Posted in People on 12 February, 2018

Charles Leon, President of the BIID, has a chat with Features Editor Tonje about how theatre, film and story-telling helped him become one of the UK’s most recognised interior designers…

Established in 1965, the BIID is the pre-eminent professional organisation for interior designers in the UK. The Institute sets national professional standards, promotes learning and debate, and champions the value of interior design on the national and international stage. It is the only professional organisation for interior designers to have been granted the prestigious accolade of Institute status by the Secretary of State. Charles has been the President since July 2017.

How and when did you get introduced to design, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?

I had always loved drawing, painting and storytelling and was lucky enough to get involved in a fringe theatre company transforming a church into a performance space when I was about 14. It was completely hands on – constructing, building, and decorating. I loved the whole physical, technical and applied aspect of being involved in project – most importantly I learnt to understand the significance of story and narrative to move people.

I was always in a lot of trouble at school, but was lucky enough to be put forward to study at Oxford. However, I changed by mind and went to Art School to study Theatre Design, which brought together everything I loved. Design was much more fun and much more immediate. Essentially I’m quite lazy and not very thorough, but fortunately sufficiently afraid of my laziness, and failure, so I work hard to compensate. It was definitely the right decision at the time.

How has your experience in theatre and film set design affected how you work with residential and hospitality design?

After Art School, I worked at the National Theatre and English National Opera as a sculptor and prop-maker. Through friends I also got work after hours designing and building sets for people like Paul Raymond and small, independent films. This resulted in me pursuing a career as a freelance theatre designer.

This period was just pure, unadulterated fun. I was always busy and in demand, the only problem was making enough money to live. But again, I was lucky, and in the right place at the right time, and I was asked to do art direction for several small films, most of which have been rightly consigned to the rubbish heap. The great thing about designing for film and theatre is that you learn to work from a story and with a team. Everyone is pushing towards the same goal. It’s thrilling and rewarding. I think all design is a form of storytelling and should be thrilling and ‘theatrical’. We are hard-wired to find meaning in things and we often do this by stringing together and joining things into stories. What film, theatre and design do is to change how you behave, how you feel or to highlight an issue. It’s emotional, behavioural and cultural. Design is a view of a future. Design is how we change things. My view of design and what it encompasses is very broad. It’s what we all do and it’s how change happens.

Tell me about the process of setting up Charles Leon Associates/Leon Black?

The time came where I had to make a choice of either going to live in the USA, being abroad for months at a time, or staying in the UK. As luck would have it (again), an old friend of mine suggested that I go and see a friend of his who ran an international hotel design consultancy. As more luck would have it, he was also an ex-theatre designer. He said that ‘designing for hotels is exactly the same as designing for theatre’, so I took the job and stayed for five years.

At this time there was an explosion of anything ‘designer’ and hotel design came to the forefront. It was an incredibly exciting and valuable experience, but at the end of the five years I felt that I could go it alone. So, on the basis of one promise of a project, I left to set up my own practice. The project never happened.

I had a vision when I started, to gather with me talented and enthusiastic designers and then to spin them off into their own companies. I forgot that for about 20 years while I built my company, until the down-turn in the economy. The Arab Spring caught us and we lost several projects. Our landlords raised the rent by 70 per cent. We realised that we needed a different business model. We sat down with all the team and discussed how we could change the way we did things. So, we created Leon Black as a smaller, leaner company and supported a couple of small companies founded by our ex-employees. It wasn’t an easy transition at first, but now everyone is thriving and has more control over their time. Change is something designers should always be ready to grasp.

Why did you feel it was important to join the BIID? 

I have always liked helping people as much as I possibly can. Having formed the IDA (Interior Design Association) to represent commercial interior designers, we realised that if we merged with the BIID we would be stronger together. I think that the BIID is perfectly placed to support interior designers of all types.

The ‘Register of Interior Designers’ and the ‘Professional Pathway’ is one of many steps we have taken to ensure that the highest standards are maintained. In this way, employers and clients can know that they are engaging a competent and professional interior designer. I also think that interior designers benefit from being part of a community, as many designers are small companies with less than five employees. We want them to feel that they have the support of their peers and are part of the wider design community. Likewise, students need to be able to see the path to becoming a professional and to know the standards that will be expected of them.

The BIID is intended to be inclusive, supportive and representative, but it always needs designers to get involved to share knowledge and experience and to help nurture the next generation of interior designers.

Tell me about some of your proudest moments in your career?

I absolutely love being a designer and I love the process of designing, but it is a difficult profession. The range of knowledge and skill required is vast and you have to be prepared to fail most of the time. My proudest design moments have mostly been very small things: the pleasure and joy of collaborating with another designer in the studio developing and playing with ideas. Often it’s just a detail that gives the most pleasure, something most people will never notice.

Designing for me is about being playful and witty, about changing people’s emotions and behaviour, about the stories behind the thinking and most especially about planning for a change in a future.

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