LONDON, United Kingdom — The morning BoF met with designer Faye Toogood at her sun-flooded studio overlooking Regent’s Canal, she had just been on the phone with Phillip Lim’s office to discuss a pop-up shop at Selfridges and met with a materials research specialist with whom she might collaborate.
“I would love to have someone in-house that is dedicated purely to inventing and exploring materials,” she said. “Whether you are a fashion designer, a furniture designer, or an interior designer, the materials you can get your hands on are essential, because you are always looking for a new way to interpret your designs and to explain your story.”
Directly after our interview, Toogood will meet with a perfumer for whom she’s designing a series of retail interiors around the world. “That involves considering every single detail down to how someone is going to experience fragrance testing, how they are going to pick up a bottle of fragrance, and what their experience will be when they purchase it.”
Then, she’s got a meeting with one of the designers that works for her to discuss a pay-rise. “As a small business owner, I also have to handle HR. We are currently 12, so everybody, including myself, has to deal with top clients and empty the bins.”
This snapshot of Toogood’s agenda offers a telling glimpse into the designer’s work life, which is not only busy, but unusually varied. Indeed, Toogood’s precise job description is tricky to pin down. She jokingly calls herself a “polymath tinker.”
“The tinker probably really explains who I am a bit — he’s not that good at anything in particular but moves from one thing to another and likes to tinker around with lots of things,” she said. “He’ll put this together and then that and it sort of works or it might not work, but he is not worried about it.”
“My job is to think about how people live, work, play, purchase…. And in some way, I am almost like a medium for clients, they come to me saying ‘I’m all about this Faye, can you create a space or experience for me,’” she continued.
In recent years, Toogood has been a “medium” for some of the world’s leading fashion brands, creating interiors, sets, pop-up shops and installations for clients including Kenzo, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçon’s Dover Street Market. Toogood’s work for these clients is characterised by a whimsical, artistic sensibility that’s balanced with rigorous design elements, such as the mountain of precisely stacked — and then carefully disarrayed — boxes she designed for Comme des Garçon’s Aoyama mother-ship.
For the first Kenzo show under the creative direction of Humberto Leon and Carol Lim (Spring/Summer 2012), for instance, Toogood channelled the newly appointed duo’s playful, contemporary attitude with a riot of colourful, larger-than-life geometric shapes, thus transforming the brand’s elegant Parisian headquarters and its beige courtyard into a youthful landscape that was perfectly in tune with the label’s new positioning.
“I am interested not just in what the floor and the walls are going to look like but also the sensory experience that the customer is going to have. Everyone can order something online now, so my job is to figure out a way to get people to be physically involved in and interact with spaces. I think people still want that connection with space and physicality.”
Toogood also designs a line of furniture and objets d’art. “The furniture side of my business is my personal work, the furniture and the objects are me.” Indeed, her sculptural, timeless assemblages and tables, based on pure geometric forms, at once primitive and modern, seem to have a distinctly different tone to the often playful environments she creates for her clients.
Toogood, who grew up in the tiny county of Rutland, Central England, studied art history and fine art in Bristol. “When I was really young I wanted to be an astronaut, but I quickly realized that that wasn’t going to happen because I wasn’t clever enough… I think not studying design has been the best thing that I ever did. Because I don’t have that set of rules that a lot of designers have when they come out of school.”
A year after graduating, Toogood went to work as a stylist at the Condé Nast publication The World of Interiors. “Looking back, World of Interiors was where I got my foundation, it was where I learned how to make things because we had photo shoots with very small budgets, so I was doing sets, and I had my hands on 18th century furniture of great value. I got a very good knowledge of and appreciation for the past.”
But after eight years, Toogood bid adieu to the magazine world. “I wanted to do my own work and investigate my own thoughts. And I wanted to go back to the physicality of sculpture, to work in three dimensions rather than in a two-dimensional magazine.”
In 2008, she launched her own design firm, Studio Toogood, “to create environments that people would actually use and come into. It became a bit of a greedy way of working. Creating a space is like giving a present to someone, it’s essentially a selfish act, because it’s for you. You create the space to watch someone walk in and use it. That is where the gratification lies, and it is still so exciting for me.”
“There weren’t any multi-disciplinary design agencies at the time, in the 80s and the 90s people specialized,” she continued. “You were an architect or a graphic designer or a fashion designer and that was what you did. And if you were a product designer, you didn’t move into interiors, you just did product.”
Another of Studio Toogood’s founding principles was a commitment to originality. “Everything that I’ve done before, I am not going to do it again. From a business perspective that’s not a sensible way of working, because it means constant reinvention, constant new ideas and actually takes up a lot of time.”
Since launch, the agency has grown to a dozen employees, whom Toogood characterises as “misfits” who refuse to be put in a box, like herself. “It’s artists who want to design chairs and architects who’d rather be working on shop displays than designing buildings that will take five years to become reality.”
But with her involvement in so many projects, at such a “nitty-gritty” level, when does she actually have time to come up with new ideas and design?
“I think a lot of people think when they want to go into design that they will be sitting there designing all day. And I would love, love to have time to be designing all day, but in actuality, I have to carve out time certain days in my week as workshop time, as time to design, otherwise I can get absorbed in the running of a business quite quickly or dealing with clients.”
“The more high-up you come in design, the more difficult it is to keep your hands on the design. Design is not just about sitting there and drawing something and coming up with an idea. If you can’t make that happen physically, technically and commercially, it’s not going to happen. If I can’t sit there and convince the client to part with some money and that this is going to work, then we have nothing.”
Toogood never planned to work in fashion, but she clearly loves it. “What’s great about the fashion world is it’s willing to look outside of its own industry in a way that other fields aren’t. The fashion world is very happy to look out and be inspired by different things going on.”
”Working with fashion clients is very liberating for me: it’s fast, the budgets are always difficult, they need everything tomorrow, but that really suits my magazine background, because basically whether it’s a fashion shoot, a fashion show or a shop, there’s never any time, there’s never any budget, and it’s always got to happen, it’s always got to look fantastic, it’s got to be instant and powerful.“
While Toogood regards being independent as her biggest accomplishment, it also poses a challenge: “I’ve worked hard to have my own business which gives me a great sense of freedom, but it is not that easy. The biggest challenge is to commercialise what I do to ensure that I run a business. I have no business training, I don’t have a business partner, and we don’t have an investor, so I have to use my own intuition.”
So what advice does Toogood have for aspiring interior designers with an eye for fashion?
When I was younger, I was very conscientious, always worrying, always wanting to do really well and please others. I wish someone had said to me: ‘Forget what anyone thinks of you and just be yourself and do it for yourself. That way you’ll achieve more, because if you’re constantly worrying about what you should be doing…. Just follow your instinct and follow your heart. Be fearless.”