LONDON, United Kingdom — “I think that the irony of me designing stores is that my first job as a student was at Harrods and I only got it to get the staff discount. I had seen a documentary on television about Harrods when I was still living in Dublin and thought ‘Oh, I’m going to apply there so I can buy nice clothes.” Indeed, a few decades later David Collins is a highly sought-after architect and interior designer and counts the iconic department store in Knightsbridge amongst his clients.
Since he founded his firm, David Collins Studio, in 1985, Collins made his name designing some of London’s most celebrated drinking and eating venues, including Piccadilly brunch institution The Wolseley and a number of luxurious hotel bars, including the shimmering Connaught. He has also designed hotel and restaurant interiors as well as private residences everywhere from Cape Town to Bangkok.
But lately, Collins has been increasingly in demand among an international set of blue-chip clients from the world of fashion, including Bergdorf Goodman, Milanese heritage brand Larusmiani and Alexander McQueen. And, just today luxury footwear brand Jimmy Choo has announced that it has enlisted David Collins Studio to come up with a new concept for its global fleet of stores, to be unveiled in Beverly Hills next year.
Collins grew up in Dublin, “reading fashion reports in the Irish papers.” One of his earliest memories is of colour, “I remember sleeping in a pale blue room and loving the colour of the room.” And from a young age, he was a precocious design geek, perusing books of glamorous black-and-white photographs of golden-age Hollywood stars at his local library when he was only nine years old.
“I understood that something that is done really simply but beautifully can become very interesting. It is difficult to explain rationally why, but has something to do with the sense that I get when I look at a piece of lacquer, whether it is a sprayshop [job] or the result of 27 individually applied layers of colour each one left to dry for 72 hours before the next application... Or if I look at a piece of Chanel jewellery, it's just leaded glass that’s got a pearlescent paint colour on it, but since I was a kid, I find all of that fascinating. I don’t know why, but I do.”
Collins’ early affinity for colour and gleaming surfaces that conceal a complex understory have remained a constant influence throughout his career. In fact, the luminosity he discovered in photography books and cinema are evident in his interior-design work, which tends to have a varnished, jewel-box quality, often enriched with layered textures and unusual patterns. The colour blue, in particular, is of recurrent significance in Collins’ design lexicon as well as in his personal wardrobe. “People tease me that everything I wear is another iteration of exactly the same thing.”
He studied architecture at the Bolton Street School of Architecture. “It seemed something creative that didn’t take a great deal of hard work to get by on.” But after practising for a couple of years, Collins fell into interior design by accident, when someone asked him to design their house the day after he had quit his secure day-job. “It happened by lucky happenchance, there was nothing planned about it. I knew nothing about fabrics or paint. But while I got into this second career by accident, it started with a momentum that has never stopped.”
As he rose to the top of his profession with landmark projects like the Blue Bar at the Berkeley and Claridge’s Bar, Collins says he has challenged himself with every new project “I always tell myself, if I am going to do this job, how can I make it more interesting or make it different, that’s what has driven my career. And sometimes I try something that Miuccia Prada inspired me to do, which is I transport myself into a more difficult place and say ‘what if chromium yellow was my favourite colour, how would I do that?’ Because sometimes you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone in order to be creative.”
Similarly, he is not afraid of deliberately upending conventions of taste, “When I first started working, the epitome of bad taste was gold taps, that’s how you summed up bad taste. So in a lot of the early work I did, I used a lot of gold leaf because I thought, ‘Well, why is that bad taste? It’s only bad taste because someone has decided that chrome is cool.’ It’s quite challenging to change your perceptions.”
The second floor of Collins’ Fulham, London, studio is a beehive of activity, with 50 to 60 people working in different teams: residential, hotel and retail. “The better your team, the better chance you have to get the job done right. You must have the best artisans, the best contractors, and the best people to bring it in on time and on budget. We are a results-driven business, to us if a store is late it’s a big problem.”
Indeed the designer — whose work involves extensive prototyping of materials, treating materials in an interesting way or hand-dyeing materials — works with many craftsmen around the globe to achieve his famously perfectionist visions. Collins might like the design on a plate or a detail of a painting and have it blown up and turned into a silk carpet, or have a fabric hand-crocheted for a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture. “I make completely impractical things.” Consequently, every project is a logistical feat, as at any give time, Collins’ studio might be working with manufacturers and artisans in Britain, Italy and Nepal.
As a big part of his job is to review, edit and check on things, Collins is big on to-do lists and on writing things down, most often in the little Hermès ‘Globetrotter’ notebooks he has been using for years. “In the middle of the night I may think about how to cut up a fabric. And because I think very numerically, sometimes if I’m looking for ideas, I’ll just think of a list of 27 random things and write them down.”
But he makes it very clear that being an interior designer isn’t just about brainstorming and choosing fabrics. “My job is about managing expectations, planning financials, running a business. Designing is easy, getting things built is quite complicated. We’re building huge projects on the other side of the world, it’s quite challenging to deliver those things and requires a lot of resilience and thinking.”
Because of his stature in the field, Collins’ services come at no small cost to his clients, a price-tag he sees as an investment in their brands. “People can say that people like Peter Marino and I are expensive, but I think the value we return on businesses is undeniable.”
“The design business is a business that can be a model for losing money, because your ego can cause you to overdeliver. In a way, the better I do my job the less money I make. To get things looking good means going back and endlessly refinishing refining things, and that costs money. So you have to manage your ego and expectations.”
In collaboration with the label’s creative director Sarah Burton, Collins is responsible for the new look for Alexander McQueen stores that is being gradually rolled out around the world, from Bal Harbour and Shanghai, both unveiled last year, to the New York flagship that is set to open on Madison Avenue this summer. “I don’t go to many fashion shows but I had been to almost all the McQueen shows in Paris, so I really understood the almost fetishistic attention to detail and to reinterpreting the human form that is in the brand’s DNA.”
Collins used his expertise with materials and forms to translate the house’s specific vocabulary into a retail concept. “Lee McQueen started off in Savile Row as a serious cutter, so I wanted to take a material that could be as pliable as fabric and that you could drape in the same way. I decided to work in plaster to create these panels that are inspired by foliage, feathers, vertebrae, wings and bones and form the backdrop to the store.”
“Lee was also quite obsessed with the woman’s waist and I wanted to express that silhouette and in the end we did it through the ceilings which were really complicated to design.” Similarly, the fractured appearance of the marble floor at the Shanghai boutique is informed by a corset that Burton had made out of porcelain, then shattered into a thousand little shards and finally meticulously assembled back together.
But apart from such painstaking refinement, designing a luxury retail environment comes with its own unique set of practical challenges. “We have to tap into a palette that looks uniquely correct for the brand but at the same time doesn’t look anodyne. Moreover the store has to be something that can evolve with four collections a year. So even though the detail of the store is quite obsessive, it has to unfold very gradually. The store becomes more and more complex the closer you look.”
“We have to understand how the garments are going to be hung, how they’re going to be folded, how they’re going to be merchandised, how they’re going to be lit and, decide, from the beginning, ‘do we see this as an accessories store or do we see this as a clothing store.’ In the end, we’ve had to create something that is strong enough to be uniquely McQueen but commercial enough that it can be merchandised.”
After so many years in the business, Collins has no shortage of advice for students dreaming of designing beautiful interiors for a living. “Go and work for a really good firm, it’s quite a lonely business being an interior designer, it’s quite overwhelming if you’re on your own. And when I was starting out it wasn’t even as demanding as it is now,” he says. “A turning point for me was when I stopped listening to what people wanted and they started listening to what I wanted. It’s often the jobs you say no to that make your career.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 30 May, 2013. An earlier version of this article misstated that a corset made out of porcelain that informed the fractured appearance of the marble floor at Alexander McQueen's Shanghai boutique was designed by the founder of the house. It was not. The corset was from the Autumn/Winter 2011 collection designed by Sarah Burton.