19 Designers Share How the Pandemic Is Affecting Their Business — And How They’re Staying Positive
Sally Breer may have said it best earlier this week: “When there’s a scarcity of toilet paper it feels absurd to care about cute side tables.” With people in danger of losing loved ones and the global economy in free-fall, it makes sense that design might fall to the bottom of everyone’s priorities list. The creative community is facing canceled fairs and projects, lost clients, production delays, and countless other difficulties, and the future feels incredibly uncertain. But the one upside to the crisis is that we’re all scared, and we’re all in it together — from China to Europe to, now, the U.S. This week we decided to reach out to designers, art directors, gallerists, and other practitioners to find out what they’re experiencing, professionally and personally, and what positive thoughts and advice they’d offer other creatives to ensure that everyone can continue to thrive once this crisis ends. Read their answers below.
Leah Ring, Los Angeles
Things in L.A. have gotten pretty weird, as I know they have in New York. Luckily I can continue to do a lot of my work from home in terms of product design, drawings, specifying for clients, etc. But all production is halted on my furniture pieces, and most of my interiors projects are holding on construction until we know if L.A. is going to receive a “shelter in place” order. As of right now, my life doesn’t seem too terribly different in terms of the flow of my work, but I’m anxious about the uncertainty in the future. Because I design spaces, and create things that go into spaces, I need to have quite a bit of contact with people — whether it’s during factory visits, on construction sites, or in client meetings to review materials in person. It will be interesting to see how the design and production processes adapts to account for social distancing, or even more restrictive measures.
I’ve been trying to diversify my small studio so I can be more resilient in times of uncertainty. Between furniture design, interior design, curation, and art direction, I’ve tried to expand the offerings of my studio so that if one area slows down, I can lean on other parts of my practice for income. Having your own design studio in the U.S. requires a great deal of grit and hustle and entrepreneurial spirit, so we’re actually well-suited to adapting to changing conditions. I’ve also spoken recently with friends about starting a (digital) gathering of freelancers from a variety of industries so we can all share resources and offer advice to each other. L.A. is a city full of freelancers and many have weathered an economic downturn before, so I think it’s valuable to lean on the insights of other creatives, even if they’re outside your field.
Overall this situation is providing time to slow down and reflect on my practice and why I do what I do. At the end of the day, even if I can’t show my work and no one is buying it, I still want to create, so that’s exactly what I’ll do. As designers we create because we have to — it’s not really optional. So we have to just keep on making beautiful things, lifting one another up, and trying to spread joy through our work.
David Alhadeff of The Future Perfect, New York
There’s something strangely comforting about the fact that we’re all going through this together — not just New Yorkers or Americans, but the world. That said, the effect has been immediate and pretty dramatic for our business. As we operate functioning gallery spaces, the recommended (and in SF, mandated) closures have meant we’ve had to rethink things pretty holistically. We’re working from home and adjusting, and our programming is completely on hold. We have no idea when to reschedule events. And of course, sales are slower, which is to be expected. Obviously, the greatest impact is to team members whose positions have had to be put on hold temporarily due to these events. I feel responsible for people’s livelihoods. I’m personally sad for people who are scared, sick, or have lost loved ones. I feel a lot of compassion right now.
The thing is, this is also a time of opportunity. A time to reconsider, re-plan, reinvent, strategize, audit, and restart. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m doing a complete overhaul. I’m looking at everything. And that’s very inspiring. The impact has required direct attention to necessary changes in the way we are operating, but it’s also provided an opportunity to completely wipe the slate clean and ask, “What can I be doing differently and better than I’ve ever done before?” It’s unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean it has to be all bad. Who am I to define this as bad or good? It doesn’t look good from our perspective right now, but I’ve always found painful moments to open new doors that otherwise may have remained closed. I feel like it’s super important right now to get scrappy, be flexible, and be open to new ideas. I’ve been sharing honest conversations with other small-business owners about how they’re affected and working through this. There’s no shame in this challenge. We have to lean on each other if we expect to get through to the other side.
Agnes Studio, Guatemala City
This situation is extra hard for us, because we’re not only business partners but also married, and we’re currently separated by travel restrictions. It takes serenity to understand that it’s for the best, especially if we’re helping the most vulnerable. And we’re in a position of privilege in that we’ve always operated almost completely remotely, since we founded our studio, so we can do business while being in quarantine — something that many people aren’t able to do. Empathy and support for others, in any way, is necessary. Business has slowed down but we understand that design isn’t a priority when everyone is focused on other, more important things.
We think trying to stay positive is key for our future, not as a studio but as human beings. This situation is taking an emotional toll, and our mental health is paramount if we’re to endure this sanely. This is probably the first time that our generation has faced a global crisis like this, where beyond economic concerns like the 2008 recession, there’s a chance of actually losing someone you know. Personally we feel some basic things help, like meditation, exercise, and keeping up with your normal daily life as much as possible. The understanding that you cannot control every aspect of the situation, but you can focus on what you can control, helps reduce the anxiety. The time to rebuild ourselves, our communities, and our society will come, but now, it’s good to think of this isolation as time to connect with your loved ones or explore your inner self, your ideas, and your creativity.
Sam Baron, Lisbon
Time seems to be suspended, and all the main design events have been postponed, but collaborations are still going on, even if they’ve been reorganized to suit more digital conditions. In Europe there’s no way to travel to meet clients, or to check physical prototypes anymore. Answers take more time to arrive, but it’s because people need to reset their daily lives; we all have to find the right rhythm, which includes our personal lives, basic needs, and for those of us with families, a noisy and active home environment. This kind of slow-motion effect is giving a very special feeling to my ongoing projects, though, as it’s not necessary to run to the Lisbon airport to catch a plane to Paris or Italy — I’m not watching my chair thinking that in two hours I’ll have to leave it and grab my travel bag!
This imposed reset offers us a possibility: to analyze who we can work with, and who we really enjoy working with, once these tough times are over. It gives us the opportunity to see the downside in a positive way: How are we able to satisfy ourselves with less possibilities? How can we “design” ourselves (which is rare, as we normally do it for others) a new way of doing and enjoying? How can we find pleasure, care more, and give importance to who and what stays and is real in this new way of practicing our passions?
Harry Nuriev, New York
In just a few weeks, our entire world has changed. Many of my projects have been postponed, but quite a few are in the process of being adapted into fully digital form. With our clients and partners, we’re working on a completely new shape of design, free from conventional physical or logistical constraints. It’s a unique time to think about how conceptual design can be seen as more than “just a rendering.”
We’re always thinking about how we can stop the clock, so to speak. We all have little dream projects that may not take a lot of energy, but require a couple solid weeks of time. Now is that time. Take everything that is happening around you as a chance to go for it! Personally, I’ve always dreamed of designing a virtual space in my aesthetic and artistic language. Compared to the concreteness of physical spaces, I had always questioned whether something like this would be “useful” for anyone, but it’s something I want to try to pursue now. Right now I’m trying to dedicate at least 3 hours a day to the project — between Netflix, reading, and sketching — and I believe that, to the best of our capacities, we can allow ourselves to be productive and positive.
Roanne Adams of RoAndCo, NY/LA
Wow, it’s been an intense week! I’ve been a business owner for 13 years and I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, but this is one of the most extreme situations I’ve ever dealt with. Since I’ve experienced business challenges in the past, I’m grateful today to feel more prepared and to have other responsible people on my team who can bear the burden with me. Two weeks ago I was in a very creative, expansive mindset, thinking about the future of business, leadership, the environment, and social responsibility. My team and I were working on bringing on new projects and hiring new team members. Then it suddenly became clear that I needed to switch gears and start making quick decisions to prepare for potential worst-case scenarios. I immediately asked my team to start working from home, and thankfully everyone is currently healthy and productive so far. The business has been affected, but when I compare what’s happening to others around the world, we’re extremely lucky to be able to function digitally and continue to service clients. Though it has been disappointing to hear from clients that had to put projects on hold with no clear idea of when or if they’ll pick back up again.
In times like these, the key to keeping a business functioning is to act fast, and if you lose a project, quickly consider cutting any unnecessary expenses. I’ve also been staying close with my lawyer and accountant, checking in with them practically every day to make sure we have all our bases covered. In some ways, businesses have an opportunity to change their messaging or even pivot their offerings to cater to this new quarantined world. I think we all have the opportunity to reassess if what we’re doing is actually good for humans and the planet, and shift gears if not. I know that there’s great suffering happening in the world right now, and we should do our part to help others, but I also think that this horrendous situation could possibly bring about positive change in the long run. I like to believe that sometimes destruction leads to great creation.
Frank Chou, Beijing
Our team is still working normally, but most of our design projects are facing delay or cancellation, and we should be prepared for another half a year or so of difficulties. But overall, the Chinese design and creative industry is developing rapidly, and that trend won’t change. As long as society gradually returns to stability, this part of the industry will soon return to normal as well.
The outbreak will be a great shock to Chinese design and creative industry in the short term, but it may also contain opportunities during this period. Most of the manufacturing industries in China are still working in an export-oriented industry model dominated by OEM (original equipment manufacturing), and the stagnation of global trade will impact these enterprises. They’ll be forced to restructure, which I believe will inevitably generate a lot of demand for and create a lot of opportunities for the design and creative industries, once the epidemic passes.
Confidence is very important right now for social and economic development. Adopt a theme of “designing with confidence” and use it to try to improve other people’s confidence through your creative ideas. Designers can contribute positive things to the world in our own way — that confidence we inspire will ultimately help the recovery of people and the economy. Recently we gathered together a group of designers and launched a public-welfare project called Create Cures, which aims to use our skills to promote the development of public health. We sincerely hope that this project can make a real difference and help people come out of the shadows.
Elyse Graham, Los Angeles
We have a tiny team here in the studio — just three of us. After careful consideration over the weekend, we decided we could safely continue to work. It’s been deafeningly quiet since late last week, but we still have a few orders to fill, and frankly we need the structure and routine of the studio desperately. We’re scared, like everyone, but are hopeful that this crisis will strengthen our community, bring us closer together, and make us more conscious of one another. We’d been planning a big Spring Sample Sale next week and after some hesitation, are moving forward with it. In the past we’ve coupled our sales with a charity component, but this time we’ve decided that with each order, we’ll send a special studio-made gift to be passed on to someone who could use a boost. We hope our colorful pieces will brighten homes and bring smiles in these uncertain times.
Offering advice for others is so hard when we’re all scared and struggling and have no idea how long we’ll have to be in this situation, but what I’m holding on to — personally and professionally — is the idea to “bloom where you grow.” As artists and designers we traffic in creativity, and there’s no greater opportunity to be creative than in a crisis. Our studio is looking at the materials and resources we have on hand and available to us and are asking ourselves how we can be a source of positivity, while fulfilling our need to experiment and create. We know that holding others in our hearts and doing what we love will build new connections and create new opportunities in whatever future we find ourselves.
Sally Breer of ETC.etera, Los Angeles
We’ve already had some potential clients pull out because of their own fears around job security. It’s wild how quickly it’s affecting everyone. Beyond the obvious health fears, now there’s starting to be a real economic fear. We don’t yet know the long term impact of this pandemic, and obviously when people are worried about having food on the table, interior design feels like the furthest thing they’re able to care about or invest in. So as a small business owner, it’s totally scary, but as a human, I get that when there’s a scarcity of toilet paper it feels absurd to care about cute side tables.
Right now it feels somewhat frivolous to be doing creative work, but I think it will be paramount for our recovery. Not only for the people creating it — as a way to process this weird time — but also to remind the world that there’s sunshine again.
Alex Proba, New York
A lot of our projects involve travel, and so far all the murals lined up for the year have been either cancelled or postponed. Other design projects have as well, as companies take precautions to “save” funds just in case. I hope most of the projects will be brought back to life once the world heals, but I’m not sure. I’m super privileged and lucky to be okay despite having projects cancelled, though we were in the middle of growing our team and expanding our product lines in 2020, and I put that on hold as I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to invest in at the moment. It may be better to just wait it out and see what the future will bring, and spend funds and time on helping others that have it far, far worse.
I feel like now is the time to try to stay positive for the world around us. It’s harder said than done — my whole family is in Germany and it’s been hard to be so far away from them, especially since my mom and dad are doctors and I’m incredibly worried about them. But I think we should use the time we spend isolated and scared to try to work on projects we always wanted to do but never had the time to. Let’s look at this time as a gift. Do things that make you happy and that might make someone else happy as well. My daily routine is to check on family and the news, then pick one thing a day to work on, which somehow goes back to my A Poster A Day project, ha. Obviously this isn’t possible for everyone for obvious reasons — time, work, kids, sickness, money, food, etc. — so try to be kind and offer help to people who are less privileged and lucky than we are.
Germans Ermics, Amsterdam
Here in Amsterdam I’m certainly experiencing a slowdown — no emails or calls, which I’m enjoying to some extent. It allows we me to focus on other things. I had to send my intern back to London just after his first week in the studio, but I’m finally dedicating some long-awaited time to sketching out ideas. Reading the news is very distracting, but I’m trying to limit myself in that.
I just found out that the Dutch government will support all self-employed people for three months with the minimum salary, which is vital, as the creative and cultural sectors here mainly consist of self-employed freelancers. My only advice to other designers and creatives is that it’s time to limit self-promotion on social networks — it feels untimely now, so maybe try to find other things to share. Stay safe everyone!
Nick Ross, Stockholm
Right now I’m working from home here in Stockholm. I was in Buenos Aires doing a residency, but that was cut short, and the exhibition has been postponed. Next week I was supposed to be in Copenhagen for an event, and my trips to New York and Edinburgh for panel talks have been put on hold. In terms of future projects, I’ll have to wait and see. In the bigger picture I’m lucky enough to be fairly flexible in how I run my business, so I’m more worried about others than myself right now.
I think the best we can do is to use this time to evaluate what we do on a daily basis, and how we run our businesses. Since our hands will be tied in many ways, the only thing we can do is to take this time out to maybe start working on that big project we haven’t had the time to do previously, research a new topic of interest, or start thinking about how we can run our studios better moving forward. Produce less, produce better.
Jonathan Gonzalez of Office GA, Miami
Based in Miami, our studio will undeniably be affected by this global crisis, but it’s my job to find opportunity within this moment. As we continue to work on major public arts projects with Miami-Dade county, we’re providing new flexibility to our architecture and design clients. We’ve found that our community of design peers, along with our friends and clients, have been wonderful in keeping our lines of communication and support open, all with a sense of working together to find positive outcomes to what is a difficult situation for many.
The dynamics of our current situation and its impact on our work regionally has reminded us of our need for constant innovation. Along with my studio Office GA, I’m a partner in Tile Blush, a gallery focused on contemporary art and design. We’ve accelerated several projects that were previously in the works because we see their value in addressing the momentary isolation that’s upon us. We’ve been working, with our CS and Technologists friends, on new digital territories for the gallery that will allow us to continue to show and innovate with our amazing artists and designers. We hope that while eventually helping to address the financial concerns of our collaborators, it will also give us a platform for facilitating art and design experimentation in the immediate. The camaraderie we have with our friends, colleagues, and collaborators is more important to us than ever now.
Steve Wilson of CC-Tapis, Milan
It certainly is a very unsettling period we’re living and working in. Over the past month COVID-19 has been a very palpable reality here in Milan, with precautionary measures being increased day by day. This has required a huge amount of flexibility, changing how and where we work. Luckily CC-Tapis is a small and agile company which can adapt easily. We’re in daily contact with our designers and retailers and have had to be very proactive to face the organizational challenges this virus has presented. Fortunately Nepal hasn’t been affected, so our atelier has remained operative and we’ve used this time to focus on orders and new projects.
Our advice is: don’t stop creating. We’re not going to stop working on new projects, even if we might not be able to present them by traditional methods. We’re launching a new website and collaborating with stylists from all over the world to showcase its functionality: a design tool to inspire and aid creative people. We think now more than ever, it’s important to be reaching out and strengthening relationships. We’ll use this new platform, as well as all our digital channels, to launch new projects and to stay connected with our designers, clients, and design fans.
We’re ready to support the design world in any which way possible, and as soon as we’re permitted, we’ll be participating in presentations, exhibitions, and fairs that will promote and bring together the design world. We feel that the only way to effectively confront this situation is by doing it together. Nothing will stop us producing, and we’re using this time to make content and to develop designs, and we recommend that everyone do the same, so at least positive and considered design will come out of this crisis.
Adi Goodrich of Sing-Sing, Los Angeles
My husband Sean and I run a studio together and it’s just two of us: Sean’s a director and animator and I’m a set designer. We recently, after 5 years, hired our first full-time freelance employee. Yesterday we had our first online meeting with him. Our studio is very hands-on, so working via Google Hangouts was hard — frustrating, even. I use my hands a lot to describe designing spaces, and it felt like an impossible thing to do over video. Today was easier, as we chose to work with our screens shared, so I could check in with him at any time and he wasn’t alone while working. It felt much better, like we were back at the studio together. We’re definitely flexing hard to keep the boat moving, keep morale up, and think of creative ways to make this work. Is it ideal? Definitely not. Can we still work together and get things done? Yes.
But, I will say, we are moving more slowly now, on purpose. Before this, I would thrive during stressful times, and maybe even live and work so fast because I needed the stress to keep it moving. Now, I find myself saying, when I’m stressed, “let it go.” If I feel overwhelmed, I take a couple of hours. It’s only been a few days, but this is what I’m finding to be helpful. Don’t try to shove things into places they don’t fit right now. Everything is upside down, so take it a minute at a time and try not to overwhelm yourself. Start work at 11am. Work until 4pm. There’s too much going on to be stressed out.
I also have a team of freelancers that work with me, which is a harder thing to wrap my head around. How do I take care of people that only work with me now and again? Now is the time I feel most like I have to be a leader, making the best decisions not only for myself but for the people who rely on me for work. I’ve never fully agreed with the way business is usually done — “watch out for yourself” is not really the way I see things. The crew I’ve had for the past ten years are the people who have built my career, and I in turn have built theirs. As a set designer, my builders, set dressers, shoppers, and assistants literally make my drawings come to life. These are the people that make it happen, and these are the people that are going to be hit hard. I will also be hit hard, but I must remember at these times, this is all ours, not mine. It’s my responsibility to think of clever ways to keep things moving. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that no one should be doing this alone. We all need to watch out for one another, even if it means you’re making decisions that you aren’t necessarily benefitting from.
Sara Cima of Bloc Studios, Carrara, Italy
Here in Italy — and specifically in Viareggio (where I live) and Carrara (where I work) — we’ve been on quarantine since last week, to last until at least April 3. This means that people are able to go out only for three reasons: health emergencies, food and medical supplies (one person per family), and work, but only if strictly necessary. Every time we go out, we need a certificate with us that shows the police where we’re going and for what reasons. I’ve been at home with my daughters, and I’m lucky as most of our work can be done from a computer, but anything having to do with our workshops, production, and distribution is getting more and more difficult. When we get back on track, there will be more delays and — worst case scenario — some existing orders will be cancelled.
I have to be honest though: Despite the constant thought of the virus and the fear of my family getting sick, I’m trying to live this moment in the most positive way. And actually, after a week spent at home, I’m feeling like we’re living just the way we should be (despite our lack of being able to go outside, of course). I mean, we’re giving importance to things that we took for granted before, like our freedom. Staying at home all the time also means having time to do homework with my oldest daughter, learn new recipes, and follow up with old emails that I never replied to.
Lora Appleton of kinder MODERN, New York
kinder MODERN is directly affected by the virus in many ways. We’re grappling with employees working from home and clients that have turned towards non-buying priorities (understandably). While we’re working on how to stabilize the business, we’re focusing our efforts online and on how we can be more service-oriented for our clients. It’s scary, but we’re trying to brace for this storm and find new ways of working and doing. Personally, I’m struggling to feel creative, and to balance this change with taking care of myself. It all feels a bit out of control.
I think it’s super important to pause for a minute. Don’t go rushing into anything. We need to see how this is going to affect us all, and watching how things shift for the next two weeks will be super helpful in deciding which way to navigate. The Small Business Association in NYC has opened their application for emergency grants and interest-free loans, so I would start there if your income has already been hit. I believe we’ll need to turn a bit inward and reprioritize to find what’s most important to us and our world.
Rive Roshan, Amsterdam
As we’d been preparing multiple projects for Milan design week — one of which would have been our largest commission to date — a lot of our work got postponed already, about a month ago. Since then many other projects have been postponed or scaled down as well, but luckily we have some museum exhibitions that hopefully are still moving forward. Our team members are working from home, but we meet for lunch in the park, keeping our distance of course. We’re also working with our 2-year-old daughter around all the time, which is both challenging as well as the most beautiful thing.
Although we do have worries, we’re trying to see this as an opportunity to reflect and reassess how we work as a studio and how we treat the world. Our roles as creatives can and should be to offer people a new, progressive, and inspiring narrative, and to explore alternatives to make sure we come out of this crisis with more wisdom than before. We’re also using some of our spare time to deepen our thinking about where we’re heading and what we want our studio to be. Although this crisis is a great threat, it also forces us to focus on the core of what we do and appreciate why we started our studio in the first place. We’re also keeping a close watch on the government initiatives that are being launched to support businesses. Governments across the world are committed to helping out in different ways, and taking part in those initiatives can help keep you afloat in these trying times.
Greetings from Venezia, where as you already know, we’re in the middle of the second week of quarantine, so we’ve been passing our days at home for a while now. Luckily there’s warm sun coming in the windows, and we can feel spring is almost here, which is giving us new energy. When stuck inside you really start to appreciate the importance and necessity of a comfortable home; we’ve started to look at the objects that surround us in a different way, and this has led us to think about how important it is to design in an ethical and functional way, without neglecting aesthetics.
This time for us has been important to meditate on our habits and behaviors and to learn to avoid what’s useless and superfluous. We’ve decided not to buy packaged or processed food but to only buy vegetables and organic food from local producers, and not to waste anything. These for us are all ideals for a new way of seeing the future, where businesses will stay strong and last by focusing on quality.