Michele Espeland puts feelings before furniture with a collaborative design tool

Michele Espeland is the leader of Cuningham Group’s Interior Design team with an extensive background in hospitality, retail, and multi-family residential design. She says “typical” mood boards encourage endless design replication and even plagiarism. Here she shares an innovative new way that designers and clients can collaboratively create highly unique spaces:

Before the advent of online tools, designers and clients would often rely on visual and tactile memory — of travel, built environments and magazine articles — to identify what they were looking for in a new space. But with the advent of Pinterest, Houzz and other online tools, the industry often searches for existing design solutions instead of imaginatively and authentically creating them. From a design perspective, when you rely on these tools, you’re no longer sourcing memory for evocative feelings and fleeting ideas; you’re regurgitating already-created spaces.

Many designers rely on mood boards with images sourced from these online tools. They put images together and say, ”Something like this but not entirely.” But that approaches plagiarism and can cause confusion, possibly leading to a client wondering, “If I wanted THAT, why wouldn’t I hire THEM”. Even more importantly, mood boards prematurely focus on what an environment should look like, whereas when we’re creating spaces, the first question needs to be, “Close your eyes and discover what should this space feel like?” before obsessing over what it should “look like”.

At Cuningham Group, I needed an alternative to mood boards that would help me define the feel of a space with clients before the look. I ended up using what we call Film Strips. Like mood boards, these highlight a variety of images, but they don’t represent literal design components – there is no specific furniture, lighting, materials or finishes. A client won’t look at this and say, “I like that light fixture,” or “I don’t like that finish.” Instead, Film Strips include more evocative images that allow designers and clients to hone and capture the design intent or “vibe” of a space. Once that is identified, then, and only then, do we create a three-dimensional experience with layers of specific elements and materials that will realize that design intent.

So what does a Film Strip look like? And what kind of space does it inspire? Here is a Film Strip that we used for a casino resort bar.

After talking with the client about who would use the space, why and how, we wanted to capture both the kinetic and visual feel of the space. For this client the regional landscape is very important and relevant to its people, so we found a way to balance the colors and organic qualities of nature with the required kinetic energy needed for a casino bar.

Here is an image of the final space. By approaching the design solution through the Film Strip we avoided filling our own creative minds with what others have done, resulting in a one-of-a-kind venue that brings together custom architectural elements, lighting and seating that all align with the original design intent.

When renovating an iconic Mid-Century Modern building in Phoenix for Cuningham Group’s offices, it was important to honor its original clean lines and minimalist materials while also layering in our corporate “yellow.” In addition, we paid homage to the colorful sky of the Southwest and the historic vault door that is still onsite.

The Film Strip inspired an environment where our corporate yellow is not overdone, and the warmth of the modern stylized dividers balance the simplicity and starkness of an exposed ceiling and smooth floor. The uniqueness of the original building is still intact while allowing absolute functionality of the space.

Unlike mood boards, Film Strips address some of the most important issues in creating livable spaces: Who is going to enjoy this space? How should they feel? What will they need? When you start with the desired feeling of a space, not the specific elements that will go into it, you capture its true “one of a kind” design intent.

Form Magazine

Author: Form Magazine

FORM: pioneering design, a publication that celebrates Southern California’s contribution to architecture, design, and the visual arts.