Observation - Issue 42 - Magazine | Monocle

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How often do you walk into a hotel lobby and instantly have a bad reaction? You don’t quite know why you’re feeling uncomfortable in the space because all of the things that should be wrong are right – the doormen are polite and efficient, the check-in staff knew who you were, the lighting is flattering and the whole place is generally well-designed. Does the same thing happen to you in restaurants? The service is good, the wine list perfect, the chairs comfortable and the food impeccable yet you know you’ll never return.

So what is it? Could it be that the other guests don’t fit with the surroundings? Is it a strange odour in the air? Or is something less obvious and harder to pinpoint? Does it happen in older spaces as much as freshly minted ones? Could it just be a simple case of having a negative reaction to clashing colour palettes?

I’ve been struggling to come up with the specific symptoms and fixes for this affliction for decades. I’ve even thought about setting up a foundation to fund research to find the root causes of this ailment as I’m convinced tens of millions suffer from it in varying degrees.

I had almost resigned myself to a life of discomfort until a recent trip to Paris with my colleagues Anders and Ariel. While waiting for Ariel in the lobby of the Royal Monceau I started to study the space in great detail. As the hotel had just re-opened after a lengthy and expensive renovation at the hands of Philippe Starck, I was giving the environment a particularly hard time. I watched ladies on delicate heels sweep through the front door, I examined the chairs and side tables, I scrutinised the wall finishes, I followed the wait staff as they slalomed between groups of chairs. And then I measured my mood.

Somehow it all seemed to work – rather well in fact. I glanced at some TV people huddled in a meeting next to me, a lone woman in a small nook across the way and a boyfriend and girlfriend grabbing an early afternoon glass of wine behind a pillar and they all seemed happy with the environment as well. As I started to do some simple calculations, it struck me that Mr Starck and the hotel’s owners had conquered one of the trickiest design equations of all – the dilemma of density.

Superior finishes and fabrics aside, the single element that was making the lobby of the hotel work was the density of the furniture placement. Rather than leaving wide-open expanses and too much room for statement pieces of design, the Royal Monceau has carefully arranged little seating clusters and table set-ups that at first sight seem uncomfortably close together but are key building blocks to solving the dilemma of density.

While we may not tip our hats to everyone we pass on the way to work or strike up conversations with random strangers on trains, we’re nevertheless social creatures and we like nothing more than to mark our territory and congregate. Ever wondered why someone will always come and use the treadmill next to you in an otherwise empty gym? Or why communal tables work so well in restaurants? It’s a simple fact that humankind prefers to cluster together in cosy corners rather than feel exposed in the middle of cavernous lobbies or wind-blown boulevards.

In a recent column in the Financial Times I lobbied for the Obama administration to launch a Department of Perfect Proportions to tackle the problems that come with Super-Size USA – McMansions, vast waistlines, the absurd culture of SUVs et al. I now think it’s time for governments to adopt Ministries of Density & Intimacy devoted to rethinking the scale of homes, the width of streets, the height of buildings, the size of classrooms and the right amount of furniture for public parks.

Not only would such ministries address transport and energy issues (less travel time, smaller homes to heat), they’d also end up improving public health by creating tighter-knit communities. A government more sensitive to the built environment would in turn help foster a society that would recognise the benefits of more intimate scale environments rather than rambling apartment blocks that are cut off from the wider community.

If there’s a single element of urban and interior design that’s in need of a rethink at the moment it’s how cities, developers and individuals address density – particularly at a time when projects are kicking back into gear.

On the topic of density and projects, our feet are now firmly under our desks at Midori House here in London and we’re fully up and running. At the moment we’re busy planting and pruning (flowers not staff) and getting our new hom e shipo shape. Despite a four-day hiccup during the moving period we managed to complete this issue on schedule and we’ll soon be throwing open our gates for a few events in the spring. If you’d like to join our invite list then sign up as a subscriber or your can always attempt to charm me (tb@monocle.com) or my colleagues – Alex and Alex (ajm@monocle.com and alm@monocle.com).

For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.

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