In Conversation with Marcus Fairs

20th anniversary
type - in conversation
In Conversation
In the next interview from our In Conversation series, The Future Laboratory co-founder Martin Raymond caught up with Dezeen’s founder and editor-in-chief, Marcus Fairs, where they were both in a very reflective mood indeed...

Marcus had founded Dezeen in 2006, while Chris Sanderson and I had established The Future Laboratory in 2001. 

Before Dezeen, Marcus was editor of Icon, another award-winning print magazine that had forged a reputation for its unique and blended coverage of architecture, design, interiors, and how and where all three made influential incursions into the wider cultural mainstream so that they weren’t just part of the agenda, but setting it. 

Both, but especially Dezeen, became a double-edged editorial sword with our visual and trends teams, who used it widely as a reference tool in the early days of the Lab, while others used it as a visual content marker that they were determined to beat in terms of trends covered, the new designers introduced or the next generation of architects celebrated. Over the years, while editorial standards or the desire to break a good story haven’t declined, the competitive edge to our seeking them out probably has. 

Now, I suspect that my team, like me, regard Dezeen as the perfect tool with which to measure the timeliness of a new discovery or the debut of a new designer or architect, reasoning that if Dezeen has covered them – like us or vice versa – they must be the innovators and early adopters we pride ourselves in discovering and contextualising in terms of the trends they are kick-starting. Consider Dezeen’s and LS:N Global’s early coverage of rewilding, biophilia, vertical farming, the circular economy – long before competitors were viewing them as serious and inevitable cultural movements.
Marcus agrees, but as he said in our recent catch-up, he wasn’t quite sure what we did when he first bumped into us.

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video

Published by:

4 February 2021

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: DeZeen


Martin Raymond: Really?

Marcus Fairs: Really. But I remember thinking, these guys are interesting…

MR: Cheers.

MF (Smiling): …and what they’re doing is really interesting and a bit weird. But I didn’t really understand it.

MR: People still don’t!

MF: Around that time, we wrote a story about the rise of the trend forecaster and we had an illustration of somebody holding up a digital camera [to take a picture, rather than looking through the lens] and at that time such a gesture was unusual…

MR: And that’s what we were looking for. We were trying to identify the new and the next that would indicate the new ways of doing things that were taking place…

MF: …in public, at events anyway, because it was weird. [Now] all of that behaviour has been completely normalised. We were partly responsible for that and you’re partly responsible for another aspect of it, and it felt that when we were looking back, we were stumbling on a new continent of possibility.

MR: Yes, I guess design as we understand it now in terms of its power, role and importance, didn’t figure so highly.

MF: It was kind of civilised and controlled, maybe a bit too civilised and controlled. But the landscape has changed immeasurably.

MR: Agreed. Yesterday, I was having a conversation with a major [property] development brand and their board, and the second and third words out of their mouths were about design and culture, which I thought was really indicative of how both design and its role in the greater culture have been elevated.

MF: Yeah, it’s now a field, so to speak, a very crowded one. Consider the early days of the London Design Festival or equivalent… you had a few events, perhaps, and one or two meetings. Then, suddenly, you had property developers using design to lure people into a new precinct or using it to uplift its value. If you look at some of the private developments in London now, like King’s Cross… I mean, the quality is extraordinary. Private developers are now [becoming far better] than public local authorities – when they do it right.

MR: But design, generally, can be used for two things, at least from our point of view: to look at what’s new and to act as a barometer, or a measure if you will, of how things are changing. So, in some ways, design is a symptom of shifts to come, which makes it an excellent forecasting tool and an indicator and a weather vane. If you think about the focus on the circular economy now, for instance, and how designers you were writing about were working in this field years ago, it was very much part of the design discourse, not a part of manufacturing. Now it’s part of [manufacturing’s] core value. So again, I think it’s interesting how design has now inserted itself into the commercial language and made that kind of conversation easier.

MF: It has. Think about sustainability and the discourse surrounding this. You used to spend 10 minutes or so trying to convince people that you weren’t a nutter. And design has helped us with those conversations – about climate change, the circular economy, the role of nature, rewilding and so on. As design has taken on these bigger issues there’s also been a growing realisation that human civilisation has separated itself from the natural world.

MR: Interesting.

MF: So, I think designers who see these things, or are saying them anyway, can use design to tidy up the mess or mitigate potential disaster. But to do this, design itself has to somehow decouple itself from capitalism and look over the other side of the fence, where there is no design but stuff just happens on its own… Nature recovers itself. And so we may need to allow the wilderness back in – both in a physical sense and in a metaphorical one. There is a sense that humanity’s drive to dominate nature has led us to almost throttling the life out of nature, so you don’t need to design nature back, you need to just back off and let nature do its own thing.

MR: But I think we’re now seeing nature being included more in buildings; for example, in offices, the city itself. But doesn’t this all seem a bit nostalgic, yet another attempt to use nature as a tool or a trope to improve design?

MF: I think there’s a chance that, collectively, as humans during lockdown, when we were being assaulted by this invisible enemy, it became almost a cliché that we craved nature. And I wonder how universal that was. You know, was it a middle-class thing? Did people in tower blocks crave it? And I think they did, we all did. There’s something deep in our psyches that realises that we’ve built these amazing civilisations and cities, but it isn’t enough and that the thing that’s missing is not more civilisation and more technology and more design, but more nature – or how we experience it. That’s why I’m really fascinated by the rewilding movement, not just for its own sake, but because it provides a solution, perhaps suggests that you do not need the human hand or the human brain to intervene. And that, in some way, is the history of design, the fact that we need to control, to intervene.

To find out more about Marcus’s thoughts on the subject of rewilding, non-intervention and the role nostalgia plays in design generally – and you’ll be pleasantly surprised and intrigued by some of his key insights – please watch the full Zoomcast below.