Linda Morey-Burrows – principal director of London-based MoreySmith – predicts the pandemic’s impact on residential redesign, explains why the open office is still the way forward, and anticipates a return to analogue.  

LINDA MOREY-BURROWS: I started working as a designer in London when I was 20, in 1984. I was pretty much the only woman in any meeting I ever went to – all my clients were men, as were my bosses. Women typically had supporting roles. It was quite intimidating. One of the last practices I worked for was a really large architecture firm, about 250 people. I was probably the most senior female at the time, but all the partners were men. We worked at rows of desks and everything was grey. If you smiled too much, they’d say something like: ‘Don’t smile, it makes you look silly.’ There was no encouragement at all. That’s why, when I set up MoreySmith in 1993, I wanted to create a studio environment where everyone felt happy. And I wanted it to feel creative and natural – I didn’t want rows of desks. 

People like to put designers in boxes, don’t they? They design hotels, they design residences, they design workplaces. But we love working across disciplines, and I find that one feeds the other. If you just do corporate work, you can get lost in that world. Same for residential. But a good designer can design anything. Nonetheless, we are seeing more enquiries for residential projects at the moment. People have spent so much time at home lately. They’ve looked around and realized they want more from where they live.

I think there’ll be an increased demand for areas at home that are solely for work, separated in some way from the living space. That’s one thing people have struggled with during lockdown – the lack of definition between private and professional life. People can’t switch off. We need freedom and choice and flexibility.      

Linda Morey-Burrows set up MoreySmith in 1993 as an inclusive and collaborative studio.

Two of our biggest current projects are offices for Sony Music and CBRE. Even though we came up with the designs almost four years ago – they have long gestation periods – we haven’t had to change much at all in light of the pandemic. I think that’s because what we’ve designed over the past ten years was already leading the way. It helps that we have a research arm. People have been worried over the course of the year and coming to us for advice: ‘What should we do with our office?’ ‘We’re on site, is everything going to be okay, or should we alter the design?’ Those sorts of things. If we’re not going out there and doing research and providing data, how will we be able to answer their questions?

I’m all for egalitarian, non-hierarchical environments. But I’m aware that some people have spent a long time climbing corporate ladders and have finally managed to land their own office. It’s a status thing, and many are reluctant to give it up. To coax them out of it, you have to spend a lot of time explaining the benefits to them. Their gain will be others’ gain, too. People shouldn’t underestimate the importance of mentoring and sharing knowledge. We can create environments of mutual exchange.

I’ve always worked in an open studio environment, and personally I love working in open plan. With the future of the workplace in mind, we’ve developed a concept called Open Work. But ‘open work’ doesn’t mean forcing everybody to sit at rows of desks. It’s about providing lots of different spaces so you can always find somewhere you feel comfortable.

We’ve done HQs for big companies such as LVMH, Primark and Coca Cola, but also smaller workplaces for lesser-known clients. Big corporate clients can be incredibly demanding, but I love that every single one is different. I love that even after 27 years of working with Sony Music, I’m still learning something new.

The office’s sample library and pieces of art – including 'When I met Francis Bacon' by Bob and Roberta Smith, on loan from Art Source – contribute to a creative atmosphere.

MoreySmith became an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) in 2018. I’ve been the principal for almost 28 years. I could’ve sold the business, but I wanted to be able to pass it on to my close-knit team, some of whom have worked with me for over 20 years. With none of them in a position to buy it from me, an EOT was the best solution. In effect I’m buying myself out of the business and gifting it to the employees. The biggest challenge has been communicating that to them. [Laughs] Explaining that business carries on as usual, but we share more – not just profits, but also ideas. With Brexit and now the pandemic, the past two years haven’t been the easiest, but as people start to come back, we’re really encouraging them to fully embrace it. Everyone will see even more benefits after the loan is paid off in the next five years. I think more and more designers and architects will move to EOT structures. That way, everybody’s in it together and it can only get better for everyone.

Our best work – all our major projects – comes from either recommendations or repeat business. We don’t like free pitching. I don’t agree with it, either. After seeing all the work that we’ve done, you should be able to tell if you want to work with us. Why get people to design things for nothing? But I fear that after what’s happened this year, it will become expected; these kinds of requests are increasing right now. 

Above, a model of MoreySmith’s entry into the BCO NextGen Design Competition (foreground) and a sample of a screen designed by the Verhoeven Twins (background) reveal what the team is working on.

In ‘The New Normal Report’, we talked about how COVID accelerated workplace changes that were already underway and that, in hindsight, people shouldn’t have waited so long to make work life more flexible. Something else that needs to be accelerated in the world of design is our approach to materials. Obviously, they should be more sustainable, but we should all design more with natural materials and with nature in mind. 

I remember the idea of sustainability emerging in the mid-1980s. We’ve always encouraged our clients to be sustainable and consider their actions – not demolishing buildings that could better be repositioned, for example. The issue is that decisions are often driven by money – and demolishing and rebuilding is often cheaper. As are non-sustainable materials. But things have changed in the past decade. Now, instead of us telling clients what they should be doing, clients are coming to us with their own sustainability requirements – things we have to do if we want to work with them. It’s a bit of a hallelujah moment.

Sustainability and wellbeing will be the key trends for the next decade, and we need to be spearheading them. I think people will want their lives to become less screen-based; they don’t want to be Zooming all the time – it’s tiring, isn’t it? We’ll move towards the more physical and analogue instead. I see people trying to be creative while pulling images from Pinterest – it drives me insane. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my 37 years designing, it’s that you cannot design by only looking at a screen. 

This is an excerpt of an interview published in Frame 141. To read all of Morey-Burrows' insight, get your copy here.