INTERVIEW: MANUELA MANNINO & NICHOLAS J. HICKSON, FOUNDERS, THDP
Partners in life and business, Manuela Mannino and Nicholas J. Hickson didn’t set out to go into business together, but once they realised what a great team they made, it seemed the most logical thing in the world.
The Hickson Design Partnership (THDP) was founded in 2005 by business partners and couple Manuela Mannino, an Italian architect, and British interior designer Nicholas J. Hickson. “We initially met in London, but we started the company in Italy first, opening the studio in reaction to being offered a project – the Pragelato Resort for the Turin 2006 Olympic Games,” says Nick. “We started a limited company and when the project concluded we formalised our position in Italy. We didn’t have hospitality experience in the beginning, and it was a bit of challenge for me, leaving the UK and going to work in Italy.
Since then, the studio has gone on to design hotels, restaurants, and residences, building up a portfolio of resorts, city and boutique hotels all over the world. Their creative team works comfortably in the demanding discipline of international hospitality design. “We aim to be flexible and able to react to the fast-moving waters of the hospitality sector. Our approach springs from an endless creative curiosity. As designers we are in effect, storytellers, this is the foundation of a clear, appealing, and distinctive concept and narrative, in short, we create evocative interiors, hotels, and restaurants.”
Manuela graduated from Turin Polytechnic in Italy in 1993. An accomplished architect, she has worked in product design, interior refurbishments and conversions for private clients. She brings a contemporary approach to THDP projects, combining her skills in design and concept building, she takes care of the aesthetic link between architectural function and decorative details. Manuela has also been a tutor at the Chelsea College of Arts for the Hotel Interior Design short course, an appointment she says has, “stimulated our office and engaged us with upcoming trends, hotel owners, and operators.” She describes teaching as being an enriching experience: “You learn a lot from young minds that can dream with no boundaries. Students are curious animals and have the freshest ideas.”
Nick has been a British furniture and interior designer for more than 34 years. He has worked with high-end interior residential and commercial projects for international clients and developers in exclusive areas of London and worldwide. He’s probably best known for his experience with hotel interior architecture, schematic planning, FF&E selection and custom design and procurement strategies. “Detail is the design for me, so sometimes I start an interior design project with a small furniture detail and build upon that,” he says. “I think having studied furniture design and construction can really help you understand the language inherent in design, and with that language you are more able to describe what you mean.”
The couple explain how design has been a passion for both of them since childhood. “I’ve always been interested in how to make things, since I was little,” says Manuela. Nick says it was much the same for him, “I became interested in design and making at school, always being a bit of a problem solver, I found that I could grasp concepts at a young age intuitively, knowing the answer to a problem without knowing how I had gotten there.” At a young age Nick had already decided he wanted to be a furniture designer. “Having studied design for three years I found myself at 20 working in a studio dealing in Italian furniture. The company was the first importer of B&B Italia, Cassina, De Sede in the UK and had a real ’60s vibe, loaning furniture for the Bond films. I learnt more about design there than I did three years studying – it’s also where I became hooked on Italian design.”
Manuela’s and Nick’s skillset really complements each other’s, which is why they make such a great team. “We have different skills,” says Nick. “I’m more technically driven and Manuela is more creative – she works more aesthetically and she has a great product knowledge. We balance ourselves and the way we work with our projects.” They both have a passion for craftsmanship and agree that’s what they both love about Italian design. “Italians are great technicians and they come from a position of craft, whether that’s making or designing, they really know their craft. The best designers in Italy understand proportion, form and the virtue inherent in an object – the ‘thing’ that gives it its soul. British designers are taught to politely break the rules – it’s why we have so many great musicians!”
Describing how they find their inspiration for a new project, Manuela and Nick say they focus on a strong visual narrative based on locally inspired details. “For us, every space has its very own place in history. If not, we will make one,” says Manuela. “When we start a project, we take time to deeply look at every location, each hotel, each building, to walk its streets, talk to its neighbours, taste its food and finally to uncover its story within. It’s the narrative that will create an enduring THDP concept, insulated from fluctuating fashions and distant from trends, whilst giving the owner a commercial competitive advantage. Our mission is to tell this story, to take it, to form it into a design experience, a way for each interior and every hotel to express itself both authentically and creatively.”
Of course, most important is the guest, and the couple point out that their projects are always guest-driven with the experience playing second fiddle to nothing else. “It should always be about the guest experience. Every hotel owner knows that. Owner’s taste is subjective, what really counts is to give guests a remarkable experience and generate a word of mouth. Hotels today are places to live in and experience, which designers can define and create, guests don’t simply stay in hotels.”
Speaking to both designers about the projects they’ve loved working on, Nick picks out Hilton Frankfurt as a project he was particularly fond of and Manuela agrees, adding Hotel Indigo Venice as one of her favourites. “Indigo Venice was a lovely, serene project, and the bar and lobby really were very small areas but allowed us to express ourselves. The Hilton Frankfurt by contrast had an interesting concept which we stuck to throughout the project’s life, that of urban city living, the design was focused on an idea of mismatching choices,” says Manuela. Nick adds: “Hilton Frankfurt had a limited colour palette of rich greens, reds, tan leathers and rich walnuts – these are finishes that resonate with other textures through the rooms, and public areas. I tend to think the fewer materials in a project the better and when you add a new one as a designer, it’s best to start with questioning what does this take away rather than what does it add to the interior.”
When asked what they’d most enjoy taking on in the future, they’re unanimous in their passion for historic buildings. “We love projects that have a real sense of history and architectural significance. We’d love to refurbish an important palace or historical property in Rome – taking it back architecturally to how it was when it was first built and then have the opportunity to add another layer of interior design to make it more contemporary. It’s not just plastic that should be re-used but buildings too.”
Sustainability is something very close to both Manuela’s and Nick’s hearts, and the couple felt it was such an important topic to address, this year they published their own sustainable manifesto. “Every Friday we post an extract of the manifesto on Instagram. Furniture is evolving slowly to focus on sustainability and so should our work – nothing is more sustainable and economical sometimes than to re-use and adapt. So, there could certainly be more companies focusing on up-cycling hotel furniture – to collect it, make it good and re-finish it. Or even for charities to focus more on collecting it and placing it with new owners. Before we throw things away, we should ask ourselves if it’s possible to re-use something instead.”
You can read THDP’s manifesto at www.thdpdesign.com/thdp-sustainable- manifesto. Read about THDP’s work on the beautiful Terme di Saturnia Natural Destination, Tuscany, in the review on page 114. Keep up to date with more THDP projects, including the upcoming Hilton DoubleTree Roma Monti on THDP’s website.