The London-based designer has built a reputation on designing interior spaces that prioritise comfort over ostentation. We met her as she prepared to expand her practice into product and furniture design
Ilse Crawford has built her reputation on designing interior spaces that prioritise comfort over ostentation – an approach that she teaches as part of her role as the head of Man and Well-Being at Design Academy Eindhoven. She established her London-based practice Studioilse back in 2001, bringing her distinctive conception of warm, understated luxury to hotels, restaurants, retail spaces, airports and private homes. Icon met her as she prepared to expand her studio’s work in product and furniture design, shortly after she was named Maison & Objet Designer of the Year.
ICON Congratulations on being named the Designer of the Year for the September edition of Maison & Objet in Paris. I believe you’ll be the first award-winner to also design the networking and working space at the fair. So, how did this come about?
ILSE CRAWFORD Maison & Object wanted to rethink how a fair could be valuable to people who go there. It was interested in projects such as our Cathay Pacific airport lounges, Ett Hem in Stockholm and Soho House, which blur the boundaries between public and private, work, home and play. We’ve designed the space as somewhere that reflects different psychosocial needs: there are places to relax, recharge, work, learn, collapse. The aim is to make those experiences pleasurable: not just address functions, but create spaces people feel good in.
ICON I would ask about the challenges of designing in a non-space like an exhibition hall, but it sounds like your inspiration comes from users more than context.
IC Exactly – that’s always the case. Individuals have huge power in the social context, and the combination of the two fascinates me. Someone recently asked me if I have social anthropologists or behavioural psychologists on my team. I’m interested in those fields, but I think our strength as a studio is creating a balance between the cool head and warm heart – the measurable and immeasurable.
Ett Hem hotel, a converted Arts & Crafts building in Stockholm, 2012
The individual truth often gets lost in the measurable world. When we did the Cathay Pacific lounges there was lots of data, but none of it said, ‘tired’, ‘jetlagged’, ‘late’ or ‘hungry’. The problem with the measurable is it can be generic: you end up with a median that doesn’t represent anybody. Individual experiences give you the insight to build something bigger.
ICON You seem to see your role as about much more that just physical objects. Do you call yourself an ‘interior designer’?
IC I’m a designer – I like straightforward words. For us, the interior is the expression of a life, a world, a system, a reality. We execute the interiors side of a project – it’s one of the tactics as part of a wider strategy. Ultimately, furniture and interior environments are channels for life – it’s so much more than just furniture.
ICON But why do you think critics don’t take ‘interiors’ as seriously as architecture?
IC I think architecture did a good job of giving itself professional credentials, and in creating a kind of moral high ground. It’s also about the system: to build something you need planning permission, so the architect tends to get in first, even though they’re only a part of the package. Typically, interiors people end up at the end of the chain, often left with the budget for a few chairs.
Really, they should be included at the beginning, when you’re trying to understand the purpose of a building and the life that will be lived in it. In many cases, that bit of the job is abdicated. With some of the great utopian buildings of the 1920s and 30s, like the Pioneer Centre in Peckham, the idea was of a building that could give cues for healthy living – they really thought about it as a whole. The time is right for that sort of thinking in buildings again.
ICON Would you consider working on that larger scale then, doing architecture?
IC I’m not an architect – I don’t lay claim to that; I love architecture and I love working with architects. We make them look better and vice versa, so the more architects and designers work together from the beginning the better. It doesn’t make sense for design to be done in silos. You never know where in a circle the real insight will come from.
I also think more buildings should be designed from the bottom up rather than the top down. Just filling an envelope is not the right approach – you need to drill into the life of a building. It would be interesting to do a project where you start from the personal, then move outwards to the universal, rather than the other way round, which is typically what architecture does.
Pieces from the Sinnerlig collection for Ikea, 2015
ICON On the opposite end of the scale, you’ve decided to expand your practice’s work in product and furniture design. How might your approach to design evolve?
IC The simple answer is, it won’t – it will always start from our interest in use. For example, our Together table has dimensions based around conversation – making friends, squeezing in accidental arrivals. To date, we’ve mostly designed products because there was something we needed on a project and, over time, we’ve accumulated a back catalogue of several hundred. Then we heard that Sinnerlig, our range for Ikea, was performing 200 per cent over target in Europe, and it made us realise there was more of a point in us doing product design than I’d thought.
[My husband] Oscar [Peña] has joined the studio to be in charge of that side of the practice. He’s a product and industrial designer by training, so he can really own it. It’s an area we’re going to develop, but we’re still considering how to do so. To date, we’ve only worked with smallish companies that have the systems, production and ethics we value, and I’d like to continue that. But whether we retail our own things ... It’s an interesting question because the context in which products are sold and seen is a big part of how they turn out.
ICON What sets you apart from other product designers?
IC We have 15 years of experience in designing interiors and seeing how they are used. That would be our perspective – using that intelligence to make products that make sense in an environment. When you design interiors, there are objects you just can’t find and those you want to use over and over again. We share knowledge from our projects: what can’t we find, what’s missing, what you need an alternative to, what you use too much.
ICON Do you also envisage taking on projects proposed by manufacturers?
IC We’ve been doing that increasingly. At the moment, we’re working with Zanat, a Bosnian company that makes wooden furniture using a carving technique that’s on the Unesco World Heritage list. Its aim is to preserve this skill and make it relevant and profitable. We’re doing benches for them – it had to be a product that uses carving not as decoration, but to add functionality and quality.
ICON Nurturing an industry and technique – that’s an interesting secondary role that design can have.
IC Design is always doing that – maybe not consciously. When you design, you’re not just affecting the user, you’re creating a chain of reactions the other way. Everything that you do has a positive or negative effect. With Sinnerlig, for example, it was a conscious choice to use cork, a material with sustainable credentials that is also very important for jobs because of the recent drop in sales to the wine industry [with the rise in screw-top bottles].
ICON How do you think your approach to design has changed over your career?
IC I think I’m getting better! Or at least I hope so. I met a developer once who said he only employed older interior designers. I think there’s some truth in that: learning about life and how spaces work in different situations, with different people – you develop that over time. Designing individual items is something that you absolutely need a talent for, but once you start to integrate these into a system, you probably also need a longer perspective.
Brass cabinet, handcrafted by Jack Trench, 2014