John Stefanidis

The cosmopolitan interior designer is championing a charity that shares his passion for high-quality needlework

With his vast, internationally acclaimed portfolio, it is interesting that my conversation with John Stefanidis centres primarily on his involvement with Fine Cell Work, a British charity he is passionately keen to endorse.

Now in its 12th year, Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that — unlikely though it might sound — trains prison inmates in skilled, creative needlework, which they undertake during the long hours spent in their cells. All across the UK, inmates have been taught to embroider highly crafted cushions, bags, pictures and patchwork quilts, an idea that attracted the interest of Stefanidis more than a decade ago. The prisoners are taught and supported by volunteers from the Embroiderers’ and Quilters’ Guild and the finished products are of excellent quality.

‘It’s a wonderful charity,’ says Stefanidis. ‘To find people to do it is becoming rarer so this idea fills a gap. I have commissioned cushions from Cell Work, to my design, for houses in Istanbul, penthouses and villas in Greece, mansions in the American mid-west and apartments in New York and San Francisco. I look for something relevant to the taste of the owners or in some way sympathetic to the atmosphere and spirit of the location. In Istanbul, we had images of the Bosphorus, for example. But however specific you are about what you want, there’s always a margin where the embroiderers choose the colour or change the stitching so the products become works of art.’

The prisoners who take part are paid for their pieces, which are sold around the world, often as unique and handmade gifts. Some pieces are interior-design commissions for names such as Stefanidis, Jasper Conran and William Yeoward. Others are heritage pieces created for the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern and the National Gallery. The highest-earning prisoners stitch for as long as 40 hours a week and, on average, it takes 100 hours to produce any particular product. About 60 per cent of the charity’s income is from donations while the remaining 40 per cent comes from sales. More than 2,250 pieces were sold last year, earning the stitchers a collective income of more than £71,000.

Perhaps surprisingly, 75 per cent of the stitchers are men and the charity’s founder, the late Lady Anne Tree, was always keen to rebuke those who considered the idea too effeminate. Her standard response was: ‘If you feel this is poofy, don’t bother us because we don’t want to train you.’

Clearly needlework is a subject close to Stefanidis’s heart and a skill he fears is being largely replaced by cheap mass production. ‘I’ve always liked needlework because my mother was very good at it,’ he explains. ‘I find being in the same room as people doing needlework very restful. It takes a very long time so it has its own character. This is all hand done; when it’s on a machine its very, very nasty; the sort of work you see in souvenir shops. This is a skill. In the 18th and 19th centuries, everybody did needlepoint and sewing but that’s not the case any more. It means when prisoners leave they have something they’ve learnt to do very well. It’s a dying art but it’s been resuscitated and gives prisoners money to survive once they leave jail.’

Stefanidis boasts a prestigious, international clientele and has a look that combines a bold and original use of colour with an eclectic and cosmopolitan aesthetic. His style has been described as ‘versatile with a splendid unobtrusiveness’.

‘I interpret my client’s requirements and decide what they want,’ he says. ‘I’m part designer and part analyst.’

Born in pre-war Alexandria, he moved to the UK to study at Oxford University and began a career in interior design after buying and renovating a 16th-century house in the Greek islands. In 1967, Stefanidis established his architecture and interior design practice from a studio in Chelsea. Since then, John Stefanidis Brands Ltd has specialised in the architectural and interior design of residential properties and hotels.

Recent projects include two historic houses on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, apartments in Athens, a ranch house and cabins in Colorado, a mansion in Kuwait, apartments and country houses in the UK and a private house in St Petersburg. Stefanidis has also created acclaimed fabric and furniture ranges influenced by his love of travel and his renowned eye for ergonomic design.

‘Good design will use space and its decoration in a way that transcends fads and fashion,’ he concludes. ‘This is what we aspire to when creating the structure and surroundings that are to become homes.’

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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