What Is Slow Design? Principles, Sustainability, and Tips

The concept goes beyond just how long it takes to make something.

Gray and orange living room interiors

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Slow design is a movement in which interiors, including everything from architecture to kitchen items, are made thoughtfully and responsibly, not mass-produced. The idea is to design spaces and pieces to be appreciated, functional, long-lasting, and thought-provoking. The concept goes beyond just how long it takes to make something.

Slowness is a sweeping trend in sustainability. Slow food celebrates local produce and traditional cooking methods; slow fashion is made with a focus on people and the planet. You may have even heard of the slow city, an emerging campaign to restore local cultures and turn cities back to their natural environments to mitigate climate change. The slow design shares the same sentiment.

Learn more about the movement, what it encompasses, how it's being used, and how you can incorporate the concept into your own home.

Origins of Slow Design

It could be said that slow design developed from the larger slow movement, which arguably began with food in the 1980s. The term was reportedly coined in 2002 by Alastair Faud-Luke, a writer, activist, and design professor at the Finnish Aalto University. The following year, researcher and creative facilitator Carolyn F. Strauss founded the Slow Research Lab, "a multidisciplinary research and curatorial platform" celebrating all things slow.

Although the term "slow design" was only recently introduced, the idea of thoughtful design harkens back to a time when buildings and furniture were made with great craftsmanship and by hand—before the flat pack revolution took over with the mass-produced throwaway furniture that now dominates the design sector.

The 6 Principles of Slow Design

In a paper Faud-Luke and Strauss co-wrote on behalf of the Slow Research Lab, the two identified the six principles of slow design as:

  1. Reveal: Revealing the oft-overlooked experiences, materials, and processes of everyday life
  2. Expand: Looking beyond the perceived functionalities and lifespans of an environment
  3. Reflect: Creating spaces that induce contemplation
  4. Engage: Collaborating and sharing
  5. Participate: Encouraging users "to become active participants in the design process"
  6. Evolve: Recognizing that artifacts, environments, and systems evolve over time

As per these principles, Faud-Luke and Strauss's perceived framework for what slow design can be is broad, abstract, and open to interpretation—not to be taken too literally. To pin it down, you could think of the term "slow" as a celebration of timelessness: both the timelessness of a piece and the timelessness of the relationship between that piece and its owner.

Terms Related to Slow Design

Slow design is an umbrella term for similarly named movements like slow interiors, slow furnishing, and slow decorating. Likewise, the slow design concept is part of a larger slow home movement, which usually also includes how food is produced and consumed in a home, and slow living, which could extend to slow fashion and slow travel.

Examples of Slow Design Today

Vintage desk against blue textile background

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Today, the slow design movement continues to gain momentum alongside "green" design, where everything about a building—from energy efficiency to comfortability—is considered. The principles of slow design have been applied to kitchen appliances and commercial buildings alike.

One example of slow design today is what's been dubbed the brown furniture revival, "brown furniture" being the hulking wooden furnishings that were popular in your grandparents' day but promptly fell out of style at the turn of the century. Brown furniture is often associated with sold dark woods such as mahogany, walnut, and teak, trees that take decades to reach maturity and true craftmanship to transform into functional pieces.

As secondhand shopping becomes more appealing to today's trendsetting generations—because of its low environmental impact and affordability—the brown furniture of yesteryear is making a comeback. You'll spot it all over Instagram. As of 2022, the #slowhome tag had been used about 65,000 times.

Environmental Impact

Cheap furniture set out on curbside for waste collection

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Today's furniture industry is dominated by the $13.1 billion-and-growing global ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture market. RTA furniture is usually constructed from low-quality chipboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which lasts a mere fraction of traditional furniture's lifespan. The weight of furniture landfilled in 2018 was 9.7 million tons, 4.5 times what was landfilled in 1960. Another 2.4 million tons was discarded using incineration, a controversial waste disposal practice that has only become commonplace since the '80s.

The rate at which furniture waste accumulates—and the pollution it produces in landfills and through combustion—litters the planet, whereas "slow"-designed furniture is built with the intention that it will last decades if not centuries.

Plus, the materials that are considered "slow" are often more sustainable. So long as wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, it's better for the environment to produce than plastic, which is derived from crude oil. Even when plastic isn't used as a cheap substitute for hardy woods, synthetic glues and other chemical products are commonly used to hold RTA furniture together.

In a less direct way, the notion of timelessness also lends itself to a lower environmental impact. Besides their demonstrated physical durability, slow materials and design are meant to outlive trends and never be thrown out simply because they're out of style.

Slow Design Tips for Your Home

Now that you know what the slow design movement stands for and how it can help the planet, maybe you want to incorporate some elements of the concept into your own space. Here are 10 ways to practice slow design in your own home.

  1. Choose responsibly, thoughtfully, and sustainably crafted materials; look for certifications from FSC, Cradle to Cradle, and Fair Trade.
  2. Draw inspiration from your local culture, traditions, and nature.
  3. Use nature as much as possible—for lighting or temperature regulation, for example.
  4. Pin down your personal style and stick to it, instead of submitting to fleeting trends.
  5. Channel your inner minimalist: Slow design aligns with the idea that less is more.
  6. Incorporate items that multitask—such as furniture pieces that double as storage units or a coffee table that transforms into a dining room table. Combining objects in this way means fewer materials used and less future waste.
  7. Research the maintenance a piece of furniture requires before buying it to ensure you can give it the care it needs to last a long time.
  8. Support local businesses, including shops, consultants, artists, and builders.
  9. Don't rush to fill your home with of-the-moment decor; practice slowness, rather, and furnish over time.
  10. Find ways to revive your space without buying new things, such as rearranging, decluttering, and upcycling.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is slow design?

    The simplest definition of slow design is interior design—including everything from decorative features to architecture—done thoughtfully, responsibly, and sustainably. Slowness, in this sense, refers not to how long it takes to create something but rather to how designs are carefully thought out, materials are consciously crafted, and items are appreciated for years to come.

  • Is slow design sustainable?

    Slow design is inherently more sustainable than the alternative: erecting buildings and creating furniture quickly for short-term use. Quality materials and craftsmanship leads to longer-lasting items and, therefore, less trash in landfills.

  • What is a slow home?

    A slow home is one that incorporates elements of "slowness" on various levels, including slow design, slow furniture, and slow food practices. Slow homes meld sustainability, practicality, and flexibility.