Q&A: Ilse Crawford on putting human needs and desires at the heart of design

Updated on October 9 2017

A designer, creative and both an idealist and realist in more ways than one, Ilse Crawford has touched many around the world with her projects, each one drawn together by a common denominator: putting human needs and desires at the core of her work. Since launching her own design studio, Studioilse in 2011, Crawford’s work has included everything from designing hotels and airport lounges to launching her own line of furniture. In Hong Kong, her work is instantly recognisable at Duddell’s, the Michelin-starred Central institution where the stately décor and bold, abstract artwork deserves as much credit for the restaurant’s success as its food.

Looking back, the British designer’s career trajectory has been anything but a straight path. Once upon a time she was “on the other side of the fence,” as she puts it, holding the prestigious title of founding Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK for over a decade. “I think those journalistic tools such as interrogation and really being able to get the measure of a situation are a large part of our process as a studio,” says Crawford. Perhaps more practically, Crawford’s reputable position and long tenure in the media world — followed by a stint as Vice President of Home Product at Donna Karen — helped her to make connections around the world and cement her influential role in the design and creative industries. 

Ilse Crawford
Ilse Crawford is one of the UK’s most well-respected interior designers.

While she hints at a large project coming up in Hong Kong, we meet the enigmatic designer in Shanghai, where she’s landed for the weekend to debut her latest project, the VIC Lounge at the newly reopened Plaza 66 in the Jing’An District. In this home to over 100 luxury brands, Crawford has been tasked with creating an integrated VIP lounge for China’s high-net-worth spenders, a place that “explores the whole idea of retail and its relationship between digital and bricks and mortar,” she says. In our one-on-one interview, we ask Crawford about her basic design philosophy, the differences between working in Asia and the UK, and why human experience is at the core of everything she touches.

Tell us a bit more about your latest project designing the VIC Lounge for Plaza 66.

This project for Plaza 66 is a step forward, it’s about thinking of what the fashion community really wants in the future and this notion of adding hospitality into the space. Because what is retail? It’s about the relationship you have with your customer and about creating the culture around fashion and that’s where the lounge fits in. We wanted to know, “What do the people who inhabit the world of fashion need and what would really bring them together as a community?”

VIC Lounge
The VIC Lounge was unveiled last weekend at the newly relaunched Plaza 66 luxury shopping mall in Shanghai.

It was digging into that essential understanding, and tailoring a space to suit people’s aesthetic needs, as well as their practical needs and making it very flexible. What we’ve created here is like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is under the surface, so in addition to the living room there’s screening rooms, a hairstyling space, a dining space and changing rooms. So if you want to preview a collection or if you want to do a casting or just hang out with friends, it satisfies many needs, but obviously executed in a way that is intentionally beautiful and filled with pieces that are of super-high quality.

Oval Room
Plaza 66 shoppers can take afternoon tea in the gold- and pink-themed Oval Room.

Much of your design work, for instance the VIC Lounge and Duddell's in Hong Kong, looks to recreate the feeling of being at home. Is that a recurring theme for you?

Yes, definitely, I’m very interested in that idea of feeling at home. Especially now in the digital world, people really want to feel at home in a public space, and perversely want to be more public in their private space. It becomes a different dynamic, with those spaces where people are working, travelling and socialising all fusing into one. I think the old idea of spaces being more representational but not actually that comfortable, not places you really want to be for any length of time, are not that relevant for the world of digital.

With Cathay Pacific, for example, one of the things we noticed just watching people is that because we’re using tablets now, we sit differently, more diagonally, so whereas furniture used to be more front to back it has to have different dimensions now, sort of more wide than deep. It also needs to be more comfortable because you’re probably going to be there for some time. The swivel chair is also coming back with a vengeance because you need to be able to shift eye contact. It’s fascinating, really, the way we live now. Just as with fashion, the changing values and the practical needs start to be translated into our built environment. 

Cathay Pacific
Studioilse designed Cathay Pacific’s The Pier Business Class Lounge, which was unveiled in Hong Kong in mid-2016.

Can you take us through your creative process when you're tasked with a new project?

We really try to get the measure of a situation first, looking at the why, who’s it for, etc. We actually try to delay what typically clients often want to happen pretty quick which is, “Let’s start building!” We’re like, “No, wait, stop.” You need to plan slow and act fast. So that process I think is something that’s really particular in our studio, we talk to people, we watch and we listen and get the facts. And then it’s about getting the client onboard, because if they’re not fully up for it, you’ll struggle later on.

Further down the line as a studio we’re really obsessive about details because that is what makes one building stand out from another. It’s that care and attention, and for me, luxury is also about that care and attention. That’s what distinguishes one space from another. Things can look similar but they don’t feel the same. It’s the quality of the materials, it’s the quality of the detailing, its the quality of the execution, of course.

Do you have a dream project?

It’s cliché but every project is a dream project because that’s precisely what design is, an idea that’s made real. It’s going from a point where you think about what could be, a better world. To be very idealistic, it is asking that question: How can you raise the sum of human happiness, how can the space actually enhance life and make for a place that brings people together and basically brings out the best in us?

For instance, two very different projects we’ve done a soup kitchen with the Italian chef Massimo Bottura for his Food for Soul project and then we’ve done Cathay Pacific. But the human beginning is pretty much the same. Obviously you have different expressions, budgets and needs, but the fundamentals of making warm and comfortable places for human beings to inhabit together is a similar starting point. So I think that in a sense is the dream. 

Any favourite projects that you've worked on?

They probably come down to the projects where we’ve had a great relationship with the client and they’ve taken ownership of the project afterwards. For example, the Ett Hem hotel in Stockholm because the client there is so committed to the project, and even though it was 5 or 6 years ago it just gets stronger and stronger. She’s hired all the right people, it’s really well maintained and her team are now totally invested in it. It’s developed a life of its own.

Ett Hem Hotel
The living room at the Ett Hem Hotel, a 12-bedroom guesthouse in Stockholm.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Cathay Lounges have also been amazing to do, because you have a space where 2,000 people go through in a day, so how do you make a space on that scale but actually feels very intimate when you’re in it but is more or less indestructible? I think that challenge made it really rewarding and again we had a great client there who gave us the opportunity to do that.

How would you say your Scandinavian background factors into your design work?

I suppose I was raised in a way that was very Scandinavian in the sense that I was brought up around the kitchen table and the idea of everyday rituals. Also, the idea of informality that goes with the Scandinavian point of view.

I think there’s a strong relationship between Scandinavian and Asian. I mean look at [Danish designer] Hans Wegner. He did I think a study of 2,000 Chinese chairs because he was fascinated by the Chinese chair and the way that it held people and yet how it was such a light thing. And I think it shows. His chairs still look contemporary. So I think there’s something in the standard approach of being focused on the human being that lasts. The Scandinavian relation to Asian design I think is quite interesting. 

Ett Hem Hotel
Scandinavian-influenced interiors at the Ett Hem Hotel in Stockholm.

What are your main sources of inspiration?

I look at people. I’m very interested in people, in what they’re doing, and I think that is probably always going to be my fundamental inspiration. Of course I keep up to speed with cultural trends, etc., but none of that is actually my starting point. I find human behaviour is just endlessly fascinating. 

For example, what I was saying before with how we use technology. But also things like seeing more women in the business world today changes everything. Women I think are less accepting of the spaces that they’re given, and more demanding of their environment and its look and feel. 

What are some basic design tips that we can implement in our home or office spaces?

The immediate thing you can do to change any environment is lighting. Get a dimmer and some really good desk lights and switch off the overhead light and it will change immediately. It’s a very basic thing but people don’t do it. And to focus on the things you touch everyday, so it’s like in a restaurant where people are really obsessed with the walls and the overall design but it’s what’s on the table you should be focusing on because that’s your experience. You’re sitting on the chair, you’re touching the table, you’re touching cutlery or glass. If you make those things amazing and engaging that’s what people will remember. So in your own life think about the things that you do everyday and the surfaces that you’re in contact with. 

Look at Apple‘s Macbook — the reason that we like it so much is that it’s a tactile object, it looks nice and it feels nice but it’s not just the aesthetic is it? It’s the noises, it’s the resistance, it’s your total relationship with the thing. That’s the design. It makes you realise if you’re going to be using something all day then it really needs to be responsive and beautiful, and you need a relationship with it, it’s not just a tool.

Do you notice any differences between working in the UK vs working in Asia?

I think ambitions are bigger in Asia. Somewhere like the UK it’s a smaller turning circle, and you don’t really get this idea of thinking about it as a whole. It’s probably to do with the ownership of property and the people who are in charge. Typically UK projects are run by companies answerable to shareholders and it’s short term or smaller scale.

In Asia, I’ve found a lot of clients with a real vision, not just doing something that has to be done quickly for the market. Cathay for example, the idea of doing 16 lounges which would be the physical manifestation of their brand is a really interesting challenge. How can you manifest the values of an airline on the ground, and create the perception that shows they care about their passengers and their well-being through their physical space? I don’t think you get that sort of commission outside of Asia. They think in an integrated way, because Asia is at that stage of development, of building an identity for the future. Whereas in the UK you’re building within a frame, here you’re creating the frame. 

Ilse Crawford
Ilse Crawford has worked on global projects from Shanghai to London.

What are some of the future trends in the world of interior design?

I would say that materials and understanding the importance of them and sustainability is a key trend — that you need to really understand what something’s made of, where it’s going. People are really beginning to understand the language of materials in a way which I think will make our building environments much better.

Also you have things like 3D printing which is really gathering speed. There’s a Dutch designer called Olivier Van Herpt who does 3D printing of ceramics and they’re just beautiful, tactile things. I think it’s really moving in a very interesting direction, away from the way things just look to the way they feel and the way they’re made. 

And would you embrace 3D printing?

We do! We buy those things if they’re good. Of course, craft is really interesting and skills are really interesting but it depends on the context, you know? It doesn’t make sense for sofas, as it’s actually quite a difficult thing to make, but I think as we evolve socially to our spaces why wouldn’t we have 3D ceramics in the same space?

It’s the same with lighting, you should embrace the changes in lighting, they save so much energy. So I think it’s integrating the really substantial changes while still keeping the notion of things that are well made and well designed. At the same time I don’t believe in getting everything just because it’s new because actually so much of that will look like yesterday extremely quickly. So I think it’s integrating the really substantial changes while still keeping the notion of things that are well made and well designed. 

Can we look forward to any future projects in Hong Kong?

We do have a very good project coming up in Hong Kong but I’m not allowed to talk about it. It’s a cracker, though! A really good one. It’s quite big, and for a really great client, which makes all the difference in the world. That’s what I really love about Asia, that there’s very often the possibility to have clients that are well educated and open-minded, you know quite progressive people that are really trying to do something and build something for the future. They want to do something that’s going to change things.