AN OUNCE OF PREPARATION may be worth a pound of cure, but Ilse Crawford puts in a pound of preparation anyway – that's the one consistence across her process, and that strategy has taken her from youthful journalist to the interior-design powerhouse that she is today.
Crawford, who most recently put her raw elegance to work on the multiple-function gallery-restaurant-lounge-bar space Duddell's, likes to get involved with a design brief from its earliest inklings. “For us, design is an answer. It's a verb, not a noun, so we work with our clients, then we understand, what is going to be this reality we're going to make? We delay gratification, if you like. We don't jump at an aesthetic answer, it's understanding what it is, and why, first,” she says.
That's particularly important when handling projects like Duddell's, which didn't come with a cut-and-dried design brief, and eventually became an evolving social space with a rotating art collection – “not just a once-in-a-while place, but a place to use all day, really, so a place to work, a place to play, a place to stage events.”
It can't be easy to cater to these requirements, which is why most galleries are essentially blank canvasses. Seated in a glass-fronted private dining area at Duddell's, Crawford gestures around her. “As you
can see, it's not a white box. Our approach was to make a place that would be a strong background for the art, and that didn't try to control it. It's a place that allows change, to be appropriated by the people who use it…a place for the art to use as its stage.”
Setting the stage is something of a speciality at Studioilse, the interior-design firm that Crawford launched after stints at Elle Decoration and Donna Karan. Her holistic approach delves into the branding and strategy of the space, whether it's a hospitality venue like Soho House in New York or a retail space, such as the boutiques she designs for Sergio Rossi. “It's understanding what it is, before you do the how. For me, design is a language, but first of all you need to know what you're trying to say.”
The spaces are always expertly conceived to be inhabited – books lay on the shelves as they will, rather than at perfect right angles. The textiles are always a mix of plush and rugged. And there are elements of deliberate mismatch, of calculated cacophony that are so accidentally perfect, they lend a strong sense of humanity to each project.
“Human beings,” in fact, is what Crawford considers to be the common thread throughout her work (she denies succumbing to a specific design aesthetic of any sort). “How to make spaces that enhance our daily lives. How to make and frame our activities so that [the space is] not dominant, it's not trying to tell you what to do but channels [activities] and adds something to them. And I think that's the joy of a building, it can be a place that creates terrific freedom, but in a very special way it charges our activities,” she says.
A more obvious example of spatial awareness came during Crawford's teenage years. “I've spent enough time in hospitals as my mother was quite sick when I was a teenager. And I could see how in some
spaces doctors behaved warmly to patients and others just treated you like cattle, and partly it was the design – not just the design, but it definitely contributed to how people behaved, so that fascinated me.”
While the early part of Crawford's life involved an infusion of design observations, the preliminary portion of her career led her not to create interior design, but to critique and describe it. In 1989, Crawford became the founding editor of Elle Decoration in the UK. “My interest has always been in how to communicate something warm, liveable and modern; that was my brief to myself,” she says. “And I think by doing the magazine I saw so many spaces it became education in itself really – I mean thousands of interiors. So that in itself became the transition.”
She joined DKNY to set up Donna Karan's home division, bringing her one step closer to hands-on design, and later was invited to launch the Man and Well-Being department at Design Academy Eindhoven, which she stills heads. Studioilse was born in 2003.
Though many of Studioilse's commissions now date back roughly a decade – the restaurant Cecconi's in London, for example, or manor-turned-private member's club and hotel Babington House in Somerset – most still retain the same look originally bestowed upon them. “Babington has actually changed, but, you know, that's inevitable as places get used…Sometimes a project can be bought, sold, and then it's fixed and turned into something else, and that's a bit sad, you sort of see the ghost of the original disappearing. But remarkably, most of ours haven't. Funnily enough, we seem to be able to build things people seem to leave in place for quite a long time.
“But what's interesting is that my design [has never been] anything cool. It's warm, and that's what I'm interested in. What's so fascinating is that when you take that approach, people inhabit your space.”
The one project that sees a bit more upheaval, ironically, is Crawford's own home – a “constantly evolving pile”, she jokes. “It's got a strong structure – shelves and storage and so on, but actually by changing a few things it can change dramatically, and I like to. Not weekly, but we are living beings; we change when we have new experiences. It's nice to bring together the way you live without having to overturn the whole thing. I think you need some sense of home, and you need some sense of change. They're opposites that need to work alongside each other.”