Hubert Burda Media

How Well Do You Know Ilse Crawford?

The interior designer tells us about her pet peeves, takes us through her latest project in Shanghai’s Plaza 66 mall and her favourite city.

Designer and founder of Studioilse, London-based Ilse Crawford has helmed award-winning projects that include Duddell’s restaurant in Hong Kong, first-and business-class lounges for Cathay Pacific, Aesop shops in various cities, and hotels such as Ett Hem in Stockholm, The Olde Bell in Berkshire, England, and Das Kranzbach in Bavaria. Diverse
and different though the projects and their locations may be, Crawford’s attention to detail and texture, colour and pattern remains a constant.

Most recently, she designed the VIC (Very Important Customer) Lounge in Shanghai’s Plaza 66 mall. This exclusive area at the mall’s heart is both distinctly one-of-a-kind yet it also carries Crawford’s unmistakeable aesthetic: luxurious yet not intimidating, plush and warm, multitextured and multicoloured, yet familial and almost homey.

What makes the VIC Lounge unique is that it provides exclusive facilities and services for its members, including a wide range of tasting courses, personalised shopping experiences and a respite far from the crowds. For brands, it provides exclusive image modelling, branding and other private activity areas where they can showcase their collection to either a handful of VIPs or a hall full of journalists.

Both are made possible by Crawford’s design philosophy, which lies in creating environments in which people feel comfortable – public spaces built in a way that helps them feel at home. As founder of the department of Man and Well-Being at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, her mission lies in enhancing the reality of life through private and public spaces – with a thin line differentiating them.

After touring the VIC lounge, we sat down in a comfortable corner for a chat.

Llse Crawford. Photography: Leslie Williams
Llse Crawford. Photography: Leslie Williams

How important is a sense of history for a place? If you’re building something in Shanghai, would you incorporate the local culture into the overall scheme?

Yes, absolutely. And I think for example with Cathay Pacific lounge, we very much read into the Asian aesthetic there. But I think when you’re dealing with the fashion industry [à la Plaza 66] it’s different because fashion is its own planet. This is speaking to planet fashion more than it’s speaking to Shanghai.

You were in the UK and the mall is in Shanghai. What were the challenges of designing remotely?

When it comes to the final stage, you’ve got to be here, but remember when you’re building, probably over half of it is first of all in your head and then it’s on CAD drawings and spec sheets. It’s only the last stage where it gets made real, at which point you’ve got a great project leader to be your eyes on the ground. Then we come out periodically. But typically, what you do is you have visits but you’ve got conference calls and you’re working to a plan that you’ve collectively worked on for long enough to be able to move forward in confidence. Well, that’s how it should work! And indeed, it does work.

The space you’ve created at Plaza 66 is for the fashionable and includes a private area to preview latest collections. Does fashion interest you?

No. I mean, I’m interested in making spaces for people and I’m very interested in style but not in fashion per se – otherwise I’d be in fashion! In fact, I was in fashion for a bit: I worked for Donna Karan years ago. I’m interested in making interior spaces because I love making spaces that last and that affect people in the way they live their daily lives. I mean I love fashion and I’ve got high regard for people who do it well, but it’s a different interest. The people I know who are in that world, and who are really good at that, are more interested in the moment and identity and it’s a much faster-moving world. More responsive perhaps because it’s nailing what’s in the air and what’s on the street. It moves through faster. I like being in a world where things last.

What advice do you give people about interior design?

Again, I turn it around. I think it’s more about how you use a space, how you live in a space. So one of the things that we always ask a potential client is, “What do you do every day? What things do you touch in a day? What are your activities in a day?” So I think, number one, you have to sort of design into your reality and it’s amazing how, when they do the list, they realise how many things they touch daily and how many things just once in a week. So I think prioritising your design is important.

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge - Llse Crawford
Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge

What shouldn’t you skimp on?

It’s really important to invest in the best materials you can because again they are the things you connect with, they are the things you touch. The things that touch your skin I think are really important. Lighting is really key. The layers of lighting should have a really strong level of what I call domestic lighting because, typically, people tend to sort of like spaces with warm lighting. Obviously, you need your task lights, but you must remember you’re not lighting the space, you’re lighting the life, you’re lighting the people and you should start from that perspective.

What do you dislike?

I think my dislikes are formed because things have been used badly. I dislike things that haven’t been thought about. Hunting for the light switch, hunting for the charging socket – carelessness I dislike. It’s amazing how many times when we’re doing residential projects, people don’t think about the basic necessities like sockets, wiring, taps, plug points. Interrogating your needs is really important.

You’ve spoken about the importance of texture before.

Yes, I’m not crazy about very shiny marble, for example. I like materials to have their own finish. I like honed marble rather than super-polished stone. I think it was something that happened because it’s easy to clean and also it looks expensive, but I think because it reflects and it’s clean – it’s not actually how marble was meant to be. When you see it at its most beautiful in Italy or Istanbul, it’s always actually honed and it’s just lovely – it’s the right finish for that material. It makes it more comfortable, otherwise it’s harsh.

Duddell's Restaurant in Hong Kong - Llse Crawford
Duddell’s Restaurant in Hong Kong

Have you ever walked into a space and just cringed because you strongly disliked something?

Often it’s airports. Where you just have some things with great intention and then other things just rammed on top. Somebody puts the duty-free kind of wiggly path in and it’s so harsh and it affects everybody. Everybody gets bad tempered, everybody gets upset and it didn’t need to be like that. Someone could have done a master plan, somebody could have cared enough for it not to be a place where thousands of people are basically kind of put through
the mangle!

Which might explain the chaos of Heathrow or something like Newark.

I know. It’s interesting, isn’t it? If you think about the airports that have great materials, it’s function and aesthetics. I mean Stockholm airport’s got that lovely floor, it’s sort of reassuring somehow. Heathrow’s got that horrible carpet tile which always has some stain of sick on it. You didn’t need to do this, you knew that was going to happen so why did you make that choice?  Copenhagen has that nice wooden floor, I mean it really makes a difference; you automatically think, actually this is a country that cares about the people coming through. It’s really consideration for people.

When you travel around different countries and locations, what’s been inspiring recently that you really enjoyed?

I was in Tokyo recently and I really – you know everybody says it, it’s a cliché – but it’s so great. I love all those funny little bars up in office blocks, I mean they’re fantastic. The discovery of all those spaces, simply a man and his wife behind the bar; they’re so much nicer than anything corporate could come up with.

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