A FEEL FOR DESIGN
ILSE CRAWFORD’S DESIGNS ARE VISUALLY PLEASING, BUT THAT’S LESS IMPORTANT THAN HOW THEY ARE TO TOUCH. HER STUDIO IS A FEAST FOR ALL THE SENSES.
Ilse Crawford runs her design studio from Neckinger Mills, a 19th-century tannery warehouse in south London with huge casement windows through which bright sunlight is streaming on this clear winter’s day. The studio is pleasantly cluttered with foam board models and clay prototypes lining windowsills alongside collections of teapots and other paraphernalia that’s more personal than professional. It is a feast for the eyes, but the influential British designer would prefer that you use your other senses: smell the clementines in large bowls on the tables; taste the rustic quiche shared around a wooden worktable cleared for lunch; listen to each other; and especially, touch: a sheepskin thrown over a bench, fabric samples in her favoured mohair velvet, or the surface of a sideboard made using ancient Bosnian wood carving techniques.
We’re at Studioilse specifically to discuss a curvaceous stainless steel water pitcher she’s designed for the Danish brand Georg Jensen, but also to talk about the philosophies underpinning her 17-year-old interiors and product design practice. Renowned for an understated style that combines a pared-back Scandinavian sensibility with a sophisticated take on English comfort, Crawford is refreshingly straightforward about her approach. At its heart is an interrogation of what the object or interior needs to be and needs to do.
“It’s about asking the fundamental questions, that’s what design is. You are trying to make this new reality that makes sense. I don’t like to use the word process because it makes it sound clinical, but it’s so important to slow down the beginning of the process and eliminate all the things that don’t matter before you go into the physical part of it.”
She says it’s about bringing together “cool head, warm heart” so that one tests the other. Instead of focusing on how things look, they talk in the studio about the “six inches around you” because the experience of being in a space is more likely to be defined by the immediate surroundings than the space you see beyond that.
Generally, she says, we want to feel at home irrespective of where we are, to prioritise the unmeasurable stuff: atmosphere, beauty, tactility and comfort, the things that slow us down and ground us so that we’re properly living rather than just passing through. One wall in the studio is plastered with Post-it notes documenting daily rituals, not just the nice ones but messy ones like cleaning out the hair from the plughole in the shower.
“I am very interested in how you frame those normal moments, upgrading the ordinary through design,” says Crawford. “In a way the whole thing is about that.”
A starting point for the Georg Jensen pitcher was understanding the daily rituals involving water. “It was quite liberating because it got rid of a whole load of things that we had initially considered. Focusing on the experience of using something on a daily basis became the only thing we were really interested in.”
The pitcher joins a collection of vases Crawford has dubbed the Mamas because they’re almost pregnant
with water, and there’s a telling exchange during her presentation that exemplifies her broader thinking. “We’d done Big Mama and Mini-Mama at the beginning, then we did sort of Teenage Mama somewhere along the line and this basically is Skinny Mama,” she says with a laugh. “If the pitcher encourages you to drink water in a beautiful way, then why not?” It sure beats a plastic water bottle, and with a capacity of 1.2L it’s more capacious than many of them too.
But the editor of a German magazine, who says her girlfriends have phone apps that prompt them to drink water, objects to the stainless steel because she can’t see what’s inside or how much is in there. “The design is beautiful but when you can’t see into it that makes me suspicious, she says.
“You should be able to feel it surely”, says Crawford picking up the pitcher with a quizzical look. “I mean you should know just by how much it weighs and you would have filled it yourself.” It’s a perfect example of what she thinks is wrong in the contemporary design world where sight is prioritised over other senses. Some call it ocular centrism and argue that it has contributed to a reduction in the amount of thought that goes into industrial design and architecture.
“We have been turned into such a visually driven generation because of the way that design has developed over the past few decades,” Crawford laments. Her husband Oscar Peña, an industrial designer who is head of product design at Studioilse, is Colombian and his family’s favourite parlour game is guessing weights and measures using jars of rice or whatever is at hand.
“Old ladies and kids are brilliant at it but our generation are useless,” says Crawford. “I did it once with [British architect] David Chipperfield and he was useless at it. His mother-in-law won. We don’t know what anything weighs because we are so used to resorting to other means to tell us.” She’s been trying to awaken people’s sense for decades, writing a book Sensual Home in 1997, which was a sort of manifesto for a better life based around liberating your senses.
As founder and head of the department of Man and Wellbeing at the Design Academy, Eindhoven, one of the exercises she gives students is to write a list of everything they touch in a day. “It’s always so revealing. If you want to make a start as a designer, look at the things you would ordinarily use and make those better, and use that as a starting point for any project and ask your client the same.”
Her own starting point was not via a formal design education. After studying the history of architecture, she became the founding editor of Elle Decoration in the late 80s, where she’s credited with introducing modern style to a broader audience and showing houses that people actually lived in. During her nine-year tenure she featured 5000 homes – no better way, she says, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Crawford attributes some of her subsequent success to her journalistic skills.
“It’s getting to the bottom of a lot of relevant or irrelevant information to understand what’s the central story, then being able to communicate it – that’s very useful to a designer. We often take our clients a long way from what they thought they were going to get, so being able to build a narrative is incredibly useful because otherwise it’s, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, which is not very helpful if you are trying to make something different.”
Another experience she brings from her magazine days is how good things sometimes happen by accident. The most popular item she’s made for Georg Jensen, a candlestick with an off-centre candle and almost molten-looking brass base, came out of this sort of happenstance. They were playing with a lid for a bowl and loved its shape so much they turned it into a candleholder. “So accidents are an important part of the design process.” The candleholder is more about the light and the feeling of a candle than the holder itself, and in that sense it’s true to Crawford’s central tenet,
which is about not making a big statement or reveal.
“It should be intuitive. Good design requires so much thought and rigour to make it invisible – I know that sounds funny – but then it becomes a part of your new reality.” When design becomes an extension of life, it starts to support and add value, she says.
Studioilse comprises a 20-strong team of architects, interior and product designers and strategists, working across the spectrum from designing first-class lounges for Cathay Pacific to the quietly luxurious Ett Hem hotel in Stockholm, to consoles and tables for Zanat, a company set up to bring work to skilled carvers in the Sarajevo area, and a wildly popular cork furniture range for Ikea. Crawford says no more often than she says yes to new commissions, having decided she never wants to move from this naturally lit atmospheric studio space – its capacity dictates their workload. Indeed, she’s so enamoured of the listed Bermondsey building that she and her husband are converting an upstairs floor into their home.
Context is so important to Crawford that when she launched a furniture collection in Copenhagen a couple of years ago, she took over The Apartment, a design gallery based in an 18th-century apartment. Calling it a residency, she repainted the apartment and filled it with books, art, objects and, most importantly, people, whom she gathered around her oiled chestnut dining tables for salon-style dinners. Her furniture was secondary. “I really want people to actually inhabit it, not just do that weird thing that people do which is wander around looking at furniture standing up,” Crawford said at the opening.
“She really analyses the place so her work has another depth besides being an interior decorator,” says Tina Seidenfaden Busck, who owns and runs The Apartment and whose own style is revered by design fans. Letting Crawford loose in her apartment was a fascinating experience. “Ilse is known for making projects that feel they are lived in and cosy and all that; but it’s not just the aesthetic, she’s looking at the actual place, what is the neighbourhood, who is living there.”
This was especially apposite last year when Crawford did a pro-bono project with chef Massimo Bottura to transform St Cuthbert’s Day Centre in Earls Court, a daytime refuge and soup kitchen in a typically bleak old church hall. Bottura chose this open-door centre as a London venue for his Food for Soul Refettorio project. The Michelin-starred chef has set up several such Refettorios, which use surplus food in a restaurant environment, where vulnerable local people are not only well fed but waited on. Renaming St Cuthbert’s Refettorio Felix, he brought together the food waste charity Felix, chef friends and volunteers and enlisted Crawford to redecorate the run-down centre.
“He just told me to make it beautiful,” Crawford says of her brief. And she did. The space is uplifting and welcoming with walls and ceilings were painted two shades of mossy green, floors sanded back to natural wood and layers of paper lanterns creating a softer atmosphere in the cavernous room. Crawford co-opted the likes of Vitra and Alessi to donate furniture and dinnerware while Artemide provided some of Chipperfield’s prized wall sconces. Even the institutional kitchen got the Studioilse treatment with dark blue Mutina tiles to make it feel more domestic.
“It’s had an incredible impact: when people walk in you can see the reactions because normally these centres are very dark and grim,” says Stephen Milton, manager of the 25-year-old centre. “Our clients are incredibly diverse. We have rough sleepers, homeless, people with substance abuse, a lot of old people who are isolated and living in hostels and bedsits without cooking facilities.” Run for six weeks with celebrity chefs and attendant hype, Refettorio Felix is now permanently run by Milton and his team. Whereas it used to get 50 people daily, 70 now come, he says. “People’s behaviour changes when they come in here, they seem to respect the environment better here than they do anywhere else, it’s unbelievable.”
Crawford is chuffed to see design at work in such a fundamental way. While not wanting to oversimplify the challenges, she says it taught her something broader about the benefit of the championing of the individuals there and how design can assist in rebuilding dignity and creating community.
“Good design requires so much thought and rigour to make it invisible, then it becomes your new reality.”
This page: the materials room; Crawford’s 2014 book; the Georg Jensen candle holder and ‘Mama’ pitchers; opposite, St Cuthbert’s Day Centre, now Refettorio Felix, in Earls Court
Ilse Crawford and her light-filled studio in Bermondsey, London