colyer Tay says that spending extended periods at home has forged a deeper connection to our spaces. “With families spending 24 hours a day together, we were forced to assess every corner of our homes to make sure the space functioned while also giving us a sense of comfort,” she explains.
Beyond updating rooms with new furniture or decor, many Australians took the opportunity to make more significant and permanent changes. Renovation loans increased 7.4 per cent in June 2021, hitting a 19-year record high, according to CommSec. The Sydney Morning Herald declared, “Renovation Nation: Australians spending a record 1 billion a month on their homes” in a boom partly fuelled by the HomeBuilder COVID stimulus package devised by the government. The professionals in the business of creating homes — architects, builders, designers and stylists — have seen a move towards designing for flexibility, wellbeing and personal expression.
Crucially, the health crisis has shown us that our homes must be designed for liveability first. “The art of safely snuggling up at home has always existed, but it has never been as intense and widely embraced as it has during the pandemic,” says Colyer Tay. “We needed to turn our homes into havens of comfort where we find peace and quiet and spend time with loved ones.”
Months of cocooning and a refocus on hygiene have left a mark on the design direction of residential interiors, representing a shift in our relationship to our homes. So what factors contribute to a post-pandemic home?
This is not the first time infectious diseases have shaped the design of our dwellings. Modernist design can be traced back to the tuberculosis pandemic of the late 1800s, when easy-to-clean surfaces and minimal ornamentation were favoured. White subway tiles and enamel finishes were popularised during this time, and the removal of heavy drapes and porous timber furniture helped keep rooms dust- and bug-free.
During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, homeowners installed bathrooms by the front door to wash before entering the home. Echoing that design solution, and in an attempt to stop outside germs coming into the home, greater focus is now placed on a home’s front entryway.
These space have become essential transition zones that allow for the storage of shoes, jackets and bags and a spot for extra sanitisation.
What previous generations didn’t have was the ability to control their homes via touchless designs. From sensor taps to voice-activated temperature and lighting control, the smart home’s capabilities limit the need to touch surfaces. As technologies develop, more of these hygienically minded convenient home additions will be integrated into both our private and public spaces.
The broken plan layout
Open-plan living has been a central tenet of residential design since the 1990s, when formal dining rooms and tucked-away kitchens were forsaken for a flowing layout. When homes had to operate as offices, classrooms, restaurants and places for recreation and relaxing in 2020, the option to move into a private, separate space became a highly attractive design feature. Spending time with family is essential, but having a retreat for uninterrupted work or rest has become a priority.
Designers and homeowners are now turning to the “broken plan layout”, which describes an interior divided into zones to cater to different activities and privacy levels without being split into individual rooms. This is typically achieved using partitions and split levels, different floor or wall finishes or cleverly arranged furniture such as bookcases.
If a rejig of your home layout isn’t an option, establishing some ongoing rules around using a flexi-space could lead to a happier home life. Coyler Tay suggests nominating dedicated time slots for different tasks. “If you work from the dining table, eat your lunch elsewhere, and during dinnertime make sure your office supplies are packed away,” she suggests. “By creating a clear separation between the two tasks, you will not only feel more productive at work, but you’ll also be able to more easily wind down and enjoy after-work activities, such as a family dinner, without distraction.”
The home office
According to Towards COVID Normal, a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, two-thirds of Australians were working from home in June 2021. While that ratio is likely to drop as restrictions relax and businesses settle into the “new normal”, many Australians are expected to continue working from home in some capacity over the coming years.
“Prior to the pandemic, the home office was simply the kitchen bench or a tidy nook used occasionally to send a few emails and pay bills,” says Li. “If there was a dedicated study room, it mostly stored the excess ‘stuff’ that didn’t have a home anywhere else. Now, the home office is so much more. When planning new builds or renovations, the home office has bumped up a few notches of importance.”
Space for a home office has become a priority for house hunters. Surveying 330 property professionals, the NAB Residential Property Insights Report found that 86 per cent of respondents rated the study or work area as more important to homebuyers than it was pre-pandemic.
When it comes to furnishing the work zone, temporary fixes are no longer adequate. “Making-do with DIY assembly flat-pack office furniture has worn thin. We now realise that to maximise every inch of space and store the folders, books and printers we rely on daily, a custom joinery unit is the ideal solution,” says Li. Colyer Tay adds, “There are a few key elements that every workspace should have: good lighting, whether it’s natural or task lighting using floor lamps, table lamps or pendant lights; a suitable desk that caters to the type of work you do; and a comfortable, preferably ergonomic, office chair.” Personal touches, such as a houseplant, scented candles, family photos or favourite artworks, can help increase motivation, inspiration and comfort levels.
A silver lining of the pandemic has been a nationwide trend toward purchasing Australian products. “The pandemic has led people to support local manufacturing in a tangible, meaningful way that we haven’t seen in decades,” Li says. “Pre-pandemic it was all about scouring the internet for the cheapest furniture, ordering it and not caring where it came from. These days, the first thing we want to know is ‘How long will it take to arrive?’ so we need to know where it’s coming from.”
Li’s perception is supported by Commbank’s Consumer Insight Report from May 2021 (“How the pandemic has reshaped consumer behaviours, expectations and intentions”), which found that one of the most significant changes in online shoppers’ activities during the pandemic was the increase in the volume of purchases made from online retailers located in Australia. Just over 50 per cent of the 5000 Australians surveyed believed purchasing locally sourced and manufactured products will be a priority moving forward.
The cosy kitchen
Our kitchens, the perennial heart of the home, reflected changing priorities during the pandemic. As the place where food is prepared, families gather, the temporary office is set up and relaxing evening drinks are poured, kitchens need to be highly functional and multipurpose, but not at the expense of comfort or character.
Interior design has moved toward creating feel-good, meaningful spaces that embrace and celebrate individuality over a one-size-fits-all approach. “Interior trends are all about the individual,” says Li, and when it comes to kitchen design, it’s about creating inviting spaces that are a welcoming extension of the living area, rather than a purely utilitarian zone.
The post-pandemic kitchen design can be characterised by unique elements, such as coloured cabinetry, handcrafted fittings and lighting fixtures, and maximised storage and preparation space via butler’s pantries and custom joinery.
Reconnecting with colour and texture
Australians have emerged from the pandemic with an energised approach to using expressive colour and texture in the home. “What we’re finding is a move away from the white walls and grey sofa formula,” Li offers. “It may look sleek and Scandinavian on a Pinterest board; however, actually living in a soulless room makes us feel, well, nothing. The cool grey palette has stepped aside as we embrace warmer tones that feel more comfortable and cosy.”
Australian paint supplier Wattyl reports a consumer-led embrace of colour, noting the most popular hues are the warmer, earthier shades, from mid to deep greens, and rich sun-baked russets and terracottas, warm ochres and buffs. Dulux’s colour trend forecast for 2022 includes palettes that are either rich and joyous or soothing and calming, with names like Flourish and Restore. Coyler Tay’s insight corroborates these market trends. “While neutral tones have forever been popular, we’ve seen a clear shift to more earthy neutrals with deeper, tactile hues — colours that remind us of Mother Nature,” she says.
The increased use of raw, natural and tactile materials — such as hardwood timber, stone, earthy ceramics, linen and wool — in the interiors and exteriors of our homes speaks to a refocus on wellbeing in residential design, which offers grounding feelings and a reconnection to nature over technology. “Textures that contrast and make you want to touch them are more important as we are searching for an antidote to the smooth screens that occupy our days (and nights),” says Li.
Prioritising the outdoors
As a testament to the therapeutic power of plants and fresh air, many Australians invested time and money refreshing and beautifying their outdoor spaces during the lockdowns. “Backyards and balconies were transformed with outdoor furniture and decor to recreate elements of the outside world that many of us were missing,” says Colyer Tay. She reports that Temple & Webster saw an increase in sales of children’s outdoor play equipment, bringing the fun of the nearest park closer to the safety of home.
The NAB Residential Property Insights Report, released in April 2021, uncovered how COVID-19 changed the priorities of Australian home buyers. The findings supported the idea that Australians were searching for larger homes with bigger backyards, and greater value was placed on suburban living near local amenities. Conversely, interest in apartments and the desire to be close to a CBD weakened.
A property wish list that includes space to grow veggies or a spare room reserved for a favourite hobby represents a shift of values and a newly balanced approach to life in general. After countless hours in lockdown spent gardening, cooking and DIY projects, a new wave of self-sufficiency has come to the fore. “We have realised that we can’t always rely on stores to have an endless supply of the things we need (hello toilet paper hoarders!), and that came as a very rude shock,” Li explains. “Soon enough, we were making sourdough bread and heading to the local nursery to start a veggie patch. Things have calmed down since the beginning of the pandemic, but we discovered so much pleasure in those simple ‘old-fashioned’ things.”