Being Human – Ilse Crawford


Former journalist turned designer, Ilse Crawford exercises a humanist approach to her work, to create comfortable, ‘lived-in’ environments. Her outlook was on display at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, for which she imported her studio’s ‘not cool, but warm’ ethos for the event’s feature lounge


Blueprint

Portraits Ivan Jones

'We're not cool, we're warm,' affirms Ilse Crawford of her design firm Studioilse. For the past 14 years, and many more as a design journalist, Crawford has been making her mark on the design world with an array of projects that put the soul back into airport lounges, workplaces, hotel lobbies and shop interiors, in an almost altruistic bid to improve the way we live and work.

Crawford's is a humanistic approach to design, an on-the-surface simple mission to put human needs and desires at the heart of her work. This means creating environments where people can feel comfortable, whether it's an office with a domestic atmosphere or a hotel lobby that feels like someone's living room.

Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding
Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding

Her interiors are warm, authentic, soothing and lived-in, anything but superficial. They are never too finished, too polished. They make their impact sotto voce. Some blend old and new, all use a mix of textures and natural ('real', she calls them) materials: brick, oak, cork, marble, lime plaster and wool.

Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding
Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding

'We try to put warm values into a cold system, specifically building, which is obviously an information-driven system; it's Excel, it's planned, it's scheduled,' says the poised 52-year-old designer. 'It needs to be, but what we do in our work, at the very beginning, is put those human values in there, all those unmeasurable things. Otherwise all the things you really remember about a space, the way they feel, the way you can live in them, spaces you can love, smell, taste, spaces that make you feel grounded and good, that just kind of gets lost on the Excel sheet; there's no category for that.'

Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding
Ett Hem, a 12-bedroom hotel in Stockholm with a domestic atmosphere (2012). Photo: Magnus Marding

Her studio, in Neckinger Mills - moved into in 2013 and now with around 25 staff - sits on the first floor of a Grade II-listed warehouse and former paper factory in Bermondsey. Domestic in atmosphere, the space is open-plan with three long, sturdy, custom-made wooden workbenches and piles of design books everywhere; staff refer to the meeting room where they have client presentations and studio lunches as the 'dining room' and the kitchen has a large cooker they use daily.

Cecconi’s restaurant in the heart of Mayfair (2006). Photo: Julia Grassi
Cecconi's restaurant in the heart of Mayfair (2006). Photo: Julia Grassi

Crawford herself doesn't have an office space or even a desk, instead she moves around wherever the rest of the team is. The way that the studio works she says is to 'delay gratification'. For her, interior design isn't just about scatter cushions and add-ons; Crawford often feels it's a misunderstood and trivialised profession, too often dismissed as a postscript at the end of a project, the cherry on the cake.

Cecconi’s restaurant in the heart of Mayfair (2006). Photo: Julia Grassi
Cecconi's restaurant in the heart of Mayfair (2006). Photo: Julia Grassi

'We make sure the big, important questions get answered way before we get to the visual, before the how,' she says. 'It's kind of tough, because pretty much every potential client who walks through the door says, "Yeh, great, can we have a concept by the end of the next week?" Our main focus is on "Woah, shall we just sit down and work out what it is, why it is, what's going on in the world?", a whole host of questions.'

Crawford’s Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand
Crawford's Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year's Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand

In February Crawford transported this inquisitive nature of the studio to Stockholm Furniture Fair where she was guest of honour, following in the footsteps of Patricia Urquiola, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Arik Levy, Konstantin Grcic and Paul Smith - each year the fair invites a well-known designer or studio to create a lounge in the event's airy Stockholmsmässan entrance hall. Crawford's lounge, called Question Time, replicated the studio's environment with long wooden benches and cork walls pinned with questions such as 'Do we need another chair?' alongside notepads and printers so people could respond and pin up their answers.

Crawford’s Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand
Crawford's Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year's Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand

'In the past I have noticed at fairs in general there is often nowhere for people to sit down without paying,' she says. 'We thought it would be interesting to take a slice of the feeling of how we work - slightly messy but in some way with purpose - and create a relaxed, informal, habitable space in what is a tad chilly one, and also to simply make a place to take your time in and reflect. What was great was that from day one people claimed the space as their own.'

Crawford’s Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand
Crawford's Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year's Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand

It is this ability to create spaces that relate to people that attracted the fair's organisers to Crawford in the first place, says event manager Cecilia Nyberg, 'She makes hotels feel like a welcoming home and successfully embodies each project's own history.' Reflecting on the impact of the lounge on visitors, Crawford adds: 'We believe that the design of space can change the way you feel and behave in a profound way, and it's something that as a studio we pay a lot of time and attention to.

Crawford’s Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand
Crawford's Guest of Honour lounge asked all the right questions at this year's Stockholm Furniture Fair. Photo: Mikael Strand

We had a number of people come up to us and say they were really surprised to see this interaction in a public space in Stockholm because for them, culturally, it was unusual to share a space with strangers. For example, they rarely see someone taking an empty seat next to a stranger on a bus.'

Duddell’s, a restaurant, bar and event space for Hong Kong’s art crowd (2013). Photo: Robert Holden
Duddell's, a restaurant, bar and event space for Hong Kong's art crowd (2013). Photo: Robert Holden

Born in London to a Canadian father and Danish artist mother, Crawford grew up in Shepherd's Bush, one of five children. She suggests her interest in architecture and design stemmed from an upbringing immersed in the intangible Danish concept of 'hygge': with no equivalent in English, it roughly translates as cosiness or making everyday moments special. Often at night she would go out with her mother to rescue '19th-century tiles' from building sites; later while living in Kent it was the gathering around a big kitchen table with a 'big messy family' that she remembers.

Studioilse’s Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell

'As a teenager I also spent a lot of time in different hospitals with my mother,' she recalls. 'It gave me lots of opportunities to hone my understanding of the value of humanistic spaces, and what kind of spaces bring out the best in people, both in private and public space. I have always leaned towards a livable modernity.'

Studioilse’s Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell

Crawford studied history of architecture at university before starting a career, not as a designer, but as a journalist. 'For sure there wasn't a plan!' she laughs. At 27, she was commissioned to launch the British ELLE Decoration in 1989 and then the short-lived Bare magazine. She stayed with ELLE for nine years before moving on and creating a new home division for Donna Karan in New York. Disillusioned with magazines and the vast gap between the glossy images and what people's homes were really like ('too many of the places I saw smelled of disinfectant and divorce'), she set up the department of Man and Wellbeing at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2000 (where she's still teaching, or as she says 'learning') and Studioilse in 2001 from the bedroom of her flat in Borough.

Studioilse’s Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell

'During my time on magazines I calculated the number of interiors I saw was probably close to well over 5,000. It developed my obsession with prioritising the experiential and our real human needs, with putting emphasis on the physical connection to our environment over the abstract idea,' she adds. She talks of her design process as a 'frame for life' - an approach that starts with the individual human experience, encompassing social, sensorial and emotional perspectives. She cites the work of architects Lina Bo Bardi, Wang Shu, Peter Zumthor and David Chipperfield and writers Jane Jacobs and Juhani Pallasmaa as her design heroes - 'All are designers who prioritise/d the essential humanity of the inhabitants.'

Studioilse's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA, in stores this August. Photo: Felix Odell

Her projects have spanned hospitality, retail, domestic interiors, workspaces and products, from celebrity hot-spot Babington House in Somerset and Soho House New York (2003), through the first shop in London for Australian skincare brand Aesop and offices for creative ad agency Rapier (2010), to a collection of metal vessels for Georg Jensen (2012). Then there was Ett Hem (meaning 'a home' in English), a 12-bedroom hotel in a converted Arts and Crafts house in the Larkstaden district of Stockholm (2012) that was designed with a domestic feel, with no division between front and back of house.

Studioilse transformed the loft of the VitraHaus into the home of a fictional couple (2014). Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse transformed the loft of the VitraHaus into the home of a fictional couple (2014). Photo: Felix Odell

A key thread weaving all the projects together is an element of the domestic - a blend of comfort, a dash of familiarity, a soupçon of intimacy. These aren't statement pieces or surface decoration shouting to get heard: they're buildings, interiors and objects to be used - designs that can be seen simply as a backdrop for life to take place. 'I love to watch people and see how they inhabit space, and design to enhance that. I walk a lot in order to see a lot,' she says. Indeed, one suspects a lot of the magic happens when Studioilse packs its bags and leaves it to the users.

Studioilse transformed the loft of the VitraHaus into the home of a fictional couple (2014). Photo: Felix Odell
Studioilse transformed the loft of the VitraHaus into the home of a fictional couple (2014). Photo: Felix Odell

Studioilse has a remarkable, somewhat rare, ability to translate a brand into the everyday, intelligible language of the public, without jargon or PR speak. Last year, to mark the merger of the Finnish furniture company Artek and Vitra, Studioilse transformed the loft of Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus in Weil am Rhein into the home of a fictional Finnish-German couple, Harri and Astrid.

He was a musician, she was a set designer, and their home was filled with objects that told the story of their lives. It went deep to the core of Studioilse's values, telling an enchanting tale of human life and behaviour, in the process transforming these ubiquitous design objects from cold stage sets of catalogues to real-life scenarios, where the kids draw on the walls and the cat scratches the designer sofa.

The Apartment in Copenhagen also simulated a domestic environment for a three-month-long installation (2014). Photo: Casper Sejersen
The Apartment in Copenhagen also simulated a domestic environment for a three-month-long installation (2014). Photo: Casper Sejersen

The pieces on display were design classics but the 'couple' were not afraid to use them and make them part of their everyday life. For example an Alvar Aalto tea-cart was used for messy paint brushes, while a mood board spread out organically on a cork wall (like at Stockholm), complete with torn-out pages of magazines and tatty ends of fabric samples. 'We wanted to think beyond the furniture and lighting and beyond the bland commercialisation of design, to convey real life in all its layers and eccentricities,' says Crawford. 'It was vital to bring out the intellectual spirit of the minds and hands that made these things.

These pieces are stories of real life and courageous intentions to raise the quality of everyday living. To see them as museum exhibits of sales units is a profound injustice to their creators.'

In February Studioilse unveiled a collection of some 30 household products for IKEA (available in stores in August). Made from cork, ceramic, glass and bamboo, the tactile collection includes trestle tables, stools, lighting and vessels. 'The more virtual our lives become, the more we crave the physical,' says Crawford. Each piece has been designed not for just one function or setting; a trestle table could be a desk by day and a dining table by night.

Crawford divides her time between London, teaching in Eindhoven and projects across the world. Photo: Ivan Jones
Crawford divides her time between London, teaching in Eindhoven and projects across the world. Photo: Ivan Jones

In all of Studioilse's work, there is no prescribed way of doing things - nothing is forced or set in stone; there is room for flexibility. At the moment a 'typical' day in the studio seems a rarity: as well as UK projects there are projects in Sweden, Hong Kong, China and the USA - 'you get such an insight into how people behave in different environments' - not to forget the one day a week teaching in Eindhoven. One project soon to complete is a new lounge strategy for airline Cathay Pacific (one opened in Tokyo at the end of last year, and several are opening this year).

'We spent a lot of time in the lounges observing people - we looked at how people sit, where they sit, the variations culturally, genderwise and age-wise, among many other factors. In the end it seems to us that lounges are less about obvious luxury and more about wellbeing; it's the details that make the difference, and empathy.'

Increasingly we're playing out our lives in the public domain - we work on the train, in a hotel lobby and sleep in other people's homes now, thanks to airbnb. We need spaces that perform multiple functions for working, socialising, relaxing. The idea of what a space is and does is changing, and it's a team like Studioilse that is directing that change. As Crawford says, 'In this information age we want to feel at home, wherever we are.'





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