“We must abandon the good taste and comfort that we’ve become used to”

Interior design must begin facing up to uncomfortable truths about our planet and health in 2024, Michelle Ogundehin writes in her annual trends report.

This must be the year of truth. It’s no time to be distracted by talk of trends, new or latest looks. The tactic of holding facts at arm’s length has only enabled denial, obfuscation, and fakery, as well as cauterising our moral obligation to change. Mark Twain aptly summarises our current malaise with the pithy: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Thankfully, the zeitgeist is shifting. We see it in current TV programming, ever a prescient reflection of public mood. Consider Channel 4’s punchy The Great Climate Fight, which volubly charges the British government with incompetence, to ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office, dramatising the scandalous lies behind a huge miscarriage of justice.

It’s no time to be distracted by talk of trends, new or latest looks

The desire for unvarnished veracity is there in Netflix’s new tranche of documentaries. Think Robbie Williams: Behind the Scenes and its Jeffrey Epstein exposé. Even Disney’s Wagatha Christie vehicle was about truth-telling.

It reflects the shattering of any persistent facade that everything’s just fine. In the face of extreme weather patterns – from tornados in Manchester in the north of England to record-breaking monsoons in Pakistan – and the escalating rates of chronic disease, anxiety, depression, loneliness epidemics, and other mental-health disorders seen worldwide, surely, finally, our eyes are opening?

In case not, here are a couple of truths that we may need to be reminded of.

One: the perpetual quest for economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, yet it prevails because we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that better always means newer, faster, or more. We are entreated to consume for the good of the economy – the work-to-spend cycle. The implication being that if we don’t, we’re responsible for mass unemployment and the failure of honest businesses.

Ergo, consumer-driven economies are routinely prioritised over basic citizen welfare, and material goods have become proxies for our dreams and aspirations, even our expressions of love.

Two: the environments in which we live are increasingly toxic – physically, socially, and mentally. Yet we’re reneging on personal responsibility for our wellbeing with the misguided assumption that big industry would never create products dangerous to human health, and that our healthcare providers are there to patch us up if they do. We need to focus on causes and prevention instead of lucrative (but futile) searches for cures for diseases like cancer.

It wasn’t so long ago that the desire to exercise, seek wellbeing, or be social were reasons to leave the home

What’s tricky is that potential solutions to the above don’t wash well with legislators or many politicians because they appear slow, unduly restrictive, difficult, or inconvenient. Immediate results (i.e. within a single term of office) are seldom forthcoming, thus a stance of head-in-the-sand, or a default to fast fixes, becomes entrenched as the go-to action.

And yet, research suggests that we, the people, feel differently. According to the 10th annual Life at Home report produced this year by IKEA (one of the world’s largest home surveys, encompassing the views of 37,428 people aged 18-plus across 38 countries), searches for “slow living” have doubled since 2015.

So where does this leave us?

We’re being pushed and pulled in many contradictory directions. It wasn’t so long ago that the desire to exercise, seek wellbeing, or be social were reasons to leave the home. Now these activities all happen within the same four walls.

This creates many tensions. Should our domestic caves be linked to the world via the latest high-tech gizmos, or be our deliberate respite from the techno-frazzle? How do we square a wish for personal privacy with the sensation of living in more open spaces? Can we work from home without feeling like we live at work?

It was no surprise to me that Squishmallows were the hit toy of 2023. These soft, malleable cute-character cushions are acutely comforting to hold. Even the revered investor Warren Buffet now has the company in his portfolio. They are a potent symbol of a need.

In response, the popular press touts voluminous La-Z-Boy-style recliners as the next big thing, but is an inducement to lounge ever further into denial really what’s called for?

Our ability to thrive must become the guiding principle for all design

Humans are the ultimate adaptors, but we require stimulus to learn and grow, if not an element of discomfort. While your genes may load the gun, your environment pulls the trigger. Currently, for many, that’s somewhere hyperconnected yet also physically disconnected, temperature-controlled and sedentary.

Align this with the current cult of convenience – that which enhances personal comfort or advantage over everything else, and therein lies the downward spiral.

We must abandon the ordered, rational, learned good taste and comfort that we’ve become used to in favour of something more instinctive and rugged. Less a singular design aesthetic than a profoundly sensory desire to touch, smell and feel intensely. It is the personal over the predictable. The umami in the dish. The idea that owes its genus to a singular moment of unique creative vision, or innovation.

We must aim for a societal stability that does not rely on the continuous fetishisation of “novelty” to drive ever-increasing consumption if economic activity is to have a hope of remaining within ecological scale. Our ability to thrive must become the guiding principle for all design, if not perceptions of success.

Most importantly, we can no longer be afraid to speak or hear these truths, starting at home – the environment over which we have the most agency.

Here, then, are some final “home” truths that bear repeating.

Most homes are more polluted on the inside than a busy street corner outside due to the build-up of invisible toxins therein, yet we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors. Some examples: gas hobs leak benzene, a known carcinogen, even when they’re off – this has been linked to one in eight cases of childhood asthma.

We have been living in a time of fantastical storytelling

Microplastics have been found in the placentas of unborn babies. Chemicals in everyday personal care products can cause chronic hormonal disruption that leads to breast cancer. Chemical flame retardants legally mandated for use on your upholstery increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth.

And Wi-Fi may not be as benign as you think. The World Health Organisation, in association with the International Agency on Cancer, formally classified electromagnetic field radiation (as emitted by Wi-Fi connected devices) as a Class 2B human carcinogen (potentially harmful to health) over a decade ago.

In summary, we have been living in a time of fantastical storytelling, fictions of delusional positivity that obscure the truth. Plato considered that truth is a correspondence between belief and reality. Time to wake up then if we are to stand a chance of survival, as our current reality almost beggars belief.

Michelle Ogundehin is a thought leader on interiors, trends, style and wellbeing. Originally trained as an architect and the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Decoration UK, she is the head judge on the BBC’s Interior Design Masters, and the author of Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, a guide to living well. She is also a regular contributor to publications including Vogue Living, FT How to Spend It magazine and Dezeen.

The photo, of a Kyiv apartment designed by Olga Fradina, is by Yevhenii Avramenko.

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