INTERVIEW: FIONA THOMPSON, PRINCIPAL, RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL

Posted in News, People on 25 August, 2020

Responsible for the design of some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, the team at Richmond International are perpetual award winners. Sophie Harper got to chat to Fiona Thompson to find out more about the woman at the core of the studio’s success.

Fiona Thompson knows a thing or two about design. Having been in the industry for a while now, she’s certainly no stranger to the wide range of demands and unusual briefs that come with luxury hotel design, but clearly loves what she does. “I’ll have been at Richmond 28 years this year – it’s a long time, it makes me feel really old saying that!” she laughs. “I’ve been the MD for the last seven years or so and before that I was Creative Director. I studied architecture but always wanted to go into interior design – I guess I just thought architecture was a better degree at the time or something – I’m not sure why I thought that! Once I graduated, I pretty much started working in interior design straight away.”

With the exception of a brief stint in retail design early on in her career, Fiona has always worked in hotel design. “Hotels are great to work on because they’re so varied. We work globally, so it’s really diverse. It’s not for everyone because projects can take a long time. People coming from the residential design world find it really slow and that the level of documentation is a bit tedious because it’s much greater than what has to be done for a resi project, but it’s absolutely my bag!”

I ask her about her current position and whether that still affords her the opportunities to get as involved with projects. “I’m very hands on,” she says. “I’m still a designer and I don’t want to just be a figures/numbers person so I work in the studio, I don’t have an office outside of the studio. There are two of us who are directors on the design side and we’re both very involved in all the projects we do.” From the beginning of each project, Fiona is involved in the planning stages right the way through to completion. “As well as being involved in all of the fees and the contractual side, I still am very hands on in the design process. It’s a real collaboration between the whole studio and we work really closely together.”

As Fiona tells me more about the team at Richmond, it’s clear that they’re a close-knit community, perhaps more like a family, where everyone is included. “We try to keep the whole team together on each project we do,” she says. “So right from the start we’ll have everyone from the junior designers to the senior designers, whatever the size of the team happens to be, and they’ll stay on that project right the way through. It just means everyone takes more of an emotional ownership of the design and also they know everything about it, so everyone understands what they’re doing and why: it helps inform good decision making.”

Without wanting to dwell too much on the pandemic I want to hear Fiona’s thoughts on the future outlook for hotel design and she brings up points that offer plenty of food for thought. “Up until recently design had become a lot about co-living, co-working, co-existing, and I think that’s going to change,” she says. “The hotel lobby for a lot of places had become a focal point for a local area, so it’ll be really interesting to see what happens to that. They were becoming a real hub of your locale, people were using them as places to meet and work so I think it will be an interesting space to watch. People still want to interact and need that connection with others though. We like to meet and chat and talk and be together rather than separately, so I think hotels will become a lot more focused on their local communities, even the big brands. International travel isn’t going to go back to normal any time soon, so I think they’ll focus more on their own localities and the social scene around them. It could be a pivotal change and it’ll be interesting to see the role they play and any changes in the way they operate.”

She touches on the topic of sustainability, pointing out both the awareness the pandemic has given us and the pitfalls we could face as a result. “We’ve seen in a short space of time how oceans have become cleaner, less polluted, so I think in the future people will have more of a connection to nature and wellbeing, wanting to feel good, feel healthy, and be mindful of the environment, so hopefully that will be more of a focus. The danger is that people will now want to go back to little individual plastic bottles and we might see things going backwards for a while before moving forwards, but it’s all about striking a fine balance and trying to push things forward again.”

Prior to the pandemic, Fiona tells me that she’d suddenly seen a huge change in attitude towards sustainable measures within hotel design, “Ten years ago nobody really talked about it and in the last couple of years it’s become a hot topic; it really had started to become high up on priority lists for operators and owners. I think it’s still about convincing people to spend the extra money, owners particularly, but it was really starting to build – something that was being considered right from the beginning stages of design. So hopefully that will continue.”

Other game changers on Fiona’s list for the way she thinks design might change are things like technology and opting for simplicity. “Obviously technology has brought about so many changes over the years anyway, but I think now it will be technology that makes it possible for us to go back and do things we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.” She adds: “I think the whole antibacterial thing will be a major player in hotels and we’ll see fewer things like throws and scatter cushions, which I hate anyway! And I think there will be a call for a slightly simpler design aesthetic, which is reassuring to guests in itself: it looks cleaner. We’ll use different materials – leathers, cottons – things that you can wash and you can clean. We won’t have design for design’s sake so much, it’ll be far more practical.”

Talking to Fiona more about what design might look like as a result of the pandemic, I’m struck by her positive outlook. She says: “Right now is a good opportunity for change – it’s a good motivator to reassess and think about what was wrong with the way we were doing things and think about how we can do things differently in future.”

Perhaps it’s because of Fiona’s attitude and the work ethos she instils in her team that leads to the studio winning awards for their work, but I want her take on what makes ‘good’ design. “There are so many different aspects to good design,” she says. “Whether it’s a newbuild or an existing building, it’s attention to the thought process behind the design initially. We’ve done everything from The Langham in Chicago to Gresham Palace in Budapest, which have both won lots of awards and I think it was really getting under the skin of the building and really understanding it and what works and what doesn’t.” She add: “It’s allowing the time to do that, having a great team, collaborating with other designers. And then of course having the passion for something and wanting to do it really well, and that makes a difference.”

So what then does Fiona put Richmond International’s global success down to? It seems that’s an easy question for Fiona to answer, and it all boils down to experience. “We’ve been doing this a long time and we have a lot of experience, and there’s a lot of longevity within the studio, so we all know how to achieve what we want from a project. There will always be challenges on a project, whether it’s costs, time, whatever it might be, it’s just about focusing on the things you know will make a difference. Every project has compromises but it’s knowing where you should compromise and where you should really dig your heels in and push for what you want to achieve – that comes from the knowledge of doing this work for such a long time.”

The recurring themes as Fiona and I chat, are experience and team, so it only seems right that Fiona should impart some of her knowledge as words of wisdom to the next generation of aspiring designers, so naturally I ask her what advice she’d give her younger self – which catches her off guard for a split second, but only a split second. “If I could give any advice to my younger self, it would be the openness to learn anything and everything. When you’re young and you come out of uni, you think you’re going to be a designer and that’s it, but that’s not how it works. The juniors who get on are the ones who really absorb information; they see everything as an experience, they do everything with enthusiasm and it’s really important. When we employ graduates, they look after the library for the first 12 months. Some people who come to the interview groan at that thought, but actually you’re meeting all the suppliers, you’re finding out about all the materials, everything from stone quarries to fabrics to metal work; you learn such a lot doing it and actually the ones who really take it onboard have a great time. They get to know everyone in the industry, they get to go to all the parties but actually they learn a hell of a lot and it’s a really good grounding when you start to design and use all those sorts of products and materials. But it’s the same as you get older – you never stop learning. I certainly don’t know everything – I still learn from my juniors. So be a sponge! Soak it all up and get stuck in.”

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