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Hanging out: an audience with British design maven Ilse Crawford

Designer Ilse Crawford turns a new arts centre into a relaxing place to hang, writes Kylie Knott

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 2:14am

Ilse Crawford is a perfectionist. She's been stuck in traffic for an hour, but despite the schedule chaos, she insists on a change of clothes. As an interior designer, aesthetics play a key role in her life.

But there is a down-to-earth look about her as she emerges from the "change room", her blue dress replaced with a summery green skirt and shirt, her feet bare, and her heels hooked around her index finger. "I'm so sorry - I'm never late," she apologises.

A stickler for details is a prerequisite for someone in her highly visual field, but Crawford is not only passionate about the way a room looks but how it interacts with people. The current state of her latest project - the Duddell's arts centre in Central which opened last week - reflects her philosophy.

Today, the furniture has been rearranged to accommodate a meeting of gallery curators in town for Art Basel. "It's important that a space works with people, that it's flexible. I don't like spaces that are so perfect that you can't adapt them. I like moving things around, like you can do in this space," she says, scanning the room with her hand.

"It's structurally strong, but also has the freedom to evolve and respond to changing circumstances," she adds.

For a city where space is a commodity, Duddell's has plenty of room: 8,000 sq ft spread over two floors of One Duddell St, an address that made headlines when Shanghai Tang moved into the building last year.

Duddell's occupies floors one and two; the third floor houses a Chinese restaurant with some impressive modern and 20th-century brush-and-ink paintings from the Hong Kong-based MK Lau collection. The fourth floor is a casual space bursting with art, a shiny bar and 2,000 sq ft terrace.

"It's very easy to feel at ease here. To be able to work or throw a party - just to hang out. This space is very responsive to your needs, to make you feel good, and that has to be designed," says Crawford.

At Duddell's, Crawford has done what she does best - make a space comfortable and flexible. "When I first saw the building, I was shocked as to how solid it was. It was this concrete shell with a low ceiling. I really had to balance the heavy with the soft to find a happy place."

Our design always starts with the human being, with human needs
Isle Crawford, interior designer

There are many places to be happy, from the terrace where oversized wicker chairs and tropical-print cushions make it an oasis in the heart of the city, to the library nook surrounded with shelves full of books and delightful dust collectors. Ming dynasty-style chairs, red varnished table bases and Chinese-style screen doors are some of the gentle nods to the city's roots.

"The interiors really had to keep their end up - to fight back. It was about using solid materials such as dark wood and marble tops with softer materials like wicker. They had to be tropical-climate friendly, of course," Crawford says.

The most glamorous and luxurious element is the fourth-floor bar carved from travertine, the same material used in the solid stairway.

"Travertine was used a lot in interior architecture in the 1950s. It's strong but softer looking than marble and less perfect - it's more rugged. For the hole-in-the-wall bar we also used glass on mirror - you can't help but respond to this combination. It feels so glamorous," she says.

The space is the brainchild of Hong Kong friends Alan Lo, Paulo Pong and Yenn Wong (the forces behind Press Room Group, Altaya Group, and JIA). The new addition to the city's cultural landscape gives creative types a space to host meetings and hold exhibitions.

Its first exhibition runs until the end of August. Titled "Face to Face", it takes a quirky look at the genre of portraiture. In October Duddell's will host an exhibition curated by artist Ai Weiwei.

Crawford, who is based in Britain, says her path to design started as a child. "I would walk around with my mum adding character touches to the rooms. I've always been conscious of how buildings change behaviour. Some spaces make people relaxed, others make them more mechanical."

It comes as no surprise that she is a proponent of fung shui. As a child, Crawford spent a lot of time visiting her mother in hospitals, and noticed a link between doctors' behaviour and their environment.

"Some doctors were charming and personal but in other environments they were quite brutal. I believe it had a lot to do with the environment - the building and furniture - as these act as instruments or channels for our behaviour. It's interesting how a building can affect human behaviour," she says.

At 27, Crawford became editor of British Elle Decoration before setting up Studio Ilse a decade ago. Previous projects include Soho House New York, Aesop, Grand Hotel Stockholm, and Ett Hem hotels.

"Our design always starts with the human being, with human needs. We work around that," she says. Her impressive portfolio also includes another Hong Kong project - Two Two Six Hollywood Road.

"It was five apartments, and we did the exterior and interiors which is unusual for a design studio," Crawford says.

"I hope to return to Hong Kong. I love working in this city. It's very direct and has a great can-do attitude that reminds me of Scandinavia [she is half Danish]. But things work a little quicker here in Hong Kong."

kylie.knott@scmp.com

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