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Will pandemic-era travel bubbles be filled with ‘Airspace’?

November 10, 2020, 11:24 AM UTC

Monday’s announcement that a vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech is more than 90% effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 bouyed sentiment throughout the global economy. Cheers were especially enthusiastic from the travel industry, which has been devastated by the pandemic.

Airlines, hotels and travel agencies, and the hundreds of millions of workers whose livelihoods depend on serving tourists and business travelers, are praying the industry will begin to rebound in the second half of 2021. That looks likely, but the strength of any recovery is unclear.

In the meantime, industry leaders are grappling with a host of challenges they’ll need designers to help them solve: How will they reassure travelers it’s safe to take to the skies and stay in hotels again? What kind of experience will those travelers demand once they get back out on the road? And what will it take for all of us to rediscover the magic of unfamiliar people and places?

Travel in a post-pandemic world may be hard to envision in places like Europe where, in many countries, daily new cases of the virus have spiked to record highs, or the United States, which reported its 10 millionth coronavirus case on Sunday and where new cases have soared above 100,000 a day.

But the promise of travel seems less distant here in Asia, where many countries have succeeded in containing the spread of the coronavirus. China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, are actively discussing forming “travel bubbles” by reopening borders to visitors from other countries with low infection rates.

Meanwhile, The Economist this week sounds the alarm that travel in those post-pandemic bubbles may involve an altogether different peril. In an essay entitled “Flat White World,” it warns: “A new design aesthetic is taking over the world, spread not via brands or FDI, but through social media and the Internet. Even as formal trade slows, the globalization of taste is rampant. Starbucks may not have reached large chunks of the world, but there are very few large cities in the world now in which a visitor cannot order a latte surrounded by exposed wood and vintage light bulbs. Kabul boasts no McDonalds, but you can get a decent burger and fries at Burger House, a restaurant that would not be out of place in San Francisco.”

The reference to “exposed wood and vintage light bulbs” is an echo of a jeremiad penned by American writer Kyle Chayka for The Verge in 2016. Chayka argued that the proliferation of tech platforms like Instagram, Foursquare, and Airbnb are, wittingly or not, producing a uniform style he calls “Airspace” that is replicating itself in coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-working spaces everywhere in the world.

Edwin Heathcote, the Financial Times’ architecture critic, lamented the spreading sameness of this new design aesthetic in an August essay that found particular fault with Airbnb, a company born of the desire to make travel more diverse and authentic. He wrote: “The irony is that in looking for a trip, a change of scenery, we have found anonymity repackaged as cool and now we aspire at home to the placelessness of a reimported banality.”

Personally, I have missed traveling this year far less than I thought I would. Then yesterday I stumbled upon Architectural Digest’s write-up of the new Hotel the Mitsui Kyoto, which opened this month right across from the amazing Nijo Castle. It features the work of four brilliant designers—Shunsaku Miyagi, Yohei Akao, Akira Kuryu and Hong Kong’s Andre Fu—and looks anything but banal. For a moment, I was almost tempted to search for my suitcase.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler



Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide web, is launching a new initiative that looks to redesign how user data is stored and utilized online. Called Solid, the decentralized-data initiative allows users to store their data in personalized “pods” which companies—such as Google or Facebook—can only access with permission. The first version of Solid was released Monday.

Maya Angelou

Last year, the San Francisco Arts Commission commissioned Lava Thomas to design a monument commemorating civil rights activist Maya Angelou, but the selection was overturned by the City Supervisor sponsoring the commission. The u-turn sparked outrage within the city's artistic community who questioned the opaque selection processes for commissioning public sculptures. Now the city has reversed course again and re-commissioned Thomas for the work.


Norway’s Neue studio unveiled designs for the country’s new passports, completed with classic Scandinavian minimalism. Norway’s government commissioned the redesign to improve passport security while celebrating Norway's natural beauty. Neue met the challenge by deploying UV markings to create transitory pictures. Under normal light, Neue’s offering depicts Norwegian scenery in daytime; under UV light, the landscape transitions to night and the aurora borealis shines through.


Hugh Pearman is stepping down as editor of architecture magazine The RIBA Journal, published by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Pearman has spent 14 years in the role and will be leaving in December, making him one of the longest-serving editors of the influential mag. Executive editor Eleanor Young is taking over as acting editor.

One more thing

Apple is hosting its addendum to the iPhone 12 series launch today. The One More Thing event is expected to unveil the first Mac computer manufactured with an Apple-designed processor, built on Arm architecture. Previous Macs ran on Intel, but Apple ended that partnership in June.



The AIGA Design Conference is being hosted online November 9-14. The event, hosted by the U.S. professional association for design, is pitching “building bridges” as the theme for its festival

Canada’s annual graphic design fest, DesignThinkers, is running online this year, November 10-21—the first time in the event’s 20-year history that it hasn’t been held in person.

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

Barcelona Design Week, bringing together architecture, tech, industrial and graphic design, is being held both online and on-site November 17-26.

Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week (BODW), billed as “Asia’s premier annual” event on design, will be in person and online from November 30 until December 5. Like many others, the event looks to provide guidance in a pandemic era.


Seoul Design Festival, a celebration of South Korea’s young designers and upstart design brands, is running December 9-13.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s art, design, and architecture exhibition, the NGV Triennial, will run from December 19 to April 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.


“The awful advent of COVID-19 should provoke a hard look at our inefficient and needlessly complicated system—and serious ideas for reforming it. Ideally, we want a system that will take care of all of us, including those who have had COVID or post-COVID symptoms over the long haul.”

Carolyn Barber, physician and author of a new book on the commercialization of the U.S. healthcare system, writes in Fortune. Barber points out that while the pandemic is still raging in the U.S., the long-term effects of COVID-19 could create a health crisis that lasts much longer than the pandemic itself. Now is an “auspicious” moment to think about what the future of American healthcare looks like, and whether the insurance-led model should be replaced by a “single-payer” system, funded by the government.

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at