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


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. But there is less agreement about the strength of any recovery.

In the meantime, industry leaders are still grappling with challenges they’ll need designers to help them solve: What will it take to reassure travelers that it’s safe to take to the skies and stay in hotels again? What kind of experience will those travelers demand once they depart? And what will help them 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 were, wittingly or not, producing a uniform style he called “Airspace” that was replicating itself in coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-living 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 though not as much as I expected. But 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. I was almost tempted to look for my suitcase.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler
— clay.chandler@fortune.com

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