A design designer

Aidan Walker meets Marta Nowicka, an ‘interior architect’ who from early days of designing offices with real grass for carpets and swings for visitors to play on, worked with property developers and now develops her own. But in her own, inimitable way...

The website blurb says it all: ‘Marta Nowicka is the founder and spearhead of Marta Nowicka & Co, a creative design studio that offers architectural solutions by creating a fusion between architecture, development, design, furniture, sculpture, fashion and the environment.’

It’s not actually her own site that says this, and if it does I haven’t been able to find it there. It comes from a certain design festival recently held in an area not a million miles from ‘east central’ London, but there is no reason to suppose that Nowicka didn’t write it herself, or have it written. What interests me about this ‘interior architect’ (haven’t heard that phrase for a while, have we?) is her multidisciplinary, multitalented, multistory approach to the work. Indeed I would cautiously suggest that Nowicka is one of those people who are ‘redesigning design’, to disinter a phrase with which regular readers of this column will already be familiar.

I first met a young, glamorous and enthusiastic Marta Nowicka rather longer ago than either of us would care to admit. In appearance the intervening years have treated her kindly, though she has had more than her fair share of personal sadness to deal with.

When we first met was working with John Brunton Partnership doing commercial interiors – usually offices – for comparatively bold and imaginative clients, and then as now displaying an accurate and highly attractive sense of colour and form, what works and what doesn’t, using materials that can be made to sing and never touching ones that might hit a bum note.

Spells freeelancing at Grimshaw (RAC Bristol headquarters) and Sheppard Robson (University of Manchester) followed. As an independent she created elegant interiors for clients such as The Body Shop and the Big Issue – with budgets to match – which led to the set-up of Nowicka Stern, her own practice, with partner Oded Stern-Meiraz. This is where the partnership was called things like ‘London’s hottest practice’, and indeed where Nowicka’s unerring sense of the Big Idea was really paying off.

An advertising agency reception area carpeted in real grass and using swings as seats for the waiting visitors got an enormous amount of press, as you would expect. Yes, fashionable and short-lived and with, shall we say, some fairly significant maintenance issues, but it made the impact that the client wanted, and clearly demonstrated the agency’s creativity and willingness to take risks.

What comes out in conversation in 2011 is the influence of property developer clients she was working with at this time on the large corporate projects, the spec offices, the business centres. Names such as Gerald Ronson and Nick Leslau crop up, not particularly because of the work she did for them, but more because she found herself fascinated by the way they think. ‘I began to learn the property trade with Nick Leslau,’ she says. ‘But people with a lot of money are often comparatively clueless.’ (She doesn’t mean Leslau, of course.) ‘Developers would buy a lump of land without really any idea what to do with it, then call me to ask what I thought, and help them make sense of it.

‘They are thinkers on a different scale. I see a building more at street level, how people will use it. Their thought processes start with profit, then they are forced to think about something else, the stuff that comes in between the purchase and the profit.

‘As designers we bring to mind the social and communal issues. We push integration, responsibility. We think about bins, seats, lighting, dark corners, safety. Julian Powell Tuck once told me my approach was like a product designer – to make things work. I’d say, make it work then make it beautiful.’

Nowicka mentions but does not expand on the death of her husband in 2001, and the resulting painful experience of recovery and taking stock of where she was and what she wanted to do. She was pregnant at the time he died, and with the birth of her son the ‘rethink’ took on an even greater significance. The following year she sold her share in Nowicka Stern – and the name – to Oded Stern and focused more on teaching, particularly at London Metropolitan, on an interior architecture course where the majority of the faculty were architects.

‘I wasn’t really comfortable there,’ she says. ‘They kept saying things like: “You’re the commercial one”,’ as if that was somehow a bad thing. ‘But teaching is important because it broadens your horizons as designer. You verbalise. It makes you understand what you do better.’ It’s certainly true that her verbalisation skills are uncommonly highly developed – for a designer.

Having absorbed the atmosphere that prevailed around the big corporate developers for and with whom she still worked, the turning point came in 2004-5, when she became fascinated with the potential of a historic building in Charles Square, what had once been Shoreditch County Courthouse. ‘I thought, “Yes, I can do this”,’ she says, with a hint of a gleam in the eye; and from that point the multidisciplinary Marta Nowicka & Co, Design and Development, was up and running.

Battling with change-of-use proposals, planning permissions and the endless bureaucracy that has to be satisfied before a project like this can get off the ground was hard work, but not completely unfamiliar ground. Eyewateringly huge bridging loans were less part of her experience, because previously she had always been dealing with other people’s money.

Nowicka is not in the habit of making a fuss about what she’s been through, so one has to surmise the extent to which her considerable courage and self-belief were put to the test. But it worked, and now she has nine such projects under her belt, and looking eagerly for more.

The Charles Square building made five apartments, ranging from 75 sq m to 130 sq m which in itself gives a clue about her characteristic approach to property development – she clearly isn’t in it just for the money. ‘I could make it work financially because I’m less greedy than the average developer,’ she says.

Normally one would have seen a building like that yield at least eight apartments, and of course they would be for sale. But Marta can’t bear to sell; once she has acquired and revived a building, it’s hers. The apartments are always for rent, which allows her to design and specify with her own taste, and against all the rules in the developer’s book, install high-quality furniture, fixtures and fittings. Certain death if you are one of Sarah Beeny’s protégés, but then what developer is also a designer? It also has to be said, in respect of the business model, that she doesn’t have to find the money for design fees, the planning consultations and much of the process that makes demands on the initial development budget.

A unique characteristic of her approach to the business is her hardbacked project diaries, a set of books that tell the story of each scheme. Facsimile letters, change-of-use proposals, grants of planning permission, bills, pictures of staircases full of dry rot or builders displaying generous Dagenham cleavage in front of panoramic east London cityscapes; it’s all here, all personal, all passionate.

Nowhere is this very particular approach more evident than her own house in Clerkenwell, a former warehouse, stables and hayloft which used to house the Nowicka Stern studio and now accommodates herself and her son plus the ‘nerve centre’ office on the ground floor.

It is a building full of surprises, from the glass panels in the floors that ensure you can see the sky from the ground floor to the completely mirrored bathroom – and I mean completely, walls, ceiling and floor – so that the reflection of yourself goes literally into infinity. If you’ve had a rough night, use the one downstairs. Going upstairs, look up through one of the right-angle windows covering a section of both wall and roof and be astonished by the tower of neighbouring St Luke’s Church, a Hawksmooresque reminder of Clerkenwell’s elegant architectural history and now the home of the London Symphony Orchestra.

When it comes down to it, this house is the key to Marta Nowicka’s vision, her way of seeing. ‘I sat on the rooftop for days,’ she says, ‘working out what to do, how to see, what I wanted to see from the house.’ The sort of thing you often hear architects and designers say; but in this case the underlying belief in her own vision, and the courage to realise it against at times overwhelming odds, sets her apart.

Whether she represents a model for the ways in which design and designers must change for the world to come is arguable; but either way, for someone like me who has been fascinated and endlessly entranced by design and designers most of his working life, here indeed is a designer of design.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial