Conran and Partners' Tina Norden offers key lessons to budding designers

Bar and Leisure focus: Tina Norden of Conran & Partners discusses her work and offers key lessons to budding designers

Words by Amanda Birch

2018 was a very good year for Tina Norden. Not only was the affable, strikingly tall architect made a partner at Conran & Partners, she was also the project leader for Ruya, an Anatolian restaurant and bar with a deliciously exuberant interior, which opened last year in London’s Mayfair.

‘The Ruya restaurants were definitely a departure for us,’ says Norden. ‘Our other projects tend to be more restrained in their detailing and layering, while the Ruya interiors have a richness to them, which was unusual.’ The first of the Ruya restaurants opened on the Dubai Marina in 2016, scooping a number of awards including both the Ahead MEA restaurant award and the Gold Key award for Best Casual Dining, while Ruya London was shortlisted for an FX award.

Norden cites the Ruya restaurants as a good example of a particularly successful project, which was made easier by her team being involved at an early stage. It also helped that Norden had developed a good relationship with the client, a young enthusiastic Turkish restauranteur, having worked with him on other schemes. To prepare for the project, Norden’s team closely researched the Ottoman Empire and Byzantine architecture, extracting elements that symbolised modern and historic Turkey that could be used in the design.

‘The client wanted food stations with open cooking so customers could be engaged in the process,’ says Norden. ‘These were great starting points and we developed some touchpoints, such as the centrally placed bread oven and the Oklava rolling pins hanging from above. For the traditionally made Turkish tiles, we designed a contemporary pattern based on our research, and the chandeliers hark back to the beautiful huge lights seen in mosques.’

In spite of the similarities in materials, patterns and colours, there is still a clear distinction between the two locations. Ruya Dubai has a large square-shaped space allowing for four diff erent zones, and it has an external terrace featuring a cooling green wall. By contrast, London, which had formerly been an unremarkable bank, is a long skinny space and was therefore more challenging, particularly in relation to resolving the acoustics and insulation.

Norden is keen to point out that Conran & Partners does not have a house style, partly due to the fact that there are six partners, each doing very different projects. However, they do share a set of sensibilities that includes designing for people, being spatially aware, and creating experiences and narratives.

‘Every project is narrative-driven – we always look at the context, the history. We employ a simple use of materiality, we don’t overdesign and we try to keep things timeless,’ says Norden. ‘If we’re doing architecture we look at the interiors, if we’re doing interiors we look at the architecture. By talking to the client and finding out their aspirations and ideas we try to find a hook that we can base the design on, which makes it bespoke to the site.’

Growing up in Hamburg, Germany, the young Norden always knew she wanted to do something creative. Her father had his own landscape architecture practice, but given that she had no natural aptitude for horticulture she realised this wasn’t for her. Architecture ticked all the boxes. ‘Architectural training lends itself to very rigorous thought that can be applied to all sorts of creative disciplines,’ says Norden. ‘It’s the perfect sphere to work in as it’s structurally creative, has technology, there’s a physical aspect to it of building – but you’re also working with people, and being part of a team is fundamental to good design.’

Norden studied architecture in London and it was while she was doing her year out at Conran’s that she became particularly interested in interior design. This encouraged Norden to complete her studies, an MA in Architecture & Interiors, at the Royal College of Art (RCA). ‘Studying in London and at the RCA was the right thing for me because architectural training in Germany is more engineering-based whereas UK architectural courses are much more creative and arts-based, which suited me better,’ she says.

Norden returned to Conran’s, working closely at the beginning with its founder, Sir Terence Conran. She has since been loyal to the practice, steadily working her way up the ladder. Her body of work has included masterplanning and residential projects, but she remains passionate about hospitality, a sector she has specialised in. ‘Ever since my first project, which was a bar in Iceland that I had a blast working on, hospitality has always drawn me because I’m passionate about food, travelling and the people in the industry who love what they do,’ says Norden. ‘The nice thing about hospitality projects is that you’re designing spaces for people’s leisure time where they go to enjoy themselves.’

Norden adds that unlike other interiors, a striking feature of hospitality, in particular bars and restaurants, is that there is an intense functionality to it. For example, food and drinks are served to a lot of people, which requires technical and operational considerations, and careful planning is needed on how the space works. Another key aspect of restaurants and bars is to create that all important ‘wow’ effect.

But to design an interior that achieves this in an age of social media and Instagram is increasingly hard, especially with information travelling globally in an instant, a fact not missed by Norden, who points out that designers need to watch this development very closely. ‘It can be very hard to develop something that is truly original nowadays and the field is a lot broader. Creating an identity for a scheme that sets itself apart from the rest is challenging,’ she says. ‘When Conran’s Quaglino’s opened over 20 years ago the trend was for big, dramatic restaurants, while today, the tiny chef-owned idiosyncratic personal place takes people’s imagination.”

For inspiration, Norden says she’s always on the lookout for new ideas, whether it’s through visiting the latest bars and restaurants, attending industry events or travelling (she spends about half her time outside of the UK).

The first of the Ruya restaurants opened on the Dubai Marina in 2016. Norden describes the interiors as having ‘a richness to them’. Credit: Luke HayesThe first of the Ruya restaurants opened on the Dubai Marina in 2016. Norden describes the interiors as having ‘a richness to them’. Credit: Luke Hayes

Ensuring longevity in restaurant and bar design can be difficult as it’s a sector where fashion inevitably sneaks in. However, Conran’s has been pretty successful at this. For example, Norden led the interior design project for the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross, now considered something of a classic. Conran also worked on the former Great Eastern Hotel nearly 20 years ago and only last year the practice refurbished its interiors for Hyatt’s rebranding exercise, for what is now called the Andaz Liverpool Street. Norden says it was a challenging project given that they were working to a tight budget and every hotel bedroom had to be different.

‘The best chance of creating an interior that’s timeless is all about creating a narrative and developing a design that’s specific for the site,’ says Norden. ‘Keep fashionable items and colours that might change to things like the upholstery. Striking that balance between things that are relevant but have their own strong story is key.’

Norden is well-placed to provide an insight into where restaurant and bar design is heading. She says it’s hard to predict given that fashions change within months, but she does suggest that there is a striving for authenticity and a more people-centric approach to design. Colour, she says, always changes and is the most fashion-based. We’ve been in an age of muted, subtle pastels she says, and suggests that colour will continue to be much bolder.

Given Norden’s breadth of experience, can she offer any key lessons to budding designers?

‘Listening is crucial, whether it’s to your colleagues, client or another consultant. Giving people the benefit of their experience and taking that on board is important,’ says Norden. ‘Being firm in your opinions is also key – if you take on absolutely everything that people say to you it becomes the proverbial camel. It’s important that as designers we have a very strong vision and we stand by that. After all, that’s what clients pay us for.’

As a partner, Norden increasingly curates projects where she has to make some tough decisions to ensure different elements of a scheme come together harmoniously. This can often mean that some strong ideas developed over time may be rejected and put aside, which can be hard, but she says that being ruthless at times is a necessary part of the design process.

Given that Norden has worked on many projects of great complexity and variety, is there anything left that would fire her imagination?

‘The project I would still love to do is a resort,’ she enthuses. ‘They demand all the skills. There’s architecture, interiors, landscape, everything merged together – it’s almost like creating an overall vision. What’s great about a resort is that there is no distinction between the architect and the interior designer – the lines are much more blurred and there’s a general understanding that these should be designed by the same hand. It would be amazing to design a resort somewhere in Europe, like Croatia – now that would be fun!’

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