Architectural Interior Design studio, Holloway Li are fast becoming recognised as an exciting and innovative addition to the hospitality design scene. From their studio in Clerkenwell, Managing Director and Co-Founder Na Li, discusses cross-culture collaborations and overcoming her fear of colour with Emma Kennedy.
Discovering interior designers who have previously fallen under your radar, is always exciting. My introduction to Holloway Li came as I was looking at images of a new showroom for bathroom brand, Coalbrook. Unsure of what I was looking at, I did a complete double take when I realised it was a bathroom showroom. Ignoring the bright, light and often clinical aesthetic usually associated with bathrooms, Holloway Li have taken an altogether far more innovative approach. Inspired by the brands birthplace, Coalbrookdale, their design ‘references the lost forms of the Industrial Revolution, the chimneys which towered over the skyline of cities, the searing heat of the furnaces and engine rooms and rough chiselled quarries’. The end result is quite breath-taking with showers flowing from industrial ‘chimneys’, chainmail curtains emulating smog, a chiselled concrete staircase and much more – all under the glowing ‘embers’ of hot-red and amber windows.
Intrigued to find out more about the duo behind the design, their website reveals a diverse portfolio, with a focus on hospitality interior design – giving me the perfect excuse to invite them to an interview.
Born in Nanjing, China, Na Li moved to the UK in 2002. On completion of her A levels Na qualified as an architect at the University of Westminster followed by her masters at the Bartlett where she first met Co-Founder and business partner Alex Holloway. Following several years working for developer-led architects Teatum+Teatum, she went on to work for Michaelis Boyd where she was reunited with Alex and recalls ‘bonding over a cantilever stone staircase’.
British born Alex grew up in London’s Wimbledon. Following an MA in Architecture at the Royal College of Art, he worked on a number of multi-unit projects for architecture practices including John McAslan+Partners, Pernilla Ohrstedt, and Perkins and Will. His introduction to hospitality design came while working for Michaelis Boyd, where he completed projects for the Soho House group and the Battersea Power Station Development Group.
Given their strong architectural backgrounds, I start by asking Na, what advantages she feels this brings to the drawing board. She considers the question carefully before answering; “Our clients find it valuable because we understand the whole process of a project, from durability and procurement, to planning and project management. We are seen as a safe pair of hands. I think there’s a need in the market now for interior design firms to have an architectural background – and all our team are trained architects.”
When it comes to decoration, I think it’s fair to say that architects will often opt for white walls as opposed to colour and have quite strict opinions on soft furnishings. I wonder how involved Holloway Li are at the decorative stage of a project. Na smiles and says, “Architects tend to be quite dismissive of interior designers, thinking all they do is look at curtains and cushions. But when I started to focus more on interiors, I found it so difficult to pick the right colour, to choose the right curtains, the right fabrics and textiles- it takes a lot of skill and to begin with we weren’t good at it! But more recently, in the last year or two we have started talking about the dressing and styling stage more as a team, and place much more emphasis on the end of a project. I think you can see this in the progression of our work, in the beginning our projects look very architectural, quite stark and now I like to think they are more playful. We aren’t afraid of colour anymore and experimenting with different materials.”
At the core of their design ethos, is their commitment to sustainability. Unlike many designers who will take it into consideration when putting together a design, when Holloway Li walk into a space, their first consideration is to look at the existing elements and see what can be reused. Resisting the temptation to cover up less attractive features, they choose instead to ‘celebrate’ them, before adding new parts to unify it. The aim is to always use fewer materials and use them in a more innovative way. I ask Na, if she feels her clients genuinely share her ethos, or if there is an element of box ticking. “To begin with I think there was a lot of box ticking, but there are so many targets and strict criteria’s now which have to be met – right from beginning, when clients are looking at sites and applying for planning, that by the time they get to the interiors, it is already embedded in them. But…” she adds “we are not perfect and there are certain areas and products that are still difficult to achieve in a sustainable way.”
Many of Holloway Li’s projects have a distinct hand-finished look to them which obviously arrive with cost implications? “Where possible we like to work closely with crafts people. We have a bespoke approach and like to work with joiners, stone masons and metal workers from the beginning of a project and include it in the brief. The perfect example of this was The Market Building. We designed it and the client loved it, but there was a tight budget. We did our research, and approached different people, who at that stage didn’t have the most amazing portfolios, but we could see the potential and with our guidance felt they could produce something special. My ambition is to do a project, where every piece of furniture, every fitting is bespoke…it’s difficult to achieve on a commercial project, where schedules are very tight, but with residential work, it’s still possible.”
It’s interesting looking though their portfolio. There is a common thread that runs through much of their commercial work that leans towards the Industrial. This has as much to do with their commitment to sustainability, as it does their aesthetics. However, instead of feeling harsh or dare I say it cold and a little soulless? – Na is right, and it is playfully softened by their use of colours and textures. Concrete and metals are given an injection of warmth with rich teals, smoky blues and corals. But there is another quality, especially in their F&B designs, that I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s an almost tangible sense of nostalgia, that goes beyond a retro or vintage vibe. At times they appear quite painterly, like Mr Mengs noodle bar which has strong echoes of Edward Hoppers Nighthawks, while at other times there is something almost cinematic about them.
Having observed this, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Na tells me about her family background: “My family history is quite interesting actually” she begins.” My mum’s family are all in the film industry; my grandfather was one of the first generation of film directors in China and his wife, my grandmother was a producer. My uncle is a lighting designer, and my aunt is a make-up artist, and it is only my mum who isn’t in the creative industry. Growing up I found myself running around my granddad’s film sets, between props and scenery which I found fascinating… so I must have got my creativity from there.” It isn’t until after the interview that I join the dots and kick myself for not picking up on this at the time.
Looking at their culturally different backgrounds, I ask Na, how this presents itself in their approach to design. ‘’A key and unique aspect of our company is the cross-culture element of it. In design, the East and West have very different philosophies. Eastern design tends to be spiritual and more about feelings, whereas in the West it is more about methodology. There is always a narrative, always a reason- it’s quite structured, and that’s why Alex and I approach the process from different angles. I also think London especially appreciates diversity and it’s something our clients value. We both worked independently, as sole traders before launching Holloway Li, so we are both home-runners and are able to work in all areas of the business. But when it comes to key work, we do have different strengths. Alex is great on the creative side. He is very brave and happy to push the boundaries. I am more architectural, more rational, for example I really enjoy space planning, to make things work well, whereas Alex is about clashing ideas and concepts, but when it comes to management, we are both good at delivering.”
Having only launched four years ago, two of which were spent dealing with the challenges presented by the pandemic, as the interview draws to a close, I ask Na what she believes is behind their success. Her answer takes me by surprise. ‘’I don’t see us as being particularly successful.’’ When I point out their numerous completed projects, including Bermonds Locke Aparthotel, London, The Market building and a host of F&B venues in both London and China, along with their current projects which include The Hoxton, Shoreditch and WunderLocke Aparthotel, Munich, it’s almost as if I’m telling her something new, and she smiles softly “I think maybe we work too hard and we should take time to stop and celebrate a little.”