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How Generation Rent Has Changed The Interior Design Industry

interior design

Explore how an increasing number of renters is impacting the future of the interior design industry.

Words by 

Megan Hill

Published on 

April 25, 2023

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Generation Rent—the collective of young adults (18-40) priced out of the housing market. Unable to buy, they are a generation condemned to rent, spending a high percentage of their income in doing so.

Renters aren't a traditional target demographic for interior designers, oft written off due to financial instability or the inherent restrictions of rented spaces, namely structural limitations and unaccommodating landlords. But the ever-growing rental market is changing such that many young adults have accepted, even embraced, the idea that they will rent long-term and so are looking to interior designers as a way to make their space their own. This poses a new challenge for interior designers: how do you create the illusion of ownership when your clients don't in fact own the space?

Could Generation Rent be a catalyst for a new era of interior design, whereby interior designers must evolve to accommodate a much more mobile and adaptable way of living?

The dollar sign(als)

Interior designers have been monitoring the tipping scales of homeowners vs renters for a while. Artem Kropovinskyi is the founder of Arsight, a New York-based interior design studio that works on residential and commercial spaces. In 2018, Artem began to notice the shift. "The telltale signs were the rising demand for flexible and affordable living spaces, the decline of traditional furniture retailers, and the emergence of new platforms and apps that catered to renters who wanted to decorate their virtual homes. We had to be more versatile in the industry and take on more diverse projects." Artem and his team began working on more commercial projects to open up a new income stream. They also began an internal evaluation to see how they could make their services more appealing to this growing demographic of renters.

A big point of consideration for interior designers targeting renter clients: affordability. Interior design has traditionally been the reserve of the elite, but a growing middle-class market of renters means that has to change. Interior designers need to set their prices in an accessible ballpark in order to have their services considered. The good news for interior designers is that design is an area that renters are willing to invest in, statistics show that over a third of renters have spent money on doing up their landlord's property and that decorating (49%) and buying furniture (48%) are the two most popular ways to splash the cash.

In fact, many renters are motivated to invest by an unlikely source—social media. According to New York Times, individuals are investing in their rented apartments as a way to cash in on the algorithm's preference for "aesthetic" apartments. In exchange for pictures of their beautiful homes, content creators are receiving boosted views and sponsored brand deals. One woman, Imana Keal, reported $80,000 in earnings. Renters are still using interior design as a form of social signalling, in the same way homeowners long have. However, the focus has shifted from parading wealth, to boasting taste.

Though willing to invest, Generation Rent's budget is still tight. To combat shoestring budgets, interior designers can learn from virtual design platforms (the now-defunct Decorist, Havenly etc.) that have worked to democratise the service of interior designers by "modularising" it: room-by-room design, concept board designs etc. These compartmentalised packages have proved popular amongst renters who want to interact with interior design services but perhaps don't yet have the means, or the need, to invest in full-service packages. Interior designers can choose to market themselves via such platforms or copy their model by breaking down their offerings into accessible packages for renters and homeowners alike.

Products and preferences

In 2019, furniture giant IKEA pioneered a new movement with an entire collection tailored to renters—with all pieces made to be broken down, moved and set back up again. Other companies followed suit, some doing away with the idea of ownership altogether. ZZ Driggs is tackling the logistical and financial issues of purchasing furniture, "dismissing the idea that fashionable, consciously-made furniture is only for the elite" by offering New York City dwellers the option to rent statement furniture pieces.

Of course, furniture alone does not make a home. Companies supplying decorative items like soft furnishings and wallpaper have also found innovative ways to cater to Generation Rent. Danielle Millet is the founder of Peel & Paper, a sustainable, completely removable wallpaper brand. As a child, Danielle Millet experienced the frustrations of rented accommodation firsthand. "Although the houses we lived in were clean and comfortable, they lacked the freedom to have some wild patterns on my walls. Self-expression in (a home) signifies a sense of belonging. When you are not allowed to express yourself in a rented home, those plain white walls make you constantly aware of the fact that it does not 'belong' to you." Progressive companies like Peel & Paper and IKEA provide interior designers with a toolbox capable of meeting the demands of rental clients.

A blue sofa with light wooden base surrounded by other collapsable furniture items in the same colour way
The Ravaror collection by IKEA, designed for renters.

Interior designers equipped with the right tools, then just face the matter of understanding the design preferences of Generation Rent. The dominant lifestyle of the times has always manifested in interior design trends; take the vivaciousness of the 1920s and the resulting Art Deco style or the hippie-driven Bohemian style of the '70s. Mark Bittoni is the principal of Bittoni Architects, a firm working to combat the affordable housing crisis in LA with the development of co-living spaces, and he believes this day and age is no different. "As the cost of housing has risen, designers and architects have been forced to find ways to make smaller spaces feel more open and functional. In many cases, this has led to a focus on minimalist design, with an emphasis on clean lines and streamlined furnishings."

Minimalism makes sense for renters—the fewer possessions to manage when moving, the better. It also makes sense when you consider the budget preferences of the generation in question—more than three in four millennials would choose to spend their money on an experience over a material possession. Though often misjudged as sterile and boring, minimalist design is actually a doorway to more fruitful living—Generation Rent wants to work with interior designers who can optimise their space to support social experiences, professional success and general well-being. And hey, it's keeping the landlords happy too—whitewash walls, clean finishes and bright lighting makes for an inoffensive blank canvas easy to sell on to the next tenant.

With no signs of the property ladder becoming more accessible any time soon, Generation Rent is likely to be the first of many generations adopting more transient habitation habits. If this influx of renters has already changed the way interior designers and product designers are approaching their craft, can we expect rising rates of renters to have a profound impact on the very way in which we live?

Progressing together

In his work as an architect, Mark is tasked with increasing the efficiency of shrinking spaces whilst also taking into account the likely ever-changing tenants and their diverse needs. "Many apartments and homes are being designed to serve multiple functions, with rooms that can be easily reconfigured or repurposed depending on the needs of the occupant. For example, a dining room might next function as a home office or a living room might now require a fold-out bed for guests." And it appears these compact conditions are here to stay. "In the future, it is likely that the impact of rising rent prices on design will continue to be felt. As urban populations grow and housing becomes even more expensive, we can expect to see a continued emphasis on small, efficient spaces."

Is the future of interior design about finding increasingly smart solutions to decreasing square footage? Or is there an alternative ending, whereby interior designers pioneer a shift towards a more communal lifestyle ushered in by the smart design of communal spaces?

We are already seeing more young people across the UK embrace shared accommodation as an antidote to rising rental prices, with over 25% of renters still sharing accommodation at age 35. Though in many cases this is out of necessity, it is evidence that young people are open to the idea of living more communally. Way of Life is a property management company exploring this new consumer mindset by fostering the same sense of community whilst giving tenants their privacy and independence. As a Way of Life resident, you can have a self-contained living space to yourself (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom) but your tenure also grants you access to activities such as yoga, urban gardening and a virtual martini masterclass, all in the company of your neighbours.

It is not just a well-stocked activities calendar that separates Way of Life homes from your average rented apartment—it is design. Each Way of Life unit is designed by a team of in-house interior designers to make the most out of "space and light, storage and high-spec appliances". Tenants can even opt for professionally furnished apartments, another data point signalling Generation Rent's willingness to invest in their temporary living spaces. The pre-decorated apartments are intended as an antithesis to the uncomfortable nondescriptness of traditional rented accommodation but it is the communal spaces that really make residents feel at home. Way of Life complexes contain purpose-built communal areas that were intentionally designed to encourage interactions between strangers and foster healthy, social relationships—bright, inclusive and characterful being keywords on the moodboard. Interior designers who have experience in commercial design will find these qualities familiar but in the context of residential design, they may come as a surprise.

A bright lounge area in oranges, pinks and golds. A dining table, multiple armchairs and a comfy sofa
A communal space at Way of Life's The Gessner in Tottenham Hale, London.

What the public wants from their homes and their places of leisure is becoming increasingly homogeneous. Adaptable yet practical, exciting yet personal and, crucially, supportive of social relationships. If designers and their businesses are to successfully adapt to this new approach to design, they must overcome a few logistical challenges. As Artem explains, "living in shared or communal spaces poses a challenge in maintaining privacy and personal space. Misplaced design can hinder this by limiting individual choices or preferences, imposing rigid rules or norms and neglecting aspects of security or hygiene." If communal living becomes a more viable option for the masses, interior designers who can develop a signature style that is social, yet secure, will be best placed to reassure clients and capitalise on the shifting market.

Interior designers should also prepare for a blurring of lines between the residential and commercial design, "Resi-comm", if you will. An exciting new market to explore, Resi-comm projects take the form of hotels, restaurants, office blocks or communal living spaces—essentially clients looking to use design as a way to bridge the gap between private and public spaces. This works both ways, as Nicola Lindsell from Boxx Creative explains."There are crossovers and merging between aspects of residential and hospitality interiors. For instance, there is a trend for private residential clients to desire chic ‘hotel-style’ bathrooms. And with the rise of Airbnb, hotels are becoming less corporate and focusing more on providing a welcoming home from home."

For interior designers, this means no longer viewing commercial and residential designs as "either/or" but as complimentary disciplines that can inform one another and intertwine to reimagine the way we live, work and play in domestic and commercial spaces.

So...?

Impermanent does not mean unimportant. To Generation Rent, their home—though temporary—is an extension of their self more than ever before. The role of an interior designer now is not to design for a fixed space, but rather curate a versatile design that could, in theory, relocate with the tenants—a reflection of their tastes, lifestyle and beliefs compiled through furnishings and decor.

Has Generation Rent changed the interior design industry? Yes. Unrecognisably so? No. After all the fundamentals of interior design have not changed—it is all about transforming a space to reflect the taste of its occupants, and making a house a home.

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