20 Years of Design Evolution to Inspire Future Ideas

By Jessica Dellenbach, ASID, WRID, EDAC Senior Interior Designer/Team Leader, Associate Principal

This summer, I celebrated 20 amazing years with Kahler Slater!

T-W-E-N-T-Y • Y-E-A-R-S!

Back in 1999, I began working in Healthcare Design. I was fortunate to be on a team working on benchmark projects at the forefront of design for the Ideal Patient Experience and Healing Design. I learned early that smart healthcare design is not about following trends, it’s about creating meaningful timeless, personal, unique, hospitality designs for my clients. Practically every project faces some past trend that is tired and needs to be revitalized. It is nearly impossible to create a truly timeless design as there are so many subjective preferences and long-standing trends that end up working their way into the design solution. Think back to how much honey oak existed across markets in the 1980s through the late 1990s. (I’m still trying to work with the honey oak doors and trim in my own home!)

Trends feed inspiration and an energy to explore design differently than has been done before. Using this as motivation for new ideas is exciting. The art of design is knowing how to stay current while designing with the future in mind. Glancing back at the progress and Design Evolution over the past two decades helps me reflect on what made me the designer I am today and helps me define who I want to be in the future.

Color Revival

COLOR! I love color. It has been a passion of mine since I took my first color class at University of Wisconsin- Madison. I’m not afraid of color at all! I’m a risk taker with bold saturated color and interesting unexpected color combinations where appropriate. In the early 2000s, I was passionately excited to remove all remnants of the navy, rose/mauve, burgundy, and forest green palette that existed in many client’s organizations since the 1990s. Over the past number of years, similar colors have popped back onto the scene… see 2010, 2011, 2014…

Many of these are current updated versions of similar colors from the 1980s and 1990s… but with a new twist. I must admit, I am still a bit resistant to integrate some of the new color trends into my projects. Rose quartz from 2016? Yeah, I just can’t get there. It’s too much like the mauve I’ve seen all over healthcare campuses. But, if the right client and right application are there, I’ll take the leap. I have learned that no matter what colors you use, trendy or classic, the key is to be smart and thoughtful about HOW and WHERE that color is used. Creating an interior based entirely on one color with everything “matchy-matchy” becomes monotonous very quickly. There is no relief to our eyes.

My color philosophy is to use full-spectrum color in every space I design. To simplify, the color wheel has warm colors and cool colors. Having a representation of the full spectrum-both warm and cool in varying shades and tones in a space feels balanced. Nature is a classic example of full-spectrum color- warm and cool color exist together in harmony. Evidence-based design and the psychology of color research have proven that when we experience spaces that have full-spectrum color we feel more comfortable and at ease.

Essentia Health Ashland Clinic – ASID Silver

The application of color is another consideration. I have taken risks to try new ways to apply color. Sometimes that risk has turned out amazing and other times, not so much. There is great value in my little “mistakes”. I really see them as opportunities for learning. They have taught me so much and have made me a better designer. If you play it safe all the time, you aren’t challenging yourself to be better. Design is an Evolution. It’s important to me to keep reinventing myself as a designer over the years, right along with how fashion, beauty and interior trends continue to change.

Color comes from many sources, not just paint. Wood tones have moved from honey oak to natural cherry to dark walnut to grayed and rustic. Neutrals have morphed from warm yellow-gold color tones to “gray, gray and more gray”. Recently, I’ve seen a shift back to warmer versions of neutral. Somewhere right in between “butter” and “storm cloud”. Metals shifted from the polished gold of the 1980s to silver, both chrome and nickel until the mid-2010s to more recently gold, brass, and a reintroduction of rose gold. It will be interesting to see what the “next” in all of these categories will be.

Cherry Wood Tone – Sentara Martha Jefferson, Winner – ASID Silver
Grayed Wood Tones – Western Wisconsin Health, Winner – ASID Gold

Go for the Green

My first LEED project was in 2010 for UW Health’s Stoughton (WI) Clinic. The Stoughton Clinic was also the first health care facility in the State of Wisconsin to achieve a LEED Silver certification. Although “green initiatives” had been gaining momentum over the years prior, I felt like I was a change maker. I was doing something important. There is so much waste in the construction industry and I have been mindful of what my contribution to that waste is. Product manufacturers all scrambled to take vinyl out of flooring and wallcoverings. Designers were taking more interest in what was actually IN all the products that are specified and installed in the environments we design. PVC-free flooring was all the rage. Polyurethanes replaced vinyls for fabric upholstery.

UW Health Stoughton Clinic

In 2012, Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, VA achieved LEED Certified certification. I went so far as to push to create custom wallcoverings that were cellulose based and custom-colored, while meeting a Type II durability. This was a season in my career with a ton of learning, research, questioning and pushing the envelope. This project won Soliant Health’s Most Beautiful Hospital in America in 2012!

Throughout the 2010s there have been an incredible number of initiatives with an expectation to push every element of design and material specifications to be more transparent and accountable. I have seen the creation of a Red List of 14+ harmful chemicals to avoid in products, a Declare label that lists every ingredient in a product’s creation, EPD™s (Environmental Product Declarations) to report energy and carbon footprint, HPDs (Health Product Declaration™) as a way to consistently specify what products contain, many versions of LEED, Green Globes, and Life Cycle Assessments, to name just a few. Western Wisconsin Health had an amazing vision to be Net Zero, but the project budget could only support so much. While WWH is not quite Net Zero, we made big impacts in the right direction, incorporating geothermal heating and cooling, chilled beams, radiant floors and LED lighting (when LED technology was early in its mainstream availability). WWH has seen powerful results; achieving LEED Silver certification and 36% more energy efficiency than newer energy codes require, resulting in a $96,800 annual energy cost savings. I look forward to the opportunity to move the needle on this and continue to challenge the environmental impact of our designs.

Make It Work, People!

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, organizations were putting lots of resources towards building new and replacing old. The stable economy at that time supported the financial comfort organizations had to put into new buildings and renovations. Since the Great Recession of 2008, I have seen the design focus change to more repurposing and refreshing of existing environments. There has been an evolution in how design is delivered, how to adapt to a tighter budget and timeline, how to basically do everything I did before but with less time and money to do it. This shift in adaptability had its growing pains. After all, change is tough sometimes. This necessary change in the design approach, though, has led to really amazing creative solutions for efficiency and has made design more accountable with measurable goals and metrics of success.

It is exciting to think about where design will be in the next 20 years. There is absolutely a forward momentum to create the tools that we need to make us smarter and more efficient tomorrow, next year and into the future for another 20 years.

This Old Thing?

The design industry is much more willing to celebrate the beauty of a particular era, more than ever before. Mid-century modern design is seen less as solely a 1950-1960 vintage design aesthetic but as more of a classic solution to modern interiors. There is also a bit more on an eclectic integration of design styles within one space. For example, vintage furniture pieces (used true to their original character or upcycled or repurposed with a fresh new finish and embellishments), throw-back lighting fixtures, classical artwork, and detailed moldings in more contemporary spaces to name a few. There are many companies that have popped up over the years that offer consignment goods for furnishings, lighting and accessories. I love the freedom this allows for designers to use our imaginations to bring personal and meaningful pieces with old stories into new designs.

Homewood Suites – ASID Bronze & Mayor’s Design Award – Test of Time

Sensory Design is Here to Stay

The one thing that has NOT evolved in my career lifetime has been the importance of Sensory Design in interiors, specifically Healthcare interiors. The personal nature of how patients and guests experience healthcare environments speak to how critical sensory design is. The sensory impact of interior design can make an experience good or bad pretty quickly. I have seen over the years that along with the psychology of color, touch is one of the most important senses to pay attention to. The feel of the upholstery on a waiting room chair. The feel of the fabric of a bed linen, bath towel, gown, or exam table covering on a patient’s bare skin. All of these are ways that the anxiety inducing aspect of a Healthcare environment can be reduced and the experience becomes more human-centered.

Fabric content has evolved dramatically over the years. Durability is critical and many factors influence this: double rubs, solution-dyed, bleach-cleanable, stain-resistance, Green-Guard certification, Crypton, and Anti-microbial. Every one of these fabric features can affect how the fabric feels on the arm of a chair. In addition to fabric, texture is a great way to positively impact interiors.

Sensory design as it was called in the early 2000s has expanded into Biophilic design, Evidence-based practices, the WELLbuilding standard and the Living Building Challenge. There is a more conscious desire to humanize our environments than ever before. And with all the stress and change in our world, we need to bring back some of the most basic elements that remind us to stay grounded and in tune with our senses.

Bringing it all Together

There is clearly a cycle in the evolution of design since I joined the design community. What is old somehow becomes new again. There is a revitalization, a reinterpretation that happens. As a designer, I can’t help but be inspired and influenced by all the amazing design that exists in our world. I take up what resonates for me, I put my personal interpretation into it, and create very unique solutions for each and every one of my clients. No two are the same. I am not a cookie-cutter designer. I get excited about challenging myself, my teams, my clients to do something different and meaningful and impactful that adds to the future of design. I would love to hear of challenging projects where I can push design further to meet a client’s vision. Drop me a note here with innovative design ideas we can move forward together.

About the author

Jessica Dellenbach, ASID, WRID, EDAC Senior Interior Designer/Team Leader, Associate Principal

Jessica Dellenbach is an Associate Principal at Kahler Slater and a highly skilled, award-winning, enthusiastic and creative interior designer. An accredited Evidence-Based Design professional, she has a passion for, and has dedicated her career to patient and family-centered interior design for healthcare and has presented nationally on the topic. What makes Jessica remarkable is not only her ability to bring a project’s vision to life but also her innate way of connecting with the important influencers at the onset and throughout the lifecycle of a project. She is a seasoned, savvy designer who can discern what items are the most critical to replace and what can be maintained, moved around, and reimagined. She creates the look and feel of a whole new aesthetic through selection of materials inspired from environmental surroundings for interior architecture, furnishings, finishes, lighting and artwork. Jessica infuses the entire team with positive energy that makes for a rare, cherished dynamic.