David Collins Studio
Known for their design collaborations with some of the world’s most luxurious brands, David Collins Studio has now added Cunard to their client list, as they embark on their first maritime project. Emma Kennedy catches up with CEO Iain Watson and Creative Director Simon Rawlings to find out how it all began. Above LtoR: Iain Watson, CEO and Founder. Simon Rawlings, Creative Director.
When David Collins Studio launched in 1985, anyone with even a passing interest in interior design soon had them on their radar. Regularly featured on the pages of glossy magazines and Sunday supplements, the studio, along with its charismatic co-founder and namesake, was fast becoming the go-to designer for high-end interiors with more than a dash of luxury. In 2013 the interior’s world reeled at the announcement of David Collins’ untimely death, and as the tributes flooded in, the studio led by CEO Iain Watson, had to re-group and navigate a way forward as they mourned the loss of their close friend and colleague.
Born and raised in Dublin, David studied at the Bolton School of Architecture before gravitating towards interior design. Moving to London in the eighties, he embarked on his design career- initially working for friends and meeting Co-Founder Iain Watson along the way. Iain was studying business and economics but in his own words was ‘obsessive about architecture and design’ and together, from David’s sitting room, David Collins Studio was launched, and the rest as they say is history.
Meeting with Iain and Creative Director Simon Rawlings, I am shown into a bright white studio in Fulham. Once a dairy, the light-filled space with its high vaulted ceiling is now home to a team of 50 designers. They’ve come a long way from David’s sitting room and I start by asking Iain to take me back to the heady days of the 80s.
“When I joined David in 1988, he had done a few residential projects, and had begun designing Cafe Rouge and Dome restaurants throughout the UK. Expanding with the clients we quickly went from a small team of three to six people to a team of 20. From the beginning we have always worked across the three sectors; residential, hospitality and retail. We realised quite early that this was unusual, though different years have had different focuses. There was a span of retail projects with Harrods, Alexander McQueen, and Jimmy Choo, and then there was a fan of restaurants, starting with French chef Pierre Koffmann. David designed his restaurant, La Tante Claire, which at the time was described as ‘the most beautiful room in London.’ Starting with a Michelin starred restaurant that was so well received by everyone, really set the tone. From here we went onto design for Marco Pierre White, who was then seen as the rock ëní roll chef, and that really cemented David as London’s go-to restaurant designer.”
I wondered what the brief looks like when approached by a chef, whether they come with a clear vision, or because they want the David Collins aesthetic and all that brings. “It’s a mix. Some chefs will say front of house is your domain and you have carte blanche, while others are more involved. With Pierre Koffmann, it was his wife Annie, who had seen a project David had worked on, in Tatler – a Chelsea house for an Art collector- and thought ‘I would love to bring that feeling to our restaurant’. They took a leap of faith because David hadn’t designed a restaurant till then.”
At this point Simon joins in and reminds us of the rather underwhelming restaurant scene of the 80s. “you have to bear in mind that there really weren’t any restaurants to go to in London at that time, let alone Michelin-starred restaurants. It wasn’t a place that you came to for food, so imagine a French chef coming with three stars…and opening this amazing dining room that people were utterly engaged with? There was this whole new sense of ‘cuisine’ that was starting to enter the city which was very exciting. Then Marco [Pierre White] had this vision of taking over these really well-established historic dining rooms and reinventing them – bringing them back to life; Quo Vadis, L’Escargot, Mirabel- and I think that was the starting point.”
Reflecting on Annie Koffmann’s desire to bring the David Collins ‘look’ to La Tante Claire, I ask Simon what he considers the David Collins Studio aesthetic to be.
“I think there’s a common approach between the projects- there isn’t an obvious stamp, but there’s a hallmark- the combination of materials, period references all combined to give the look. But as we move from period to contemporary buildings to a project in say Thailand, you obviously have to embrace where you’re working and the local crafts to create the right atmosphere. I like to think that when you walk into one of our spaces you feel good. That can be anything from what’s under foot to the way it smells or the lighting. We always approach a design by thinking about what we want people to feel and experience. It’s so much bigger than just design, it’s embracing all the other consultants and people involved, from the operations to the service. You must have partners who buy into the same vision-and while we do like to lead on curating that experience, we also lean on other experts to help us deliver the vision.”
Leading the field with their award-winning restaurant designs, their portfolio is as extensive and varied as their interiors, and we haven’t even touched on their hotel projects. From being responsible for specific areas in a hotel, to being responsible for it in its entirety, must be a leap over the canyon however successful you are.
Confirming my suspicions, Simon and Iain exchange a look and explain how it happened. “Our first hotel project was The London, NYC, for the Savoy group (now the Maybourne Hotel Group) back in 2004. We had worked with them before on the Claridge’s Bar and they phoned up one day and asked us if we would like to do The London Hotel in New York. It was 550 bedrooms over 54 storeys and we just thought WOW! If we’re going to start, let’s jump in headfirst! This was very quickly followed a second one, London, West Hollywood LA- so we suddenly went from doing elements of hotels to doing the whole thing. It was really exciting!”
Acknowledging that while it was undoubtably daunting, the biggest challenge they faced was the time scale which at the time seemed ‘insane’.
“The clients wanted it to be done in 18 months from start to finish and they didn’t want to close the existing hotel” Simon continues. “So, we started at the top and worked our way down, floor by floor. Design-wise there was one concept and two colourways for the standard rooms. The eight suites were all individual designs, so they had the same DNA but different styles…and then there was an amazing duplex…”
We talk a little more about the design and the process and I ask what the differences are between working in the UK and the States. “There are such different ways of working, like figuring out how to get the permitting done, getting the gas connected… and understanding the heavily unionized construction sites” Simon says before adding-“I was literally picking up empty coke cans off a finished surface one day and the site was shut down! I was doing someone’s job for them! But the biggest challenge is working in feet and inches!” he concludes with a smile, and I think most of us would concur with him on that one.
As a long-time admirer of David Collins Studio from when they were first making luxurious waves in the interiors scene, I could have sat and listened to Simon and Iain all day. They are patient with my questions and generous with their answers, but the clock is ticking and I’m keen to turn their attention to their debut maritime venture.
A press release revealing the name of Cunard’s latest offering, Queen Anne, landed in my inbox, followed a few days later by a far more exciting one, unveiling first renders of the ship’s interiors.
On seeing their name along with Adam Tihany, Richmond International and Sybille de Margerie as the designers, I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was- though no more so than Iain when he took the call.
“It was a grey Friday afternoon, and it was Adam Tihany, Creative Director for Cunard calling. After discussing the project, he explained that if we took the job, it would involve working with other designers. This isn’t unheard of on hotels, but you do have to embrace a true collaborative process. He [Adam] was very clear ‘Once you get to know each other, you will all have to relax and exchange ideas and truly collaborate- the strength of the project depends on it. As long as you understand this then it’s fine.
Slightly sceptical at the idea of designers working together in aesthetic harmony I’m interested in the reality of such collaborations. Simon explains: “It’s marrying two visions for a coherent design. You’re completely aware of what each other’s doing, and you come up with a set of parameters that work for everyone. We all have a sensibility of taste and colour- so it all fits together, and I rather like working like that.”
With the first wave of images just released they show me more, opening with the Grand Atrium. Bearing the inimitable David Collins Studio hallmark, a sweeping staircase in rich blues, with marble and gold detailing spirals down to a cream stone floor where a double height wall of lighting towers over bespoke tables and chairs. It radiates a timeless glamour and brings a contemporary feel which one assumes will continue across the 18 different areas they are responsible for. In retrospect, with both names being synonymous with luxury, Cunard and David Collins Studio are an obvious match. Scheduled to sail in 2024, its maiden voyage is booking up fast, and I imagine this will continue as more of the interiors are revealed.
Back at my desk, I paw over the pages of David’s book. Published posthumously, ABCDCS is a joy, not to mention a complete distraction as I try to pen this piece. Page after page of beautiful interiors- some familiar, others less so. They are neither predictable nor repetitive, always luxurious though never ostentatious. But ultimately, it’s the sublime sense of balance throughout that sets them apart. Every element looks destined to be together. Take something away and it would look like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. Some designers are quick to tell you they never follow trends, though their latest projects tell you the opposite. But when David Collins Studio say it, they really do mean it, and long may it continue.