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The legacy of David Collins

18th Apr 2017

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Design marvel David Collins set the world of interiors alight with his stunning signature look and feel. With his passing, his legacy lives on in the new interiors and collaborations being realised by David Collins Studio. The future looks as bright as ever.

David Collins had been described as a ‘natural talent’, a ‘superstar designer’ and ‘one of London’s great landmarks’. To friends he was funny, self-deprecating, incredibly talented and the person that everyone wanted at their party. Since his premature death in 2013, his studio has continued, and his projects, once feted merely for their luxurious Hollywood-style glamour, have since been elevated to the ranks of some of the most significant interior design of our times.

Since 2013 the company has been steered by Founder and CEO Iain Watson, a lifelong collaborator of Collins, whose career with David began in 1985 in founding The Studio. In 2015 Watson celebrated the three-decade milestone alongside the entire team, launching a 30th anniversary exhibition at Phillips in Berkeley Square. With more than 100 projects on display, the exhibition showcased David Collins Studio’s expertise in the residential, commercial, retail, public and hospitality fields.

In conversation with Iain and the company’s Residential Design Director, Georgina Wood, we look at the past, present and future of one of the world’s most successful interior design studios.

Your team has been described as ‘custodians of the vision of David Collins’. Four years after David’s sad death, do you think this is still the case or is your team taking those immensely successful foundations and building upon them anew?
Iain: David started from humble beginnings and during the next three decades he went on to define a style that is still very much at the heart of everything we do. There has always been incredible design generated in-house and fantastic collaborations and partnerships that have been celebrated individually, some which have endured and grown over a number of years. Our team has grown to include over 60 talented individuals and so it felt very fitting to re-brand as ‘David Collins Studio’, to respect both David’s memory and the immense contribution that is made by everyone who works here.

The design language of our projects will always have an element of the original dialogue begun by David but we have to keep moving forward and David Collins Studio is no longer just a name.

You now have more than 60 staff. How do you contain and manage the vision of David Collins with such a large studio?
Iain: Our team has grown organically over the years. We have a dedicated plan for new team member to be immersed in the studio mission and values. The designers of course have the benefit of the vast range of projects we have worked on to reference however the most important thing is experience our spaces first hand. They can understand feeling of our work with the combination of lighting, finishes and details. The creative team headed up by Simon Rawlings our Creative Director champions our process and client experience.

Georgina: The dedicated service that we provide to private residential clients hasn’t changed at all but the size of the projects has. A family home can now easily span over 20,000 sq ft, which requires a much larger team of people. Also, our involvement with these homes doesn’t necessarily end when the project is completed. We continue to source new pieces for clients’ collections, adapt environments as their lifestyles change and move onto the next property as a client expands their property portfolio. We are a strong team that’s united by our love of design and the depth of involvement that we all have with the projects that we’re working on.

Your projects cover both commercial and residential sites all over the world. How does your design aesthetic differ from location to location?
Georgina: Every project is researched extensively from the beginning; we try to get into the mind of the person that will live, work or spend time socialising, shopping, eating and drinking in that location. We need to thoroughly understand their lives and what they want to get out of the spaces that they will be spending time in.

For Alexander McQueen we created flagship shops in Tokyo and Paris which were united by little more than the name above the door whilst being true to the brand itself. In Paris the aesthetic was one of opulence, which included bespoke wallpaper, a large signature rug and Art Deco, metal-framed display cabinetry. In Tokyo the look that was delivered was much more linear and architectural, allowing the materials, which included marble and glass, to speak for themselves. The DNA of our design is present in all locations.

The same can be said of the residential homes that we create, which have to respect their local environment and climate as well as the needs of the client. People lead different lifestyles globally and apportion the space in their homes accordingly. It is very fulfilling to meet expectations, particularly if it involves the start of a personal journey such as the beginning of an art or wine collection, or the design of a home before a couple start a family.

Your previous clients include some of the world’s most coveted brands, including Graff, Harrods, Alexander McQueen, Jimmy Choo and the V&A Museum. What unites the finished projects that you present to these clients?
Iain: Research and creativity. A well informed designer will have greater access to the right creative solutions for that client. What also unites our completed projects is definitely a love of colour and texture, a respect for symmetry and also a disciplined approach to realising the capabilities of a space and how it will perform the function set out for it.

The Blue Bar at London’s Berkeley Hotel is still one of the most referenced design schemes and an iconic interior in its own right. How do you define a starting point when looking at a commercial project like this?
Iain: To begin with we look at the language of a building or a space, its history and how we can work with this. When we did this project in 2000, hotel bars weren’t the destination places they have become, they were largely for guests. We wanted to change that and make the bar a place where you could enjoy the kind of luxury experience and impeccable service bestowed upon the guests of that hotel.

At The Berkeley, the existing Edward Lutyens’ panelling was an important starting point and we lacquered it in what has now become known as ‘Lutyens’ Blue’, a colour that comes from the fifty shades of blue that are to be found within the bar. This was offset by the Art Deco opulence of the furniture and lighting used.

Few people may know that David Collins Studio is also the name behind Pret-a-Manger’s shop design. How do you respond to a brief from the High Street?
Iain: The Studio has a history of working with brands that set a new standard - both developing and expanding them. We have done this previously with Cafe Rouge and EAT and, since 2012, have continued with Pret-a-Manger. We brought our understanding of materials, operations and customer experience to the stores. The process then allowed the successful and familiar Pret offer to be redefined in terms of lighting and finishes. We are now working on Pret Verde which is the evolution of the Pret store concept – starting with the flagship store underneath the new Pret London HQ. It draws on industrial and 1950s influences as a basis for the next generation roll out.

Your list of clients in the private residential sector must read like a Who’s Who of style arbiters. How much influence does the personality or profession of a client have on the design direction of a home?
Georgina: It plays a big part as everyone, whether it’s in an obvious or subtle way, wants their home to be about them. We interview our clients extensively at the beginning of every residential project to discover what they like and don’t like, how they live and what kind of personal pieces they collect or covet. It’s a really interesting start to the journey.

Sometimes there are obvious elements to work around, such as an inherited art collection, but occasionally a conversation will start a train of thought on an element of design or an addition to a property, that our clients didn’t know they wanted until we talked to them. That’s really exciting.

Sum up five elements that combine to create the look that David Collins Studio has become so famous for?
Iain: Because of our extensive use of certain materials and forms over the past 30 years, we almost feel an ownership over gesso, marble and the use of metalwork in furniture. David Collins Studio is also defined by a love of colour punctuation and strong referencing of 20th Century design. We also love to embed hidden elements into our design so that not everything reveals itself from the outset.

We have loyal relationships with the artisans and craftspeople who help us to create these hidden layers, which reveal themselves as a room turns from day to night, or when a finish or piece of furniture is approached from a different direction. Next time you are in a bar or restaurant designed by David Collins Studio, run your hand under the edge of the table. You’ll find that we stitch a seam of velvet underneath as a cheeky surprise.

Taking your design into different mediums, past collaborations have been fascinating and (amongst others) have included the creation of a fictional group of nightclub-dwelling characters for London’s Kabaret (Jamie Hewlett 2010) and an illusionist’s impression of James Bond’s private study (Canary Wharf Magazine 2015). Who are you currently collaborating with and on what?Georgina: One of the companies we are currently collaborating with is Lobmeyr to create a custom designed crystal chandelier over four floors and soon to be installed in New York.

You were the only British designer to be selected for the 2016 Kips Bay project. What has this opportunity meant for The Studio?Georgina: Creating the grand entrance to the Kips Bay Show House gave us an opportunity to look back through our extensive archive and reference one of our most iconic commercial hotel projects, the Blue Bar at the Berkeley. We haven’t done this before, despite being asked to again and again.

At Kips Bay, we emulated the Blue Bar’s famous Lutyens’ panels, using a new interpretation of the paint by Farrow & Ball. This is offset by a striped monochrome stone floor, and the new David Collins Studio for Baker bespoke hand‐screened Chiyogami wallpaper, created exclusively for the Decorator Show House 2016 in lapis, claret and gold.

Furniture was created in collaboration with Promemoria and follows the luxury lines of old Hollywood, supported by abstract, modernist artworks by Alexander Innes. The overall look centred upon our reputation for luxury British design.

We used Kips Bay to formally launch our wallcovering, which is the first of a collection that also includes textiles. It’s a really exciting project, one which will expand and give everyone access to David Collins Studio’s growing product line.

One of the team at David Collins Studio is a former Young Interior Designer of the Year winner. How do you nurture the talents of the next generation?
Iain: We have an established programme for interns and graduates looking to make a career in interior design. We offer designers six-month work programmes, focusing on a variety of different projects, so that we can ascertain where their true vocation lies. We enjoy having young people as part of our team - they bring new ideas and thought to a project.

It’s largely through this scheme that we find the talented new individuals that join our team permanently. To take this forwards with greater resonance, following our 30th anniversary exhibition in 2015, we established a foundation in David’s name which provides a prize each year to an individual succeeding in an artform mirroring David’s love of, and contribution to, the arts. It’s something that we are passionate about and an important part of Britain’s interior design heritage.

Is there a movement or trend in architecture that’s surprising you at the moment?
Iain: There have been and currently are great architects who push boundaries and create the kind of buildings that cannot fail but provoke a reaction. The late Zaha Hadid was known for her unconstrained architecture, as is Kengo Kuma, with whom we are currently working. These architects are really visionary artists and when that vision is built, there is no restraint and so the architecture becomes a monumental sculpture. The buildings are not just about the aesthetic though, functionality and purpose are of huge consideration.

What hot tip in design should we be keeping our eye on?
Iain: Rather than reiterate, our tip is to reinvent! This is the reason our Studio is so creative - we strive to be innovative.

How do you use new technology to build your design stories and bring these ideas to life? What is the most important new tool that helps you with your work?

Both: Our projects each begin with a story and come into focus gradually. We still nurture the evolution of design, which starts life in our studio with a pencil and paper. Sketches turn into watercolours that relay our vision to the client and encourage their own imagination to bring a scheme to life. These concepts then go on to become typical CAD drawings with detail and dimensions specified down to the last millimetre. New technology, such as 3D print modelling and virtual reality enhancement, is something that we have temporarily parked for the future and will most likely be used to buy, sell and develop properties before it’s used to design them.

What singular building or interior would you most like to do a David Collins Studio guerrilla makeover of?
Iain: Personally I think we achieved the most extreme makeover possible in 2015 when we turned the NCP car park on Brewer Street in Soho into a high end luxury experience for London Fashion Week. It was an incredible achievement for the team and changed the mindset of major event staging in Central London.

Georgina: I would love to take an historic old hotel in Rome and reimagine it as a private residential home.

You recently staged an exhibition, at Phillips on Berkeley Square, of 30 years of your work. What was the high point of this celebration, and what does the future hold for David Collins Studio? 
Iain: The complexity of putting on an exhibition with such a large body of work to go through, the individual images of the selected projects and what you say to the visiting public about those schemes really highlighted for me, how much has been achieved.

I don’t think any of us could have imagined how far David Collins Studio would have come, the global breadth of projects and the kind of spaces that we have created. David always had his eye on world domination and I’m happy to say that I think that’s what’s been achieved.

The future is an exciting and positive time for the team, with more exceptional design, many exciting collaborations, new project lines and a continued curation of the vision of a really great man.

David Collins Studio;

Twitter: @D_C_Studio
Instagram: @davidcollinsstudio