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

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