Airbnb is changing the way we experience buildings and cities. Founded in 2008, the digital platform utilizes technology to enable real-world experiences, and in turn, aims to create a world where you can feel at home anywhere. With its own in-house design teams like Samara and Airbnb Environments, the company has begun shaping the future of how we live and work.
Rachael Harvey is a Principal Designer of Airbnb Environments. Launched in February of 2014, the division is responsible for the look and feel of each Airbnb office space, encompassing a range of over 20 projects and workplaces. In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Rachael talks about interior environments, her role at Airbnb, and the future of workplace design.
EB: Where does your interest in architecture stem from; why did you choose to study architecture?
RH: For me, it started with interior design, while I was at a different college with a declared major in Cultural Anthropology (always fascinated by how culture, space and people interact and influence the other). I found myself procrastinating by drawing space plans of the house I had just moved into. That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment, but it was built on top of many other factors, such as growing up the only child of two designers, and cutting holes in walls of our Victorian house with my mother to build secret hiding places.
EB: You co-founded the Environments team for Airbnb as a group of interior designers and architects to create spaces for the brand. How is working with Airbnb different than your previous experience at Myriad Harbor and IDEO?
RH: Working as an in-house designer versus on the ‘agency’ side is a different animal. Many things are similar, but fundamentally we get to be in dialogue with the broader Airbnb brand and contribute to our mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. That’s a big opportunity and a huge responsibility. The projects don’t end with the photoshoot - in our offices you live it everyday.
EB: You’ve overseen the design of over 350K SF of workspace around the world. What are some major trends you see shaping offices and workspaces?
RH: One, I’m seeing the convergence of hospitality design in the workspace (and multifamily housing!). We see that in the furniture and proliferation of lounge spaces. But also there’s a more nuanced dialogue between how ‘self-service’ items like coffee or supplies show up in both space types.
Two, I’ve noticed the maturation of what it means to have an open office. As often with ideas there’s the early simple/pure version of an idea and then the process of refinement. At Airbnb, we approach workspace as something that an individual moves through, and we provide a spectrum of spaces to suit. For example, we designed a coffee table to make our lounges work-friendly; the table has a sturdy foot ledge which creates a comfortable perch for laptop use and of course power integrated into the core!
EB: How does the Environments team work with cities; what do you think is the role Airbnb can have in urban development?
RH: As many people in the architecture world, we’re arm-chair urbanists with a deep appreciation for the craft. I love the impact reports our Policy team publishes, showing how Airbnb hosts drive economic activity at many levels of a city.
EB: The team’s mission is to imbue Airbnb Environments with brand values so that they communicate and support the company culture. How do you communicate these values through your work?
RH: The design principles we bring to every project come directly from what we’ve learned from hosts and how Airbnb thinks about our mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Our principles are to create spaces that feel Hosted, Placeful, Domestic and, when we’re really lucky, these come together and can be transformative. I see design as a vehicle to create trust, and ultimately the confidence (belonging) necessary for guests to venture into the unknown (anywhere).
EB: With changes in climate, technology, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?
RH: By placing value in creating pleasurable spaces that reward the occupants just for being there, and finding ways to collaborate with operations - whomever is responsible for the day-to-day of the space. The ‘box’ is important but it’s about what it feels like to be there, not just what it looks like.
EB: What type of projects do you enjoy working on the most?
RH: Projects that have a clear agenda. Design is an act of creative problem solving, so having clarity on the ‘problem statement’ and a defined point of view are the foundation for a great project.
EB: What do you believe is Airbnb’s relationship to architecture and interiors with divisions like Samara and the Environments team?
RH: In many ways, Airbnb is a celebration of the physical environment, both the places a person might stay or visit on an Experience. Our team is here to channel some of that into how our brand shows up in the world, be it in the offices or through collaborative projects with builders, hosts or homeowners.
EB: How do you hope the Environments team evolves into the future?
RH: I believe the built environment has a huge impact on the human experience; on one end of the spectrum it establishes a sense of safety (shelter) and on the other it supports wellbeing and imparting pleasure. Airbnb created a different lens to consider the world around us, and Environments is one facet of how the company can support or amplify how space can provide for that full spectrum. My aspiration for our work is to find synergies between the digital experience and the ‘IRL’ (in real life) experience for Airbnb’s hosts and guests. Sometimes, we have to start by keeping our peers in touch with their own physical environment and what function or pleasures that can offer.