By Thomas Wagner.

The message all over the world is currently “keep your distance”. For social distancing to work in everyday life, we need convincing design ideas – be they charming, a little on the sci-fi side or reminiscent of solutions from a bygone era.

Anyone who is moving around in a public place – armed with a face mask of course – will have experienced the phenomenon of encountering someone coming in the opposite direction and you both instinctively giving each other a wide berth. When several pedestrians come into play, everyone tries to weave around the others neatly, sometimes creating an amusing ballet, choreographed by an unknown hand. All over the world, from India to Peru and from Belgium to Japan, the solution is the same: keep your distance. But what are you meant to do if you can’t keep moving? How can social distancing be sustained, possibly for months, when we go back to spending long periods with others inside a space such as a restaurant, train, aeroplane, club or bar?

There is certainly no shortage of design challenges, and creative minds everywhere have gone into overdrive – pondering, imagining, discussing and communicating. Pens are flying about on paper and screens, rendering visions of the near future. We need clever ideas and innovative solutions that can be implemented as quickly as possible. Whatever the individual details involve, many have one thing in common: they are somehow akin to a private dining room.

Available to book now and recommended for people who live in the same household: the greenhouses at the Mediamatik Biotoop restaurant in Amsterdam © Anne Lakeman, Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic.

A charming way to keep your distance

You don’t often come across a private dining experience that is as charming as the concept from the Mediamatik Biotoop restaurant in Amsterdam, where you can dine together by the water in the safety of a small greenhouse. Things are taking a much more mundane turn elsewhere, for example with plans for the airline passengers of the future to spend their journeys shielded from their neighbours in a bubble of partitions. As difficult as it is to achieve the respectful distancing that the virus demands in certain situations, private dining areas in restaurants are by no means new: business people have long chosen to meet in small separate rooms to conduct their business dealings undisturbed. And aside from erotic operetta clichés, separate seating areas still provide the privacy of what the French call a cabinet particulier.

A room within a room: the Alcove Highback designed by brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec was introduced in 2007 and has become standard furniture for a modern office concept. Wertheim, Cologne – a Vitra Office Project © Vitra.

New working environments

All in all, we are suddenly remembering how social and physical distance was orchestrated in so many natural ways in earlier, pandemic-free times. Telephone calls were not made openly for all to hear, but instead were shielded in a handset or a telephone box. On trains, instead of sitting in the noise of an open carriage, people liked to travel in compartments with varying degrees of luxury, which even had separate doors for boarding and alighting in some carriages. Or take the office, for example. There has been a trend towards effective use of space that is now being called back into question – from individual to open-plan offices and to multi-use office space where visual and acoustic distancing is created by glass boxes and cubicle-shaped sofas, like f.ex. the VITRA Alcove Highback.

The “Micrashell” concept is a PPE suit designed by Production Club: a solution for the music and nightlife industries and the future of human interaction. Courtesy of Production Club.

Socionauts in isolation suits

Social and physical closeness seems to be rapidly dwindling in the age of COVID-19. Distance is clearly going to be a part of our future, at least for the time being. The idea of distancing can also be found in the current trend in society of organising all that is important in an intangible – i.e. digital – form wherever possible. It is becoming our duty, so to speak, to shut ourselves away – in our home offices and soon in enclosed boxes when we are back at work. And if the pandemic and its consequences should in fact change social life for the long term, we may find that we will have to seal ourselves off in quite a different way in public too. The Los Angeles-based creative studio Production Club, which specialises in immersive events, shows how far this could go. They have just designed a complete PPE suit for clubbing in the age of coronavirus. The futuristic „Micrashell“ protective suit for socionauts who are ready to party in a civilisation threatened by viruses supplies the wearer with drinks, a vaporiser and a telephone in its plan to enable them to go to concerts and nightclubs safely.

Glass helmets and goldfish bowls

For more fun and less seriousness, Plastique Fantastique recalls the goldfish bowls and spacesuits of old sci-fi comics with their glass helmets, dubbed the „iSphere“ with a wonderful dash of irony. If dressing like Captain Future seems a little over the top for you, you might prefer to go out and enjoy yourself in one of the inflatable face masks designed by MARGstudio, Alessio Casciano Design und Angeletti Ruzza. The colourful helmets are like transportable dining rooms that allow you to eat and drink to your heart’s content with other helmet wearers.

Inspired by science fiction comics from the fifties: the “iSphere” design from Berlin-based Plastique Fantastique. Photo © Marco Barotti.

Picnics made to measure

Paul Cocksedge takes a much more relaxed and pragmatic approach to the issue. His „Here Comes the Sun“ blanket not only sets out the required distancing zone for a picnic with friends, but also outlines the empty area that nobody can enter – whether or not they have the virus. Cocksedge fittingly calls the design a “playful answer” for the new challenge of measuring the two-metre minimum distance. His “democratic piece of design” – as he calls it – is available to download for free and can be made by anyone.

We are less alone together: the “Here Comes the Sun” picnic blanket with minimum distancing by designer Paul Cocksedge. © Paul Cocksedge.
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