Clare Farrow og hendes udstilling exhibition ‘Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking Inside the Box’
Takeshi Hosaka, Love2 House, photo Koji Fujii / Nacasa & Partners Inc.

Find design ideas that can improve the lives of many people in small spaces

Clare Farrow is a Curator, Writer, Owner of Clare Farrow Studio and Curatorial Consultant for London Design Biennale. Furthermore, Clare is a speaker at the new conference Build for Micro Living the 15 & 16 May. At the conference she will showcase her exhibition ‘Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking Inside the Box’ in which she explores the future of tiny homes. Drawing on interviews, films and case studies, she shows how international designers including White Arkitekter, Proctor & Shaw, Takeshi Hosaka, JCPCDR, Paola Bagna, nArchitects and many others are challenging the limitations of the box, and proposing a future vision, of a sustainable, flexible, playful, healthy sanctuary or bubble, close to nature and in a shared community.

Before the conference you can read an interesting interview with Clare here.

What is your background and how do you work with the concept of micro living?

I am a curator and writer, founder of Clare Farrow Studio, and I work with architecture, design, art and music, for museums, galleries and festivals, including London Design Festival at the V&A, London Design Biennale at Somerset House, Milan Design Week, and Roca London & Barcelona Galleries. I have an interdisciplinary background, having studied Art History at The University of St Andrews under the professorship of Martin Kemp (a specialist in Leonardo da Vinci), with advanced studies in literature and music. I initially worked as a commissioning editor and writer for art and architecture magazines in London and Paris, and this background, working on themes, research, writing and interviewing, gave me the foundations for my curating.

I often use an interdisciplinary lens to create a multisensory experience for visitors through scenography, text, photography, film, poetry, objects, materials, music, even scent! I am interested in the psychology and phenomenology of inhabiting spaces, as well as the designs themselves, and have explored this in my exhibitions ‘Childhood ReCollections: Memory in Design’ (2015-16), and ‘Memory & Light’ at the V&A (2018), as well as ‘Small Spaces in the City’ (2023-4).

For this current exhibition at Roca London Gallery (8 Sept. 2023 – 16 March 2024), which I proposed in 2022, I wanted to present a balanced view of the theme, and not to gloss over the fact that a small living and work space can be a claustrophobic, dark and cluttered experience if it is not well designed, or if it is damp and without views. This is a reality for too many people.

Clare Farrow, photo Lan-Tien Sophia Guo

I have personal experience of small spaces too, having lived with a musician and composer and brought up two children in a small London apartment, without the luxury of high ceilings. I understand the psychology and impact that small interiors can have on relationships, privacy, wellbeing, belongings, even the movement of the body. I know the benefits of urban living too, not only for work but also the constant interest and joy of living in the city. So, I set out to explore the best ways of inhabiting a small place, in a happy and healthy way.

Importantly, as my research progressed, I came to understand that a compact, well-designed home as a positive, sustainable choice can play an important and creative role in the future of the city.

What challenges and opportunities do you see for the concept Micro Living?

It is important to say at the outset that small spaces are not a solution for all households. The micro apartment is just one solution that can work for some people (a single person, a couple, a couple with a small child), but only if the interior has been thought through with sensitivity and a meticulous attention to detail, drawing on notions of flexibility, mobility, storage innovation, multifunctional furniture and alternative partitioning. There are budget considerations too, because few people can afford bespoke solutions. So, one of the most significant challenges is to find design ideas that can improve the lives of many people in small spaces, whatever the type of housing; and bring touches of joy and playful systems, even in rental situations that have limited freedom to experiment. This is something that Colin Chee, founder of ‘Never Too Small’ on YouTube is putting into practice with his series of films that reach an audience of 2.43 million. It is the democratisation of micro design.

The challenges are in many ways related to health and wellbeing. We are facing a changing urban society, in which more people are living alone, while the population continues to grow and hybrid work patterns continue in many sectors. At the same time, as many homes are put under this pressure to function as workspaces too, rentals and mortgages have risen exponentially. The mathematics are clear: if people are to remain in the city, which statistics show they want to do, living and workspaces are going to be smaller for many, in a society that is increasingly polarised. It is not a healthy vision.

Satoko Shinohara, SHAREyaraicho, Tokyo, photo Taro Hirano

As developers embrace this micro theme that is trending on social media, the temptation is to transform disused office blocks, for example, into micro apartments, wherever they are placed in the city. But there is an enormous difference between a tiny home in the heart of the city, on the doorstep to everything, and one on the periphery, on a soulless arterial road for instance. So, in order for small spaces to work and not to worsen the crisis in people’s health and wellbeing, other factors need to be considered; and I believe that architects, developers, councils, academics, scientists, urban planners and psychologists should be coming together to work out the best solutions. We compartmentalise too much, and this is not the way to improve things!

As the academics in ‘Small Spaces’ have discussed, urban dwellers need to have access to green and shared spaces, to nature, community and a variety of amenities. This is even more important when interior space is restricted. Thought also needs to be given to acoustics and materiality, such as the use of wood and translucent materials to keep a space feeling warm and open. Colour and textures can enhance wellbeing too, and storage is an absolute priority, with many architects arguing for high ceilings in new housing that allows for vertical stacking and multifunctional solutions. Indeed, many believe that this total volume is far more important than the minimum space standards that some cities implement to safeguard its residents. In London, for instance, the minimum size of a new build is 37 sqm for a single person and 50 sqm for a couple, but the reality is that a 26 sqm space with a high ceiling can be much healthier and far more versatile. It all depends on the design.

Micro living is a big challenge, but I think it is also an opportunity, to develop more cross-disciplinary discussion and problem-solving. The housing crisis is so acute that new ways of thinking about the city and the home have to be found, and soon.

It is also a great opportunity to start thinking about a small space as a model for sustainable living in the city of the future; to re-think the home as a personal sanctuary with very little waste, working efficiently and happily in balance with an external community, and accompanied by a scientific and architectural understanding of psychology and health. If the necessity for micro living can drive new experiments that simultaneously enhance the wellbeing of people and the environment, that is good.

Why is the concept of Micro Living an important topic for the construction industry?

As I have said, there is an undeniable need for small spaces as one of the solutions to the housing crisis, especially for young people, and it is important that the construction industry recognises and responds to this. But it is also important that micro living is not just seen in a financial light or as a subject detached from the other issues that society is facing: the mental health crisis, obesity, loneliness, the risk of another pandemic, financial pressures that are turning the heart of cities into emptied pockets of privilege.

It is a subject that intersects with the re-use of buildings, at a time when working and shopping patterns are drastically changing, leaving both office and retail buildings open to reinvention. And herein lies both the opportunity and the threat, depending on which way we go. This is why I think interdisciplinary discussion that connects the construction industry to other disciplines is very important. If redundant retail buildings, not on the edges but in the heart of cities, can have micro apartments injected into them, in a playful, sustainable and more affordable way – not to create isolated hotel-like rooms, but proper homes that allow for flexible priorities and belongings – then we have an opportunity to revive the city, to keep its identity, youth and vitality. If this can be combined (as Proctor & Shaw propose in their imagined ‘Minimax Tower’ concept) with an increased use of wood (e.g., CLT) and other natural or composite materials that promote sustainable building practices, then we will have a recipe for health and happiness in the future. Key to the subject, if it is to be a positive outcome, is the human need for privacy balanced with the need for sharing and social experiences. In the exhibition we have a film by architect and academic Toshiki Hirano on the shared housing projects by Satoko Shinohara in Tokyo. Her vision can inspire people, I think.

On the subject of high ceilings, which Proctor & Shaw and others are calling for, there needs to be a discussion within the building industry on finding balance and compromise. Fewer micro apartments in a block, with higher ceilings that allow for vertical designs, may be less lucrative on paper, but they will have greater value for longer-term residency and future health. It is not an easy conversation. But with climate change and the housing crisis, we need to work together for these future visions.

Which projects do you think are currently exciting when it comes to micro living?

I was amazed by the wealth of exciting projects, that I was able to research and present in the ‘Small Spaces’ exhibition, from Japan, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, Seville, etc. It was also a brilliant opportunity to connect academics directly to architects and designers. I had imagined a well-designed space would be like a miniature machine; a rather clinical study in mathematical calculations and multifunctionality, but without room for the individual perhaps. What I hadn’t anticipated was the playfulness, joy and very personal nature of the projects: tiny homes such as Takeshi Hosaka’s Love2 House that is only 31 sqm but expresses the owners to perfection through a carefully curated collection of vinyls, ceramics, books and art that have their place within the strict limitations; and touches of uncompromising luxury too, through materials and the play of light. It is a humble and gentle form of luxury, and the antithesis of waste.

Paola Bagna, Mezzanine apartment Berlin-Mitte, photo Liz Eve

At the same time, you don’t have to compromise on comfort: you can still have a large bed, for example, but it will have a puzzle-like storage system woven into it. This is seen in architect Paola Bagna’s micro apartment in Berlin-Friedrichshain (36 sqm), with its dramatic central kitchen unit, minimalist furniture inspired by Donald Judd, and white curtain-folds as flexible partitioning.

Other projects, like Gary Chang’s ‘Domestic Transformer’ apartment in Hong Kong, or the Barbican Dancer’s Studio by Intervention Architecture for dancer William Bracewell, use mobility and time to free up space. In these joyful experiments, there is an emphasis on lightness through sliding systems and joinery that recall Japanese traditions, with the temporary taking precedence over the permanent, so that a small space can be continuously reinvented and refreshed.

The concept of metamorphosis dominates the furniture section too, with ‘The Flying Table’ by Jean-Christophe Petillault of JCPCDR Architecture, the ‘Flow Wall Desk’ by Robert van Embricqs, and the cartoon-like ‘De-Dimension’ stools by Jongha Choi. And there is humour, which lifts the spirit.

Perhaps the most exciting project in the exhibition is an experiment by Richard Beckett, Associate Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, who has worked with Uute Scientific in Finland on the installation ‘Living in a probiotic microbial space’. It features recycled concrete with forest floor extract, and proposes a new way of bringing nature into the home, based on probiotic theory. Beckett is also collaborating with an immunologist at University College London, as I will explain in my talk.

If you look into the future, what does the home of the future look like? What do you think it looks like?

I think the future, with the further development of AI and the dominance of technology in our lives, does pose concerns about increased detachment, disconnection and isolation, particularly for young people. In Tokyo, for example, loneliness is on the rise, and architects are looking at how to address this problem. I have mentioned the work of Satoko Shinohara in this context, whose shared living projects seek to provide privacy and peace, but at the same time warm, communal spaces in wood – all housed in a building that can be zipped up like a bag! It is a house that in material and engineering terms sits lightly in the city.

Photo Brotherton-Lock, Scenography JCPCDR, Exhibition Design Tom Robinson, Cabinet-making L’Atelier Pan.  

So, I would say that the future home may be one in which private, luxurious bubbles exist alongside, or in the midst of, shared housing spaces in a way that provides community, fun and nature in the heart of the city, and promotes health through design and materiality, in collaboration with scientists. I hope that Probiotic Architecture will develop further. It is fascinating.

I also think that the forms of architecture will change as material research evolves at a faster pace. We will be set free from straight lines and rectangular forms, and I think there will be more curves, more vertical stacking and weaving, more ingenious systems that bring comfort and sensory interest.

There will be a greater understanding of how homes can adapt as lives change too, with more focus on flexibility, and movable particles or elements, which can be packed up in a nomadic spirit, reducing waste. I hope we will be more in tune with nature, and appreciate simple forms of luxury: the touch of wood or folds of fabric, the translucency of glass, the presence of plants and reflections of light, even the view of a tree. It can be something gentle and light.

I often think of the essay on ‘Lightness’ by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who imagined ‘the sudden nimble leap of the poet/philosopher who lifts himself against the weight of the world…’ I hope that architecture and design can follow this nimble leap into the future. We are at a crossroads in the city, as we are in the world, and we need to be making the right decisions now, for the next generations.

What are you talking about at the conference Build for Micro Living? And what do you hope the participants get out of hearing it?

I am going to talk about the future of small spaces in the city, and I will show some of the material I have mentioned above. The subtitle of my exhibition is ‘Rethinking Inside the Box’, and I am also going to address the box itself; looking at alternatives that can make the balance between privacy and community a healthier one, reducing isolation and loneliness. I hope the participants will be excited by the designs and new thinking about the home, and consider how they might contribute to this discussion on health, happiness, sustainability, privacy, luxury, materiality and community, to make a brighter future. What has struck me in curating ‘Small Spaces in the City’ is the glass-half-full attitude among the designers (perhaps you have a similar saying in Denmark?) – seeing micro living in a challenging, creative, meticulous and joyful light, in spite of the well-founded fears about the future.

Do you want to hear more from Clare Farrow?

Join the conference Build for Micro Living on the 15th & 16th of May and hear an interesting presentation from Clare Farrow on her exhibition ‘Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking Inside the Box’. Read more about the conference and sign up today.

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