‘I don’t follow trends, I make them’: Joanna Wood discusses her remarkable career

We discuss British brands, historical buildings and long-term trends with Joanna Wood, the founder of Joanna Wood International Interior Design.

With over 25 years’ experience working in luxury interiors, Joanna Wood is recognised as one of the UK’s top interior designers. Her practice, Joanna Wood International Interior Design – or ‘Joanna Trading’ – may be based in London’s Belgravia, but its services are sought after by clients from all over the world. Eager to find out more about the Joanna Wood Interior Design studio, DesignCurial spoke to the extraordinary woman at its heart, discovering her thoughts on trends, restoring historical buildings, and why British brands are the future.

We start the conversation by looking back, and discussing how Wood became interested in interior design; it turns out that even as a child, interior design was on Wood's mind. “I was the ‘nightmare child’ who moved furniture around in her room endlessly,” she laughs. “I asked for new wallpaper for my bedroom for a Christmas present. I always loved organising and reorganising things, so it’s definitely in my persona.” Her first experience working in interior design, however, too place in the mid-eighties, when Wood began to work at Asprey.

“I worked for a really good lady there, who was also partly trained as an architect,” Wood explains. “I went in right from day one not only doing interiors but doing architecture as well. It’s a very important part of who I am, and what my practice is.” With Asprey being a luxury brand, Wood found herself working at the top from day one – but she didn’t stick around for very long. “I set up my own business when I was very young, I was in my mid-twenties. I’m afraid I absolutely jumped in with a lot more enthusiasm than knowledge, and absolutely learnt on the hoof.” Wood confesses. “I was really ambitious!”

This ambition, however, paid off; over the years Wood has worked on everything from a castle in Spain to a private jet. “I’ve had the most amazing career and worked on some brilliant things,” she says. Some of these incredible projects include the major renovation of historical properties. “We’re one of the specialists in restoration,” Wood explains. Again, this interest stemmed from her youth. “I was lucky enough to have been brought up in a 17th century house,” she says. “I took on board a bit of the history by osmosis. Both my parents were historians.”

These projects are often the most challenging for Wood and her team, especially when it comes to the integration of services. “Client requirements are now so sophisticated; trying to get air-con into an 18th century building is not easy!” Wood says. “I think the UK has the highest criteria in terms of planning for historic buildings, of any country in the world. It’s a very good thing, in terms of the heritage of our country, but it’s a more difficult thing in terms of the fabric of the buildings and the integration of modern services. People live differently [now], even from 50 years ago, let alone 500.”

In contrast, one of Wood’s favourite parts of the design process is the “organisation and planning of spaces. Reorganising spaces, and using them for something else that [the client] might not have thought about.” She gives the example of refurbishing a residential property, and swapping the kitchen and reception spaces. However, Wood says that even through this process of reorganising rooms, “one of the criteria that I think is very important is respecting the architecture of the building”.

Restoring and adapting these historical buildings is only part of what the Joanna Wood Interior Design practice is capable of; the team can work on a range of classic and contemporary projects, often at the same time. “There are things on the ‘classical’ side that are very much more historic, shall we say. Think 18th or 19th century; these will incorporate antiques and antique art,” Wood explains, discussing the range of typical interiors she might find herself designing.

This range moves all the way over to contemporary properties. “Those are going to have a much more minimalist, avant-garde approach,” says Wood. “There is also a huge raft in the middle, which is a combination of the two. I feel most comfortable in the middle. We’re very able to do contemporary classics; for instance, it’s really nice to walk in [to a penthouse] and see a piece of Louis Quinze furniture, with a piece of modern art hanging above it. [I like] mixing the genres.”

“I like everybody to work on a cross section of projects,” Wood says of her 15-strong design team. “I have a finger in just about every pie, really, [but] I think everyone enjoys the stimulus of moving from project to project… I make everyone do the full picture, from the beginning of the job, the space planning, to the installation and even plumping cushions. Everyone works on all aspects of the [project]. I think it gives people psychological responsibility and involvement; they’re not just involved in one piece of the jigsaw and passing it on, they’re involved until the last piece of the jigsaw is put in place.”

Working extensively in both the private residential market and the property investment market, one would expect that when it comes to trends, Wood must have her finger on the pulse. When asked about this, however, she simply laughs: “I don’t follow trends, I make them!” After 25 years of working in luxury design, it’s no surprise. So, what exactly does this pioneering designer hope will start trending next?

“We are looking at trying to live softly on the planet,” Wood reveals. “I’m looking at saving energy, the way people live, practicalities - that kind of thing. It’s important, and hopefully will be a very long-term trend. It’s very much on the top of my list. More stylistically, [we’re] using sustainable products, natural products… trying to use things that come from local sources. That’s important to us now; it’s about [using] local fabrics, stones and materials, and it’s also about local texture.”

“[Local texture means] using things like wool and grass cloths,” the designer elaborates. “Things that are available locally. I also think that as we go into Brexit, we are focusing on sourcing from the UK. I actually [chose not to go] to Maison & Objet [this year] for the first time in many years, but I [did go] to Birmingham. I’m trying to patronise UK fairs and UK products in a focused way.”

Though her passion for British products is clear, Wood maintains that every choice is always made by the client – even if the client usually picks the British products she offers, when choosing between them and products from abroad. “Clients want to source ethically,” Wood responds, when asked why clients might select the British products. “That’s why it’s important that we, the professionals, give clients choices in a focused and informed way.”

This freedom of choice, Wood mentions, is paramount when it comes to clients choosing between her brands or other options. As well as running her own interior design studio and homeware shop, Wood is a partner at Lawson Wood, a bespoke upholstery company; has established decorative antiques company Phillips and Wood; and also co-founded fabric and wallpaper company, Lewis and Wood. “We are absolutely never nepotistic,” Wood says seriously. “We use what’s out in the market place and what’s best for the job.”

“In our design too, we do a lot of bespoke,” she argues. “It doesn’t necessarily mean supersonically expensive [products], it just means you’ve spent the time and trouble making something individual. Factory made pieces are like lego; they come in blocks, and my experience is that houses and rooms aren’t made in blocks – certainly not some of the older ones. People don’t live in blocks, they live in individual spaces.”

Interestingly, Wood notes that in comparison to private clients, there is a difference when it comes to working for developers. Instead of having the developer having specific idea in mind, it’s often up to her design team to decide what to do with show apartment’s interior. “Developers don’t [know what they want], so what we do is try and make sure that we keep up with the market, and ahead of the trends,” she explains. "Very often, your potential buyer is looking for something a bit out of the ordinary and that they wouldn’t usually choose or pick. You can be a bit more out there for a development project.”

Currently, development projects that the Joanna Wood Interior Design studio are currently working on include a “Savills development in Chelsea” and “a very hip penthouse”. On the other end of the scale, the studio are working on a private restoration of a house near Hyde Park. “We’re stripping back layers of additions and working very hard to reproduce a lot of the Edwardian detailing, joinery and architectural idiom, including rebuilding the façade,” Wood reveals.

“It’s a big job. The planners and historical builders love it; it got played with in the 70s, so we’re looking for purity of design there, which is interesting.” Another of the teams, she continues, is “doing major restoration on a master’s lodge at Corpus Christie, [a college at] Cambridge University. It’s very historically sensitive, and needs to be handled with [care].”

With the interview coming to a close, talk returns to working with private clients. Wood hints that the meeting she is about to go to is with a long-term client. “I have some clients that I’ve had my whole career,” she says with a smile. “In fact, I’m going to see an apartment I did over 20 years ago in South Kensington – the client wants a refurbishment, and I’m wondering what [the apartment] looks like!”

Wood mentions that over her career, she has even become friends with some of her private clients. “You get to know them very well, you become fond of them... I sometimes know more about clients than probably their husbands or wives do!” she laughs. But what does Wood think keeps clients coming back to her studio? With a pause for thought, the renowned interior designer replies, “hopefully people come back to us because they think that we’ve read their style well. I hope they think we’re a safe pair of hands.”


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