Posted in Business, People on 7 October, 2019

Since launching his design studio in 2005, Russell Sage has become a well-known name within the hospitality design industry and, as a result, has worked on a number of luxury properties. Can Faik caught up with him to find out more about his beginnings…

Russell Sage Studio, established in 2005, comprises a thriving team of 40 dedicated interior designers, FF&E designers, planners, restorers and art and antiques experts, and has, since its inception, built a reputation for designing and effecting unique interior stories for a broad range of five-star hotels, exclusive members’ clubs, premium restaurants, luxury bars and private residences around the world.

Raised in Bath, UK, Russell discovered his creative spirit as a boy. His mother, a keen artist and ceramicist, encouraged her artist son to follow his dreams… and he did; firstly to art school in Bath and then to Central Saint Martins, where he studied both womenswear and sculpture.

Having graduated in 1998, he launched his eponymous fashion label, quickly becoming a star of London Fashion Week, but his great love of interiors drew him back and, in 2005, he opened Russell Sage Studio.

Tell me about your role at Russell Sage Studio

My day-to-day role is varied, and I love it! We have always been a different type of interior studio that sets out to work closely with clients to understand their brief and provide a unique solution.

We are now recognised as a studio, which doesn’t have generic in-house styles and clients come to us for unique and bespoke solutions, so it means that we have a very creative approach to answering our clients’ briefs, thus my days are spent doing the things I most love in properly researching and seeking authenticity in everything we do.

How long have you been involved with hotel design?

I designed a pub for my parents when I was 17, that is a very long time ago! However, my career went between interior design and fashion where I had my own label showing in London Fashion Week, before the full-time move to interiors in 2005.

Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel design?

I know we all say it, but I do everything I can to avoid the trends! My reason is that in hotel design the last thing you want to do is use ‘fashionable marbles’, which look dated after a few years. The architectural decisions need to be made to last for many years. I always use The Goring as a good example; we have redesigned all the bedrooms and bathrooms over the years, but some of the marbles in the bathrooms are 20-years-old, and because they were well chosen in the day, they are still there now.

Sure, we add sparkle to our interiors, but I am always conscious that hotels need upgrades every five or ten years and it’s our job to design sensitively into the future.

How important are public spaces in hotels?

I have very much cut my design teeth on hotel public spaces. I was in The Savoy Grill, which we designed for Gordon Ramsay, the other day and it was buzzing, eight years after we designed it, and it was great to see.

We have designed public spaces for The Goring, The Savoy, Sofitel St James, The Kimpton Fitzroy, The Cadogan, and The Fife Arms in Scotland, which have all been unique solutions for our clients that have added to the destination buzz of the hotels, which I’m very proud to have contributed to.

With so many hospitality designers in the industry, how does Russell Sage Studio stand out from the rest?

I’m proud that I have never worked for another interior designer, so I don’t come with ‘design baggage’ from a previous employer.

A well-known hotel operator commented to me the other day that they can always see where new designers have emerged from as they always seem to have been influenced by their employer. I haven’t had a previous employer to be influenced by, I am keen to keep our ideas fresh, new and unique for each of our clients.

For many years I was lucky to work for four or five big named chefs at once, all felt very looked after with a unique solution to their own design brief as we are able to wear many different design hats at once. This keeps me and my team on our toes, but does make sure we don’t get stale, or ‘conveyor belt’ about our design approach.

I also really understand my interior design history, where things come from and how they are influencing today’s tastes. We have a huge warehouse of antiques, which means we can work in any design period comfortably. I really know my furniture design history and am able to direct my studio team to do proper design research and understand design influences.

Finally, and something I have always been proud of, we have never had a PR! I’m proud that all my clients come to us through word of mouth, which is the best way of meeting people.

How is the current economic climate affecting the hotel design market, and has Russell Sage Studio felt the effects?

There are obviously a lot less high street dining venues happening at the moment, which I think is partly because London is full of F&B just as the world seems to be moving into a Deliveroo culture, but this has happened just as the studio has been taking on much bigger and more international hospitality work, so there has been little personal effect.

We’ve also always been very spread in our work, which clients love, so at the moment we are working with clients as varied as The National Trust, old members clubs on Pall Mall, young members clubs in the US, premium and 4 star hotels, restaurants, competitive socialising and residential.

What have you learnt over the years in the design industry?

Keep it bespoke and personal. Virtually every interior we produce has bespoke furniture, carpets, textiles, paint – everything! And there is reclaim and antique layered on top.

We have moved from what things look like, to what they ‘feel’ like and then layer in a lot of the ‘Instagramable’ moments required. We completed The Fife Arms in Breamar, Scotland, in January of this year, which had 16,000 hand-picked antiques and details that were unbelievably authentic in their selection. Items belonging to Queen Victoria and Abduhl Karim featured alongside some of the most incredible contemporary art in the world, which was a magical experience that guests have been loving. The greatest comments I get back from that venue is that, guests say they will have to return as they didn’t see everything, which gives me a real buzz! It makes it a perfect hotel!

What has been your favourite project to date?

Gosh, there are so many. The Royal Suite at The Goring as we had to work day and night to get it ready for The Royal Wedding of William and Kate, was pretty exciting. Then there was the Savoy Grill for Gordon Ramsay – for its importance in the relaunch of such an iconic hotel. The boardroom at the RAC was pretty important and special.

At the moment, I think it has to be The Fife Arms as it was such a passionate labour of love in being personally involved in the selection of over 16,000 items, over a four- year period.

How much time do you dedicate to sourcing products and suppliers for the projects you work on?

I have a full-time procurement team of ten in my London studio and a further three people looking after the antiques and reclaim from my Somerset warehouse, so it is a huge investment of our time and a major passion for the studio.

Being a part owner of Gainsborough Silk Weavers was an original driver for my love of the bespoke, the rare and the handmade or crafted. It now forms a major part of our storytelling approach to our interiors and our promise to ensure that our clients get something totally unique that hasn’t been seen before.

Do you find it easy to source new suppliers or do you work with existing companies on a long-term basis?

We have been very lucky over the years to be introduced to some incredible and inspiring craftsmen and artisans, we have a real network now. It’s all down to research and word of mouth, we can find anyone to do anything! In the last few months, we have commissioned photographers to shoot rare wild flowers in Scotland, make a glass lobster chandelier, recolour fabric designs that were used on the original Titanic, and commissioned a relative of the original Bloomsbury set to interpret historic designs for contemporary use.

What does design mean to you?

Over the years I have built an incredible bond to ‘design’, I find that good design has the power to truly transform lives and bad design can be a tyranny! Just recently there has been a rush to redesign spaces that were already truly beautiful anyway, I am about sensitively evolving interiors as much as designing from scratch. Design should just improve everyone’s lives.

I’ve always said that I want to make sure I design hospitals and older people’s homes one day as design has the power to improve lives when handled correctly.

What would be your dream hotel project?

I’m already so lucky to have worked on so many iconic hotels such as The Goring and The Savoy, but they are all an attraction for their incredible and unique stories.

I find that there are so often forgotten stories, which need to be told to make guests build closer bonds to hotels. I recall a great story about The Savoy being flooded so that guests could sail around it when it was first built, or the Yugoslavian soil placed under the bed in room 212 in Claridge’s during the war, so that the baby born in it could be the future king of Yugoslavia (Yugoslavian Kings must be born on Yugoslavian soil). These stories are nowhere to be found when visiting the hotels but are the bits that make them so special.

Where do you see hotel design in the future?

The next evolution is to truly build the storytelling aspects of great hotels through their interiors. I keep getting into conversations with great hotel operators and owners that the industry is headed for quite a shake up when the current Gen Z-ers become their core guests. However old fashioned and antiquated a hotel interior, within a matter of years there will be a whole new type of guest and hotels have a duty to speak to them. This is not to say a total reinvention, just a repriortising of how hotels communicate to guests and the stories they tell through their interiors.

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