INTERVIEW: NICK STOUPAS & JOE STELLA, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR, TWENTY2DEGREES
As they look forward to ten years of twenty2degrees Design Partnership with a slew of hospitality projects designed under their leadership, Nick Stoupas and Joe Stella took time out of their schedule to tell Sophie Harper how two Aussies came to the UK and grew a successful design studio from the roots up.
You rarely see companies declaring themselves as partnerships, but while speaking to Nick Stoupas and Joe Stella from twenty2degrees Design Partnership, it’s clear that’s exactly what this company is all about. In fact, most of the interview was spent with Nick and Joe bouncing sentences from one to the other and singing the praises of their team, reluctant to stand in the spotlight and adamant that twenty2degrees’ success is what it is because of the way the studio operates – together.
They each tell me how they were inspired by design from a young age. “My father was an inventor and I used to be fascinated watching him as he sketched and worked on his inventions,” Nick says. “This is what stimulated my interest in architecture and design. I was always building things and it evolved from that.”
Joe echoes similar influences from his own youth: “My father is a designer and artist and within my family there are other creatives and I guess being in that sort of environment as a youngster is inspiring. When I finished school, I was torn between two paths – either fine art or architecture – and the thing that attracted me to the idea of interior design was that this exists in the creative crossover between architecture and the arts.”
Despite both being from Melbourne originally, the pair met here in the UK. I ask them why they chose to relocate to the UK from Australia, telling them that as a Brit the move seems pretty crazy. “All Brits think that!” Says Nick. “They don’t realise that when you’re living in Australia you still have to go to work every day. Daily trips to the beach are a myth when you are living in Melbourne.”
At the time, Nick was working for a company that sent him to South Africa for a month, “That was my lightbulb moment – I realised I could do what I was doing anywhere I wanted to. I returned to Melbourne, resigned my job and I was in London a week later. It was like a reset on my life, a whole new set of friends and a different culture. It was fun. I went on to work for a couple of well-respected design companies that opened the door on large hospitality projects where I could really give my input. At that time as someone in their twenties in Australia you’d never get such an opportunity and the responsibility that goes with it.”
By contrast, Joe says he never really made a conscious decision to uproot and move to the UK. “My wife and I were travelling through Europe and we stopped over here just to see some friends. We thought we’d stick around for six months, which turned into a year, and now it’s 15 years later – we literally moved here with a rucksack! From the creative point of view, London is such an inspiring melting pot with so many different cultures and influences to feed your imagination. It’s one of the world’s leading design hubs and as such gives you the opportunity to experience and work in a vast number of places.”
Nick and Joe agree that designing a project in a unique or unusual location is one of the best parts of the job. “As a designer, to be involved with projects somewhere unique and different to where you’re from, that requires you to become immersed in the local culture and creative influences, is a gift that keeps on giving.” Says Joe. “We love working in London and, because its history is so rich and its communities so varied, the canvases we work with here are different every time. However, when you’re asked to design something in a location that you have no previous experience of at all, it’s such an amazing chance to see into utterly different values and narratives, from art and architecture to food, music and crafts. As creatives, we like to never stop learning.”
Nick launched twenty2degrees in 2012, asking Joe to join him shortly afterwards and tells me that they’re not a huge team but they are incredibly effective and that the studio works well because of its size, rather than despite it. “I’d rather be selective and pick and choose the projects we work on.” He says, with Joe adding: “The appealing thing about a studio of our size is that it allows people who maybe haven’t had the opportunity in a big studio environment to have a voice and gain confidence in their own abilities.”
It’s obviously important to both Nick and Joe that they’re able to support and give space to every member of the team to spread their wings and grow as designers. Nick tells me how they make sure junior members of the team are as valued as their seniors. “We’ve had the experience of clients or project managers questioning our decision to bring younger members of staff forward, but we know our team and of course we are always there to guide them. Our approach works, and I am always delighted when we receive great feedback on our team from people who were initially doubtful. It builds everyone’s confidence.”
Agreeing that junior designers often don’t receive the kudos they deserve in the industry, Joe adds, “Just because you’re a junior member of the team, doesn’t mean you don’t have a great idea to share – one that could be the missing piece of the puzzle. Sometimes the solution needs someone with fresh eyes, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a director, a senior designer, or a junior. I think back to my first jobs and remember how much I wanted to prove that I was capable, on both a professional and a creative level. So why wouldn’t I want to offer the opportunities I had to show what I could do to someone else?”
“Obviously there’s still a pyramid structure in the office,” says Nick, “you have your principals and seniors, mid-level staff and then juniors, but everyone contributes to everything. There are people who are more creative and others who are more technical, but everyone works together to get things done. Joe and I know everything from start to finish. We mightn’t review the full technical breakdown of a project, but we’re involved throughout. We all work in an open plan office which is great for facilitating open and informal conversations and for allowing us to steer the project with a light touch.”
Nick tells me how he and Joe take different approaches to a new project: “I’ll start from one side and Joe will start from another – I’ll take a space and start thinking about the layout and design and Joe will start thinking conceptually about the look, feel and narrative. Since every project is different, the excitement in what we are doing at the concept stage is that we are always seeking out new inspiration and ideas. That’s why it’s important for us to go out to the location, it’s literally about getting your feet on the ground and filling your mind with what you see and experience at a local level.”
“I agree, although I would add that there are other starting points to consider as well: the brief, the brand, the client, and the functionality of the space – as well as location.” Joe says. “We are more than happy to design for a specific brand but we do expect to interrogate it and create a distinctive identity for each property by layering the design with a unique narrative. One thing I’ve learnt is that luxury is as much about what you strip out as what you add into the design. It is about the quality of finishes, the level of detail and the heartfelt interpretation of the story.”
When I ask Nick and Joe if they’ve faced any challenges arising from changes in the way people now travel, they make it clear they’ve always been versatile enough to change with the times but that research is of utmost importance. “I think the interesting challenge is with people travelling abroad less and holidaying closer to home more,” says Joe, “A question now is how do we design in a way that not only excites international travellers but local tourists as well? For example, we are currently working on a project in Cameroon in Western Africa and another in Kenya in East Africa. In both cases, we are looking at such influences as art, history, music and architecture for inspiration, and we have to make sure we are getting it right. Overseas visitors might not notice if a West African motif features in an East African hotel but the locals will! Sometimes as an outsider living in a totally different part of the world, you might see something that you think would be really cool but actually it’s completely wrong, so we have to make sure that we get it right for both international and local visitors.”
For a relatively small studio, I’m genuinely in awe of the number of projects the team has on the go when Nick reels off a sizeable list of hotels they’re currently working on. “We’ve just finished The Fellows House Cambridge, part of the Curio Collection, and a Marriott in Prague, and we’re currently working on Marriott hotels in Brussels and Paris. We are also designing new Hyatt Regency hotels for Nairobi and Olympia in London, a Kempinski in Cameroon, and we’ve got something starting up again in Pakistan which is going to be quite fun. Then we have a project that personally I think will be a head-turner which is a Hilton in Cascais, Portugal – I believe that the direction we’re going in will provide something really different.”
Clearly led by their shared ardour for design and interest in unfamiliar culture, it’s no wonder Nick and Joe remain enthusiastic for the future. There’s talk of branching out into further areas of the world, including America, “I think there’s good potential in the States to do some really interesting design work,” says Nick. But for now, the duo can revel in the success of their design partnership over nearly ten years and look forward to the next decade at the helm of twenty2degrees.