Ilse Crawford makes people her design priority

Ilse Crawford combines the two disciplines and stimulates new thinking by putting the end user at the front of her interiors projects

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 5:55am

If the world of interior design had not already claimed her as one of its brightest stars, Briton Ilse Crawford would probably have been just as happy as an anthropologist.

The designer's modus operandi goes far beyond mere efficient use of space and arrangement of beautiful things to encompass a fascination with the people who will inhabit the spaces she creates.

"I find life - people and their quirks - endlessly fascinating," said Crawford, 51, in Hong Kong recently for the opening of Duddell's, an innovative cultural and dining "hub" for the art community.

"It is so interesting to see each project unfold and watch how people connect. The trouble is that so many of the spaces we inhabit are too complete. They don't allow people to complete them. The design should be the background, not the foreground."

Crawford's obsession with new realities that create a human connection to space is evident in Duddell's, which boasts a 10,000 square foot interior spread over two floors and featuring a blend of silver travertine and smooth concrete highlighted with bronze and oak.

The lower level is a modern-Chinese-cuisine restaurant, while upstairs has a private-club-like ambience, with lounge spaces decorated with a mixture of classic and bespoke-design furniture, a chic bar and a well-stocked library - plus a 2,000 sqft landscaped outdoor terrace furnished with large sofas.

The greatest challenge was to make Duddell's a space that could change over time, says Crawford, who immersed herself in every detail, right down to the tableware. "Really understanding what was going to happen there was the starting point."

Crawford's stylish solution was to create a strong architectural frame and distinct visual language that avoided a "white box" gallery style and enhanced the art instead of making it a specimen.

"We created spaces that would meet different needs during the morning, noon or night so it became a place with layers based on behaviour. Design is about how you experience space; integrating beauty and functionality. Bringing the two together is an art but, on the whole, designers are not trained that way because projects are often only driven by an image."

Crawford has plenty of experience at the forefront of innovation.

She started work in the offices of an architectural firm, moved on to work as a subeditor at the Architect's Journal, followed by World of Interiors and then, aged just 27, became the founding editor of British Elle Decoration, where she was highly influential in introducing a fresh, new, modern aesthetic to English homes.

She is now head of the department of man and well-being at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands and leads an eponymous design studio and consultancy, Studioilse.

Its portfolio showcases a wide range of projects, from high-profile interiors at Shoreditch House in London, the Grand Hotel in Stockholm and an apartment building in Sheung Wan, 226 Hollywood Road, to a series of restrained and elegant furniture, lighting, linens and rugs, and a collection of vases, bowls and boxes for Georg Jensen.

This year Crawford was awarded the 2013 AD International Prize for Contribution and Influential Work in Architecture, Design and Interior Design.

She has also received critical acclaim for her recent renovation and conversion of Ett Hem, a 100-year-old house in Stockholm, into a boutique hotel that melded the building's original arts and crafts style and vintage furniture with a modern touch.

The design introduced a contemporary but warm palette of wood, leather and velvet and created a series of communal rooms to encourage guests to mingle, thereby transforming the hotel experience into one more of a privileged house guest.

"We have a process, not a style," Crawford is quick to point out when asked to elaborate on her philosophy of design. "For us it is always an answer to a content and context. I have always wanted to make spaces that make people feel good and grounded and free."

The key, she says, is to dedicate a lot of time at the beginning of the process. "We think about the whole articulation. Not because everything has to be seamless but it does need to be part of the same spirit and properly integrated."

The Olde Bell Inn near Maidenhead in Britain is a successful example of Studioilse's contemplative but pioneering spirit.

"It was a radical change because the old building was so bad; it was pink and smelled dreadful but we decided to focus on local materials and products as a long-term concept," she says. "That is commonplace now but this was in 2002 and well before buying things like local cheese had even entered the modern English vernacular.

"As a designer you are building a whole new reality. People don't realise how much goes into making it look seamless, like it had always been there. When the Olde Bell Inn opened people acted like I had just gone shopping for a few chairs and things. But then the benchmark becomes the new norm."

Crawford says her crew are often called in to "fix" designs of leading architects.

"One of the things Studioilse does that is different is that we combine interior architecture and interior design and it's relatively rare that those two are integrated so they are part of the same trajectory. For us the life that will be spent in the building drives the architecture.

"For some reason architecture and design have become divorced. It should be a marriage but it isn't. Lots of architects think they can do interiors and vice versa. But if you come in too late the architecture dictates, whereas you need to think about the design from the very beginning. When we are brought in at the last minute we are initially seen as the enemy but at least one architect we worked with in this way now includes us on their future pitches for new work."

Crawford is keen to help stimulate new thinking about design.

"With my students in Holland I make them start with the context, not the form. Humans naturally want to get to the answer quickly but I don't let them and this way they come up with far more original answers.

"For example, I make them design a kitchen for different clients, like a social kitchen for students or a multi-use atelier space for an artist. Everything comes from the person. If you started from the idea of designing a kitchen it is not that interesting. They need to understand that design is just the physical manifestation of human behaviour."