Bowden grew up in the South and does most of his work in the southeast, but his projects have led him as far north as Manhattan and as far south as Central America. The variety of projects he has worked on is nearly as far-ranging: high-end residential, historic preservation and corporate offices. “If it’s to be high-style and high design and very functional, we’re who you call,” he says.
Bowden’ firm has just completed work refinishing the Masland corporate office in Mobile; a new symphony opera corporate office, located in a historic building; and a new command center for the Air Force—seemingly, an usually wide range of projects. “They are and they’re not,” Bowden says. “People work in very similar ways no matter what, so we try to create an environment that exemplifies what they do.”
Personally, Bowden enjoys working both on historic buildings and on new projects from the early design stage. “As an architect, it is very interesting to start something from scratch, but as an architect and designer I certainly appreciate something that’s already existing and maybe expanding upon that concept,” he says.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth. I’ve seen us anticipate what our members need and make sure we have the programs in place before they realize they need them,” he says. “We have been strategically planned for 12 years now, and it shows in our strength of numbers. We’re offering cutting-edge programs. In July we signed a document with the U.S. government recognizing us as a partner with the Government Services Administration (GSA), so they have shown the value of interior designers.”
D&WC: Do you have specific goals you’d like to achieve during your term as ASID president?
H. Don Bowden: We have a Strategic Plan and it’s the president’s job to keep us on that focus. It’s my job as president to work on creating this Strategic Plan with the board of directors.
This particularly is a year to make sure that there’s more awareness of the value of interior design, and that ASID actually represents a large portion of the contract designers as well as our already-well-known residential market.
D&WC: What outside influences are affecting design today? What will be the most important societal and environmental issues facing interior designers heading into the years ahead?
Bowden: Understanding how to design for some separation between work and home space. We’re going to work at home. We can now work anywhere. I can work in the lobby of a coffee shop with wireless connections. So the important thing is how to design a space that is appropriate and allows you to create a distinction between work and home even though you are working at home. That doesn’t necessarily mean creating an office at home, but how to psychologically set a tone and an environment that allows you to have some space when you are not working.
There has been a big conversion of dining rooms into home offices because they were such seldom-used rooms, but even with that there has to be a time and place for doing work so that your work doesn’t creep up onto every aspect of your life.
The main thing is to set a tone or character and the function of the space. It might be that realistically you’re going to work in the family room, but there should be an area that opens up to become the home office so when you’re in that captured world you can work there and that’s the focus of your attention. Then you can close it off and the room is back to being a room.
In the workplace, it’s the customization of your workspace. It wasn’t that long ago that you accepted whatever was “in the grid”—so if there was a plane of light above your head, fine. Then we had task lighting, and we could customize our space more. We’re seeing now the trend toward, maybe in the future, customizing acoustics and customizing air-conditioning and heating for the space. You could have an 80-year-old in a cubical next to a 29-year-old and they’re going to have different environmental needs. We see a very strong trend toward customizing enough to please most everyone, but at the same time watching the bottom line and keeping a cohesive design together.
D&WC: What are the most important industry and career-oriented issues facing designers?
Bowden: The most important things are: sustainability, so that we’re using products that are friendly to the Earth and as much as possible renewable; also, the quality of the space, whether that’s indoor air quality or the quality of the products and the longevity of products that we use in the space; and, as much as possible, things that might do multiple tasks so that we are getting the best use of each product.
D&WC: How are present-day economics affecting designers’ businesses?
Bowden: If anything, it has been more a psychological effect. We have seen, particularly in our region, that people have been startled with the uncertainty of the economy. Industry seems to have suffered more than the private sector.
With us, as architects and interior designers, usually we see downturns in the economy long before anyone else. There hasn’t been a slowdown at all. Housing starts have been good. We’re still good with office starts and renovations. I thinks it’s manufacturing that has suffered more so than the other segments of this industry at this point.
Residentially, we see people devoting a lot more energy to their homes because they are bringing some work home, but when they are there they want a sense of everyone being together. Maybe in the past kids were in one end of the house and adults were at the other. Now we’re seeing more and more people getting back to the nucleus of a family. Making these environments secure is the No. 1 issue. Then comes creating a sense of place where we are comfortable.
D&WC: What are the up-and-coming contract style trends?
Bowden: In commercial markets we’re seeing that more and more conversations happen in hallways and at the break area. We’re starting to see companies design those areas so that people can congregate there. Instead of the coffee stations being stuck in little out-of-the-way corners, now they’re becoming like the kitchen of the home in that they’re more the hearth of the area. People gather around and there are places they can have their impromptu meetings, and it’s working out real well in that it facilitates more spur-of-the-moment interaction.
Cubicles are becoming more customized so that in many instances they can almost become rooms themselves. Sometimes those rooms are created simply with taller panels or glass panels, but nonetheless they are starting to define space more.
D&WC: What do most clients consider first, second and third when choosing interior furnishings: price, function or aesthetics? Where does maintenance come into play?
Bowden: I don’t find them mutually exclusive of each other. More important than price is value. That really is true.
I don’t think you can have function without aesthetics. Certainly, you could, but I would not consider that good design. It’s important that you achieve some sort of aesthetic concept that you’re after, but at the same time if it is not functioning well the occupants will rearrange it to suit themselves. Those two—function and aesthetics—go hand-in-hand.
The more important concern is not really price as much as value. It’s a matter of would I be willing to pay more and actually achieve what I’m after, or can I achieve what I want at even a lesser price? Optimizing the dollars spent is much more important than how many dollars are actually spent.
Maintenance is always a consideration. Always.
D&WC: Are clients more knowledgeable about interior design than in the past?
Bowden: Absolutely. We’re in the Information Age. People have so many channels they can tune to, so many magazines they can read, and so many lectures they can attend that we’re dealing with a far better educated consumer. Which is an advantage to us.
It’s so much easier dealing with an educated client because they realize the value in what we do, firstly. Secondly, they understand that oftentimes there is a higher concept that you are shooting for so they don’t get bogged down in the individual details. They look more at the bigger picture.
As a general rule, clients who are exposed to so much more design are more open to design concepts.
D&WC: What segment of the consumer population is using design services today? Are more or fewer clients looking for professional services?
Bowden: I think more. At one time it was considered that only household with incomes above $75,000 called an interior designer. For large-scale projects that may be the case; however, with all of the information available the public is much more aware of the value of interior design.
We’re seeing that many of our clients, who might even be first-time homeowners or small, starting corporations, understand the value of the dollars spent for interior design—and it might not even be for a huge project. These are people that we will build a relationship with and as they grow and get older we will continue doing their work and their friends’ work.
Everyone loves the idea of doing it yourself. I think that has grown dramatically. But what is happening is that interior designers are learning not to be retail oriented as much as being consultants. When we have retail designers acting as consultants, then even the do-it-yourselfer will find them approachable to hire them for their expertise, even if they do much of the work themselves. We see designers becoming resources.