Interview with IAIN WATSON, the CEO and Co-Founder of David Collins Studio

Since launching in London more than three decades ago, David Collins Studio has made a name for itself with its glamorous, contemporary interiors, designing many of the capital’s hottest destinations, including Claridge’s Bar, The Connaught Bar, Nobu Berkeley Street, Bob Bob Ricard and The Wolseley.

The past few years have seen the practice become increasingly international. Creating the interiors for the Ritz-Carlton Residences and leisure amenities at Ole Scheeren’s MahaNahkon mixed use tower in Bangkok – which opened last year – put the firm on the map in Asia, while John Barrett’s salon in Bergdorf Goodman and two hotels in NYC and West Hollywood have done the same in the US. Ongoing projects include the clubhouse at the Kengo Kuma designed MahaSamutr resort and residential development in Hua Hin, Thailand, a major reconstruction of Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel; the Edition Skybar at MahaNahkon in Bangkok; and a range of high end residential projects around the world.

The story started when Dublin-born David Collins moved to London in the 1980s. Collins had trained to be an architect, but got into interior design when a friend asked him to decorate his flat. The results were spotted by chef Pierre Koffmann, who enlisted Collins to revamp his La Tante Claire restaurant. A commission from Marco Pierre White to renovate Harveys restaurant in Wandsworth, London followed in 1987, and the studio began to build a name for its luxurious interiors.

Collins was known for his decadent, glamorous style, his attention to detail and his love of the colour blue – seen most famously in the Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge. Madonna was a friend and a fan; Collins advised on the decoration of her homes in London and New York, and she enlisted him to design a friend’s nightclub in Miami. Best known for its high end projects, the David Collins Studio has also created interiors for high street chains including Pret a Manger, Cafe Rouge and the Dome.

Collins died after a short battle with skin cancer in July 2013. In the midst of their shock and grief, there was never any doubt that the studio would continue, says CEO Iain Watson, who founded the practice with Collins. “It was a such a big part of our lives,”

he explains. “You have to be the continuity; to focus on and deliver the next project. It’s really about just getting on with it.”

Today, the David Collins Studio is led by CEO Iain Watson who shared with Atelier how the company evolved over the past decades, the role emotion plays in their work and their plans for 2020.

How did David Collins Studio develop since its launch in London more than three decades ago?

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. We’ve always worked across three key sectors: retail, residential and hospitality – and increasingly, we’re fusing these sectors. I always think the best creative ideas often come from the boundary between different sectors.

At the beginning The Studio was probably most recognised for changing the landscape of dining in London and we had the wonderful opportunity to work with the very best in their field; working collaboratively to shape the hospitality landscape both at home and abroad with projects such as The Wolseley, The Connaught Bar, Claridge’s Bar, Colbert and Bob Bob Ricard, as well delivering design concepts for Cafe Rouge, EAT and Pret-a-Manger. Today the Studio’s hospitality work extends globally as the focus has extended to an international reach with over 60% of our work outside of the UK and Europe and more recent restaurant projects include the collaboration with Thomas Keller for TAK Room in NYC as well as Delaire Graff Estate in South Africa.

Retail projects span from department stores such as Harrods, where The Studio recently completed the 41,000sq ft Superbrands and three of the four newly unveiled Food Halls (with further openings planned throughout 2020) to global roll-out retail stores for Jimmy Choo, Alexander McQueen and De Grisogono,

In terms of residential work, this is currently split between commercial developments in Hong Kong and recently New York – with 11 apartments and a curated edit of amenities taking reference from the iconic location of the building on Park Avenue and the Ritz Carlton Residences at the MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok. The Studio continues to work across a portfolio of private homes; our clients lead different lifestyles globally and apportion the space in their homes accordingly and it is very fulfilling to meet expectations and join them on the very personal journey of creating their timeless home. The dedicated service that we provide 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.

What role does emotion play in your work?

Incredibly important. What unites our completed projects is a love of colour and texture, a respect for symmetry and a disciplined approach to realising the capabilities of a space and how it will perform the function set out for it. The results are a space that is layered, detailed and refined with a definite tangible feeling. As a Studio we strive to create a curated interior, a sensory experience – whether that is the smell of bread baking in Harrods Food Halls (or indeed the sound of the bell we brought into the Food Hall, which theatrically heralds the arrival of freshly baked goods) or the acoustics and lighting levels and how these can affect the mood of a space enormously – is it properly lit? How does someone feel walking into that room? These are key considerations in our approach.

What do you see as David Collins’ legacy?

David’s legacy can be seen in the fact that we’re confident in our use of colour, probably more so than some of our contemporaries. I think we use colour in a very refined way. In addition, we try to follow his legacy of nurturing a team and creating a culture that borders on near-obsession. The team is divided across the three sectors, but there is open dialogue and a real sense of cross pollination of ideas and shared learning. We also offer breakfast lectures on a broad range of topics from design to wellbeing – and in addition the staff run their own series of events, supported by the Studio with tickets to exhibitions and talks.

How is technology changing the way you work?

David was an architect by training, so he had that technical knowledge and a natural hunger for materials and new techniques; this continues today in the Studio, for example with the increasing need for sustainability, the team at present are heavily researching new materials and new techniques. All projects begin with hand sketches and these are so important to the process. Technology, such as video walk-throughs can work alongside this, instead of replacing it – there is something very emotive about a hand sketch and this process allows the design to evolve organically. With longer term projects it is not feasible to design for built-in technology, which can easily date, instead we tend to find the focus for our clients tends to be more about technology in the hand.

What’s next?

Creating interiors for the show-stopping atrium, Grand Lobby, Queens Grill Suites and the main dining room aboard Cunard’s much anticipated fourth ship, which is set to join the fleet in 2022. The Studio also continues to collaborate with selected partners for our own curated range of products. 2019 saw the launch of the David Collins Studio Fabric Collection for Baker, which was in addition to the furniture ranges we have designed with Promemoria. Watch this space for new collaborations in 2020….

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