London-based editor, writer, researcher and thinker Jeremy Myerson explains his thoughts on the intersection of inclusivity and sustainability, how to fix the lack of diversity in the interior design industry and what the future of work entails.

JEREMY MYERSON: I was born and brought up in Liverpool as the youngest of four brothers. My earliest memories are from the late 1950s, early ’60s and I really felt that we were at the centre of the cultural universe. It was the time of The Beatles, my family knew Brian Epstein’s family. Liverpool, the football club, was winning all the time. The world seemed to be looking at us.

My mother was a college lecturer. She also painted and was a potter. My father was more scientific. He’d studied medicine, but actually worked as an accountant. They were interested in all aspects of culture. So I grew up in a house with a lot of books, music and stories. My father’s eldest brother worked on office interiors in New York and actually laid the carpets in the Seagram Building, where he met Mies van der Rohe. My older brothers all became professionals. One became an accountant, one a lawyer, the third a doctor. As the much younger brother, I was the one who was a little more free.

I kind of fell into journalism. I studied English and drama at university, which was a classic thing in the 1970s. I didn’t set out to write specifically about art and design. Originally, I was very interested in the performing arts and found a job at The Stage, a theatrical newspaper. I realized there were lots of really well-established journalists in this field. But there were very few commentators on design, which was really beginning to happen in the early 1980s. So in 1981, I went to Design Magazine, which was published by the Design Council. I entered an interesting formative period where I met lots of designers in different disciplines. From there, I went to edit Creative Review, which had started off as a magazine for advertisers and art directors, but wanted to expand into design. But as soon as I arrived at the publishing company, I had the idea for a design weekly, which had never existed anywhere. I developed the concept for Design Week and launched the magazine when I was just 30. We based it on this idea of design as a vocation. It was quite heroic looking and ahead of its time with its black-and-white photography and Bauhaus-style typeface.

Myerson lives in the southwest of London, not far from Kew Gardens.

In the early 1990s I went freelance. I decided that if I was going to make a long-term career of writing and thinking about design, I needed to study it in a more in-depth way. I frequented the studios of Pentagram and IDEO, and spent time with their design teams, watching as they put things together. I also did a series of monographs of famous designers such as Alan Fletcher, the British design pioneer Gordon Russell and craft-based furniture designer John Makepeace. I was really a pen for hire. But doing these monographs gave me real insight into sensibilities around design and how designers edit a whole series of influences and create a vision. The big thing that I learned is that there is a very definite design sensibility. The really good designers have a different way of solving problems.

Alan Fletcher said to me: Artists solve their own problems, designers solve other people’s. Very simplistic on one level, but actually quite profound on another. The other thing he said, was: Design is a mental utensil. He positioned design as a way of seeing and a way of doing as opposed to an object, which was how a lot of people were thinking about design.

Alan Fletcher said to me: Artists solve their own problems, designers solve other people’s

I got very interested in workplace design when I was a journalist. I would look at the quality of opera houses, high-end residential schemes and shops – in the 1980s retailing was a massive thing. At the other end of the spectrum were people’s offices, with rows of desks, fluorescent light, shrivelled potted plants and metal filing cabinets. It was just grim. I’d always been interested in the history of offices and decided to do an MA by thesis at the Royal College of Art in the early ’90s.

The RCA is one of the oldest art and design colleges in the world and has this very rich heritage. Lots of famous people have been through its doors. I discovered it constantly changes. And I think that’s the strength of the institution. It tries to facilitate a flow of ideas and people. It changes as the disciplines of art and design change. So what I learned from when I went back to college is that it was not this fixed, monolithic institution. It was actually quite fragile and fluid, trying to make sense of teaching and researching, disciplines that are not fixed.

My father was 50 when I was born. So my parents were ageing. There was a new unit at the RCA called Design Age, set up by Roger Coleman. I got involved in some of their early events and was really interested in issues of exclusion and marginalization. I began to realize I’d been a kind of cheerleader for the design industry as a commercial movement in the 1980s. But by the ’90s, I was beginning to get interested in environmental questions and issues of inclusion, in design’s social agenda.

In 1986, an RCA alumna called Helen Hamlyn – who studied fashion and textiles, but actually was a fantastic interior designer – curated an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Boilerhouse gallery called New Design for Old. She commissioned about 15 product designers from around the world to redesign items for the home to make it easier for older people. She was dealing with the problems of her own mother, whom she was trying to keep out of institutional care following an accident. She just couldn’t find the products and services that would help her in her own home. I remember going to see this exhibition and thinking: wow, that’s an interesting take. It was the big bang in the city. I’d just launched Design Week, which was all about conspicuous consumption. The British design industry was very commercially driven and here was this exhibition saying: there’s a whole marginalized group in society.

Inclusivity was always acknowledged, but treated with suspicion by architects and interior designers

Five years later Helen Hamlyn announced she was going to fund a programme called Design Age. Designer Roger Coleman was its first director and it immediately interested me. In 1994, Roger was the first to define the term inclusive design in an academic paper he wrote for an ergonomics conference in Toronto. He really was one of the godfathers of the inclusive design movement. With an ageing population, with more people being frail and disabled, he could see that inclusion was going to be a big issue for interior designers. When the RCA asked me to work on a project as a freelancer, I turned it down and instead proposed that I work with Roger to cofound the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. The two of us became co-directors and when Roger retired in 2006, I became sole director until 2015. Basically, more than 20 years of my working career have revolved around inclusive design, which has become a powerful driver.

Inclusivity was always acknowledged, but treated with suspicion by architects and interior designers. It was almost exclusively seen as access for people in wheelchairs. But we said it’s about offering a great experience for everybody. Step-free access is great for a wheelchair user, but it’s also great for a businessman with roller luggage and for a young mother with a buggy.

After studying English and drama at university, Myerson ‘kind of fell into journalism’, eventually launching Design Week magazine at the age of 30.

When we started, people had very fixed ideas. They saw inclusivity as a tick-box exercise. They didn’t want to get older and disabled people involved in the design process, because they thought that it would ruin their beautiful designs. So we set up a series of challenges with professional designers to get them to work directly with groups of disabled or older people. Designers needed to be a bit more open about the design process and allow people to co-create.

One of the first projects that we worked on was Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which was designed by Richard Rogers and was going to be the biggest airport terminal in Europe. We started to work on the project six years before it opened. The architects worried because all their data had told them that the travelling public was progressively getting older. They wanted us to do research on age-related disabilities like loss of sight and hearing, to find out what the key issues were and give them a set of principles to design around. What we found was that older people go to the toilet a lot in airports. Do you know why? Because you can hear the flight announcements very clearly there. We recruited older people, took them to Heathrow Airport, gave them tasks like going to check in and finding the departure gate. And of course, they all got lost. What came out of it was a proposal for micro-architectural elements. We called them acoustic arches: little structures in the big concourse with super graphics on them. Their inside would be ceramic-clad, enabling high-quality sound. They’re all over the place now.

What’s interesting is that the physical world began to move quite quickly towards a new viewpoint. But then we saw the digital world making exactly the same mistakes in terms of access and inclusion. My successor at the Helen Hamlyn Centre, Rama Gheerawo, is very interested in race as a dimension of inclusion. He has been very prominent internationally in developing that. So the game moves forward all the time.

Now we seem to be going through a diverse and eclectic period in interior design. I think interior designers have taken on issues of access and diversity to some extent. The problem is the lack of diversity and representation in the interior design industry itself. That’s an issue.

Having more diverse voices in architecture and interior design schools, and having more role models will attract different groups of people to interior design

Having more diverse voices in architecture and interior design schools, and having more role models will attract different groups of people to interior design. Like all branches of design, it has been a middle-class white profession if compared with the performing arts or music. Black and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented. But that is beginning to change, especially in digital design. Understanding that interior design is a dimension of architecture, instead of mere decoration, will also help diversity. Seeing the profession in the context of the decorative arts isn’t helpful, because issues of class and taste then come into it, especially here in the UK.

I genuinely think that the profession has become much more savvy about inclusion and sustainability. I’ve been reading some interesting papers coming out of big groups like WSP, Gensler and Perkins+Will. They’re beginning to think much more around issues like health inequalities, and how the built environment is a big determinant in that.

Inclusion and sustainability are two arrows heading towards each other. If you want healthy communities in which people can live and work, you’re talking about the 15-minute city. With its localized living it’s more inclusive for people, but it’s actually also more sustainable. So, instead of running on parallel tracks, but not really touching each other, inclusivity and sustainability are moving towards each other.

Now, in my mid-sixties, I’m running the Worktech Academy with Philip Ross. We’re looking at the future of work, which has a major influence on how we organize ourselves in cities, how we live and how we sustain ourselves.

The 1990s were incredibly important for workplace design, because it was the first stage of the era of the PC and the laptop. It was the beginning of ubiquitous computing and the intelligent building. Big bureaucracies, the monolithic institutions, began to realize they needed to reconstitute themselves. When I wrote my thesis at the beginning of the 1990s, I argued that the office and modernism were intricately tied together. Management efficiency and the modernist credo, in terms of architecture and design, were bedfellows. The ethic of work was meant to be tough, technological, unyielding, masculine.

My thesis was about breaking down the whole modernist connection with the office. Like everything else, it could be an expression of postmodernist ideas. Probably I should have put more emphasis on the fact that people would work away from the office. The uncoupling of work from the workplace has been the big story of the last 20 years. And now that we’re forcibly being disconnected from the workplace, we’re beginning to think about what an office really is. I suppose it will have its biggest reinvention over the next ten years – for 100 years.

The office is about people coming together. You’ll no longer travel for an hour to sit at a desk and send e-mails to people now that you’re able to do it from home. People are going to go into the office because they need to meet up with other people: for the kick-off of a project, for training, for mentoring or simply to socialize. Offices are going to become more like event venues that you visit for a specific person or purpose, so they’ll have to encompass more hospitality aspects. I think we’ll all have a mixed portfolio of workspaces. Companies are already beginning to think about how their corporate headquarters are used, investing in them to make them more of a destination with better food without needing to pack people in. But they’ll also give employees a membership to a co-working space and an allowance to work from home. So people will have more autonomy over how and where they work, at least in knowledge jobs.

Workers will have more flexibility and choice. This has implications for leadership, for management, for performance monitoring and so on

Workers will have more flexibility and choice. This has implications for leadership, for management, for performance monitoring and so on. The office has always been about aggregation and intensification, about reducing transaction costs by putting people in the same space, however we’re now seeing a reversal of that. But this is only an acceleration of trends have been going on for some time. The good news is that in order to make it more of a destination, a place for interaction, for innovation, for catalysing human relations, you need interior designers to do imaginative things. So the interior design profession can look at the future with some interest and optimism.

This interview is featured in our current issue Frame 139. Get your copy here.