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Designer Ilse Crawford Think of your top three interior designers and there’s one name that should definitely crop up: Ilse Crawford. Returning to our series of interviews with the industry giants who featured in our Top 10: Boutique Hotel Designers, we managed to grab 20 minutes with the one-woman powerhouse behind Studioilse, the company that has created some of the world’s coolest hangouts, including Soho House New York (so beloved of the Sex and the City girls), the Electric Cinema, and the influential Babington House hotel in Somerset.

We’ve grilled her on her design aesthetic and influences, working practices and hotel hates, but while we had her pinned down, we extracted some secrets from Ilse’s travel address book, which we’ll bring you in a future blog post.

Ilse is also on Smith’s panel of tastemakers, and anonymously reviewed historic French five-star hotel Château de Bagnols in Beaujolais for our third hotel guide book, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: European Coast & Country. You can read her review here. Other feathers in her cap include the launch of Elle Decoration in 1989, a vice-presidency with Donna Karan Home (where she helped launch DKNY and Donna Karan Homeware), and a head of department post at the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven.


When did you first realise you wanted to be a designer?Studioilse Logo

That’s a really difficult one. I don’t necessarily see myself as a designer: I tell stories – what I’m interested in is atmospheres. I’m much less interested in the aesthetics. For me, the aesthetics are a consequence of all the other things we’re trying to do – a very natural consequence, and an important one, but we don’t start with that; we always start with the human and the story of the place, and how to make humans feel good or right in that place.

Do you think of your projects as a personality?

Yes, very much, and as a frame for life. I start with the life that I feel should be in a place, and try to make a frame for that life. Think of Soho House and the kind of people that were a part of that club – there was no aesthetic when we first started working with them, but we created a frame that somehow shaped the rhythms and rituals of their particular world…

Kettner\'s moodboard at Studioilse

Interesting that it’s a two-way street, that you can encourage a particular feeling or emotion in a building, as well as empathise with an existing one through your design…

Yes – you can definitely amplify and give depth and breadth, but there has to be something there to start with – I’m not sure that you can do it completely artificially. I always have to start with something. High Road House hotel in LondonThat’s not necessarily the place, although it nearly always is, because anything that takes its cue from the place is special – it’s not a commodity, you can’t copy it. I think when something has roots then it can grow over time and have a life, which is really important – as well as being a frame for life, it should be able to evolve.

Which leads us nicely onto our next question: one of Smith’s criteria for picking hotels is that guests should know where they are in the world, and not feel lost in a one-size-fits-all box. Your sense of place and uniqueness is vital, isn’t it?

All our projects have done that; even High Road House in Chiswick took its cue from Richard Norman Shaw and the Bedford Park estate, so the panelling and the feeling of the upstairs areas is an updated take on Arts and Crafts.

I love the floor tiles that you used downstairs…

That’s a modern interpretation of the kind of encaustic tile that you would have found in those buildings.

High Road House - brasserie floor tilesSo how vital is the décor of a hotel to you when you’re picking a place to stay for yourself?

I would say integrity’s more important than decoration, but obviously I love things that look beautiful, and I think things that have real integrity often are beautiful. I’d never go to something just because it looked good; it would have to be part of a bigger package. Rather like with people!

Ha! Definitely! Do you have any hotel hates?

Mostly to do with how they’re run: if they’re unloved by the staff, you get that feeling immediately.

They always feel a bit soulless if the people don’t care…

Yes, it’s much more to do with whether they’ve loved. I’m completely obsessed by little things, like light bulbs and cleaning fluid: if people don’t care about whether or not light levels are right or they don’t care about what cleaning fluids they’re using, that means they don’t care full stop.

Yeah and it doesn’t create a welcoming environment if you think the people who work there haven’t got an interest in how you feel when you walk in…

No; in fact if it’s run operationally as it were – run as if the customers are an incidental part of the place – it will never have a soul.

The Crown Inn hotel in AmershamYour interiors use wonderfully subtle textures, and always seem to inspire a sense of belonging and subconscious recognition; nostalgia, even. Where do you find inspiration?

In everything, really – and I’m fascinated by materials, you’re right, and as I think you’ve probably gathered I’m obsessed by humans as primal creatures and by the way that we can trigger emotions. One of the key routes into that is our senses: we have very strong sensual recognition of things from the times when we were using our senses to survive, so they’re very strong. I don’t see it in a romantic way at all, I see at as an instant way to access the part of the brain that makes decisions about whether we are in the right place at the right time or not. That sense of whether it’s a good place to be, a safe place to be, a place where you could belong comes partly – but not exclusively – from sensorial triggers. There are lots of places that appeal visually, but which actually make you feel quite uneasy.

Are there any designers or artists that you particularly admire? For example, the Olde Bell Inn and the Crown Inn look to me like Dutch naturalism – something like Vermeer or De Witte…

Vilhelm Hammershøi and the Dutch vernacularYeah that’s probably true – and it’s probably no accident that the artists that I do admire tend to be ones who like the vernacular. I love people like Vilhelm Hammershøi (left) and Morandi; people who can spend their entire lives painting one place, people who find the beautiful in the everyday. De Hooch, for example, the Dutch naturalists… yes, you’re right.

So how do you go about appealing to the senses and stimulating an emotional response rather than just a visual one?

Because we take context into account, you could perhaps see the approach as historical, but actually with the inns we come up with a sort of DNA – obviously at the Olde Bell it’s applied to an 11th-century building, but ultimately this pattern could be applied to a contemporary building without losing a sense of place – so it’s not about a historical style but a material DNA that you could take through the project and which can grow and evolve. For me, it’s an ongoing story – it’s the idea of a tree that has roots and can continue to grow as opposed to a set style, which would date very quickly.

Ilse Crawford\'s design for the Wellcome Trust club roomAlso presumably it’s not about a simple replication of a style, it’s about understanding the kind of people who might have created that style in the first place and then re-imagining it for today?

That’s exactly right, yes. And mostly that tends to be because the kind of commissions we’ve had relate to a building. But with the Wellcome Trust [a medical research charity], for example, we based it on a sensibility: on the idea of invention. There’s this theory that invention is the consequence of a series of rational decisions (which of course is absolute codswallop), so we chose to celebrate the ‘other’ – serendipity and accidents – and translate that into a design. As far as I can see, all the great inventions have actually been a consequence of accidentally putting that test tube next to one that you were meaning to move somewhere else, and then suddenly something happens…

Like the old maxim, ’99 per cent perspiration, 1 per cent inspiration’…

Exactly, it’s the things that happen in between. That was an interior that was based entirely around an attitude rather than a physical place, but still it has a very strong identity.

Soho Beach Miami House moodboard by StudioilseDo your clients put much in, in terms of the design process, or do they tend to come to you with a project idea and then stand back and say ‘do what you like’?

Somewhere between the two really, I mean they very rarely have fixed ideas…

I guess when they come to you they must have a very good idea of your aesthetic and your abilities already so they are perhaps hoping you will provide them with a dose of your signature style… perhaps they don’t always know what they want?

Actually in the process you often discover things that neither of you knew were there. I think the process itself is an interesting one. A private house client may come to us with certain ideas to work on, but what we end up doing might be something completely different – we might end up redrawing the brief as part of that process of the design.

In all our commercial projects, though, we write the brief, because we also supply the uniforms, the graphics, we do direction on the food… With the inns for example, we provided almost everybody that’s working for them through our networks, because the concept was such a specific point of view that it’s more cultural than just looking at CVs. It’s another type of intelligence. At Kettners, again, the same, and although we didn’t do the food, we did point them in a general direction. We’ll see if they get there in the end! At the Bell, we’ve put in really good people, and it’s really working, which is great.

Well, yes, I can tell just from my colleagues’ reaction – they are all nodding enthusiastically about the food, for a start…

It’s amazing, it’s really amazing! But it’s partly because it makes sense too, it makes sense of the place and the way you feel in that place. You have to have ‘life’ – it has to be lived in. It’s not a theme, it’s a frame.


Check back soon for part two of our interview with Ilse Crawford, with her travel address book secrets and favourite local haunts.

You might also like to check out our other insider interviews with interior design gurus, including Anouska Hempel and Kelly Wearstler.

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