Originally published in STIR®
Slow Design, the latest offshoot of the Slow Movement, is gaining visibility fast. Learn how the philosophy of Slow can be applied to interior design.

The history of Slow

Progress has become synonymous with changes that make everything more convenient, more automatic, faster and easier. And faster is better, right? More convenience means more time to do even more stuff, or to relax.

But does cramming more activities into one's life improve or degrade its quality? Does too much relaxation time lead to inactivity, laziness and physical unfitness? Are disposable convenience items and high-speed transport taking a toll on our environment?

Proponents of the Slow Movement think so. According to the Slow Movement, we lose much more than we realize by constantly striving for “fast.” The awareness of the smaller moments in life, of the processes it takes to get from one place to another, to create, to dismantle. The knowledge of where things come from, how they're made and how they got to us. Knowing how to do something for ourselves; the satisfaction of a task that takes attention, time and effort to complete. The time to contemplate, meditate and reflect on the physical world and our place in it.

The Slow Movement began in 1986 with the Slow Food movement, a protest against fast food's culture of quick preparation and consumption, cultural homogenization, harmful farming techniques, and unhealthy ingredients. Members of the movement educate on and lobby for organic farming, nutrition and the use of local ingredients. Over the years, the Slow Movement has expanded into the areas of travel, shopping and, more recently, design.

Slow Design is a reaction against the might of the mass-produced and expresses a longing for more culturally authentic and ethically made artifacts. Carolyn Strauss, one of the pioneers of Slow Design and founding director of slowLab, says she first started thinking about the concept in 2002, but the idea has “been growing … slowly!” Only recently has the idea started to take hold in the mainstream imagination; however, in the current atmosphere of recovering from consumerism and re-evaluating priorities, it's poised to take off in a big way.

The six principles of Slow Design

Slow Design is loosely organized around six principles, which intersect somewhat and can be interpreted in many different ways.

Reveal. Slow Design can uncover often-overlooked processes, experiences and materials, either in life or in the design object itself. “Amazingness,” a series of photographs by artist Anna Hillman, focuses on tiny natural elements in busy urban landscapes: a tuft of grass between bricks, a feather in a parking lot.

Expand. This highly conceptual principle suggests that we should think beyond the obvious functions, appearance and lifespan of an object, seeing its potential for other meanings and uses. In Jeremy Wood's “GPS Drawing” project, GPS satellite technology traces the deliberate or random movements of a person, animal or vehicle, and the resulting picture (or random scribble) becomes a piece of art; thus a GPS device becomes a high-tech Etch A Sketch®.

Reflect. Slow design should cause what slowLab calls “reflective consumption”; that is, an individual should enjoy the unique effect of a one-of-a-kind object or design, while also being able to recognize its place in the world in bigger terms. Katrín Svana Eyþórsdóttir's “Chandelier” is a perfect example – it's constructed of thousands of glucose beads that cascade from the ceiling in strands, creating a dazzling light display by refracting and reflecting whatever light source is available. But the glucose has a short natural lifespan: As the beads disintegrate, the chandelier falls apart. Its inevitable decay is seen as an inherent part of its charm, and it is meant to teach us to savor every one of life's precious moments.

Engage. The Slow Design movement is open-source and collaborative with the hope that designs will evolve as designers cooperate and share with one another. A microcosmic example of this is “Life is Suite” by design collective Raw Nerve Ltd. The work of art began as an old leather couch someone found discarded in an alley. Together, the designers rescued the couch and began to share ideas about what might have happened to the couch in its history. They wrote about the people who may have sat on the couch and the adventures or conversations that may have occurred and transcribed their writings onto the couch itself. They even added pictures of a cow and a tree, to reflect the leather-and-wood couch's true beginnings.

Participate. This principle encourages users of Slow Design pieces to actively participate in the design process, exchanging ideas and fostering a sense of community. Simon Heijdens's “Broken White” ceramic dishes start out as smooth surfaces, but with regular use, small cracks slowly begin to appear, revealing intricate floral designs. As slowLab describes it, “The varying states of adornment on each plate or cup directly reflect the relationship with its owner, so that his or her favorites have the greatest wealth of decoration, while others may remain quite plain.”

Evolve. Although much of its philosophy touts slowing down to be more conscious in the moment, Slow Design is also about looking ahead, seeing what will be needed in the future and creating designs that can become richer over time. Architect and artist Fritz Haeg's project “Edible Estates” aims to turn suburban front lawns from bland expressions of conformity into abundant food gardens. His project speaks to many aspects of Slow Design, among them the idea that design must evolve to keep enriching people's lives.

Practicing Slow

There are no formal guidelines for practicing Slow Design; even its principles are deliberately abstract, meant to provide inspiration, rather than instructions, for designers. But here are a few ideas to turn philosophy into practice.

  • Include your clients in the design. Find ways to incorporate real aspects of their lives and their passions into the design of their spaces. Perhaps even let them collaborate in the process of applying your design to their home or office.
  • Pass along the story of your design. Be aware of the provenance and history of the artifacts and materials you're putting into the design, and share that knowledge with your clients. You could even write up a pamphlet so they won't forget the details over time.
  • Let the locale inspire you. In the spirit of New Urbanism, make sure your design is consistent with the aesthetics of the community surrounding the space. Find subtle ways to echo its history and culture in your work. For inspiration, consult Canadian architect John Brown's Web site Slow Home. According to Brown, the premise behind this philosophy is, “Slow Food is about valuing quality instead of quantity. It is about thinking more carefully about where your ingredients come from and how you prepare them. Many architects approach residential design in much the same way; valuing the quality of space over size and the number of bathrooms. They take site and materials into careful account and then work with their client to tailor the design to their specific needs.”
  • Use sustainable practices. Green building is not just a trend; it's our future. Plus, its principles dovetail perfectly with those of Slow Design. Be sure to let your clients know of your environmental commitment as part of the developing history of the space you're designing for them.

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