Following the untimely death of David Collins in 2013 from skin cancer, The David Collins Foundation was created to commemorate him, his work, his passion for the arts, and his love of beauty. The Foundation's board of trustees comprises his friends and his colleagues.
The David Collins Foundation seeks to support talented artists and designers at pivotal points in their careers across a diverse range of artistic mediums, allowing them to focus on their research and to develop their practice.
In 2018 at The Arts Foundation's 25th anniversary awards, The David Collins Foundation awarded burseries to glass artist Jochen Holz and choreographer Alexander Baczynski-Jenkins. In 2019, Will Harris won the Poetry award sponsored by The David Collins Foundation.
Registered charity number: 1165634
There emerged a need to put in place a significant reminder of David Collins' life and energy for those who were involved.
A static memorial seemed almost hilariously inappropriate for a person who resonated with ceaseless and curious energy and zeal. He, of course, adored art across a wide, provocative, fascinating and difficult to define horizon.
It could justifiably be said that his role, his reputation and his contribution to culture was through design but he managed to turn his life itself into a complex, elegant, intriguing, funny and extravagant work of art. Establishing a Foundation would ensure that his legacy could enable future episodes of pushing possibilities and questioning conformity.
In 2017 The David Collins Foundation affiliated itself with The Arts Foundation. A vital and effective organization with the fundamental objective of making art possible by providing artists across limitless disciplines and mediums with the support and secure pragmatism necessary to keep the world a more inspiring place.
The Arts Foundation, based in Brighton, is a powerful organism of very clever and committed people. Shelley Warren, however, is pretty much the entire staff of the organisation and has become a close friend of David Collins Studio. With her, and The Arts Foundation, The David Collins Foundation has become a fascinating, diverse and ongoing testament to a sincere belief in the value of art.
Housed within a community of creative altruism and activity, The Arts Foundation office is a single desk buried beneath well-organized documents and objects. Within minutes of meeting Shelley feels like a friend that you haven’t seen for a while which, whether by instinct or skill, is surely a useful gift.
Graham Erickson: How did The David Collins Foundation become associated with The Arts Foundation, and what do you think both parties get from the union?
Shelley Warren: We rely on funding from outside organizations and legacies so having an award funded each year is a wonderful asset for us. We have been around since 1993 and our way of getting support to the right artists is very streamlined and transparent – and after 25 years we are well established within the Arts community which benefits everyone. The David Collins Foundation optimizes their benevolence by drawing on our position and the fit felt mutually right and comfortable from the start. They define what a partner organization should do by going beyond simply transferring the award monies, but caring passionately about the awards and who gets them and what values and reasons constitute the reason to award a finalist and, ultimately, a Fellow.
GE: So, explain the finalist – Fellow distinction.
SW: It may not seem hugely important but we felt that to describe artists as shortlisted when they were actually award winners felt wrong. So, we came up with a system for the finalists. There are four of these within a category and, as a finalist, all are awarded £1,000 and feature in The Arts Foundation Directory. Out of these, one is awarded the distinction of Fellow and awarded the sum of £10,000. A fellowship is permanent and, we think, quite a special gesture of recognition.
GE: And I think I’m right in that the actual award sum is given without any conditions or stipulation of use, is that so?
SW: Absolutely. That is critical to our ideals, that the award is not a commission but is there to support the artists to move to another level in whatever way they see fit. There is a commitment in artists, certainly in those we have recognized, to use any resource as an investment in their work. I think artists don’t really get the credit they deserve for being prudent, resourceful and commercially agile.
Also, the actual process of selecting an artist, filtering down to the finalists and ultimately agreeing on a Fellow is based on an awful lot of research and consideration. As we cover all of the Arts we cannot be experts in fields from conducting to materials innovation! So each year we use a carefully selected group of nominators including curators, artists, journalists, academics and even bloggers! There are also notional restrictions such as they must be a UK resident which is very different to nationality or origin. Simply, we ask that they live full time in the UK at the time of consideration and nomination. We don’t award to people for whom the money would make no real difference. Aside from an engagement with their work it has to be judged that the money given would be a significant contribution to their career and circumstance.
GE: There is something so delightfully informal, about the awards evenings. The crowd is animated and any sense of a fusty world celebrating itself is rudely shattered. Is it a decision to open-up art to those who are not academically informed insiders?
SW: I hate these rigid perceptions and prejudices, art was never meant to be about intellectual elitism or exclusion. Even Tracey Emin who presented the 2019 awards, admitted she was unsure of our stance before the awards. After seeing how it worked she applauded what we are about which is, obviously, a charming and lovely thing to hear. I think the fact that each year we give awards in so many disparate artforms helps to open-up the field as everyone present is learning something new which makes them grateful but also interested.
GE: You do amazing work, entities like The David Collins Foundation thankfully exist but should we, as a society, make it more possible to exist as an artist?
SW: Well, things could always be better, but we know that society is an expensive thing to maintain and understand and appreciate the other vital requirements which demand support. I have, however, been witnessing a drain of artistic talent from UK cities and feel that more should be done to provide subsidised studios and workshops in city centres – it could also serve to rejuvenate our high streets, which are in a sorry state! The other area I’m passionate about is keeping Arts education as a curriculum fixture in both secondary and primary schools. Its importance is beyond debate or dispute and should be fiercely protected – we need to educate our society on the value and importance of the Arts and artists.
GE: Is risk, vulnerability and necessity not critical to art though? The starving artist...?
SW: I think there is a deep instinct in some people to commit to art despite, or because of, any objections and challenges. As with any service, craft or trade there should be reasonable renumeration for work. Nobody aspires to live in poverty but, at the same time, some people would rather maintain their beliefs and compromise their income – quality of life over standard of living.
GE: Given the difficulties and challenges, why do you think there is always a ready proportion of the population who commit to art?
SW: Art is a vocation, it is not a passing fad or an affectation for almost all of the artists that I encounter. I think if a person has this impulse to express themselves through an artistic medium or method then the decision makes itself. Art is what they were meant to do.
GE: It is fantastic that poetry, dance and architecture are recognized alongside disciplines which would be, by some, considered more artisanal. How do you decide upon each year’s categories?
SW: Well, we don’t set out to be unconventional or unpredictable for the sake of it. We see, hear and feel things which we genuinely believe should be given exposure and by helping an artist in that discipline we are doing our small part in making people aware of it. The world, technology and culture evolves apace so it would seem odd to me to have a fixed historic list of categories. We try to align ourselves and our thinking with what is going on.
GE: Are you an artist?
SW: No, absolutely not! But I have always been involved in some way in the Arts.
GE: What did you do before this?
SW: I have been here for 18 years and I hope I will be here for a lot longer! I was an A&R at Island Records at the end of the 1980’s – a fantastic time in the music industry. I worked mostly with reggae, rap and World music for Mango Records, an offshoot of Island. An amazing and exciting time. In some ways a last hurrah for the music industry. In hindsight you could feel the end coming. I met photographer Adrian Boot and helped set up a Bob Marley exhibition which toured all over the world with phenomenal success. This led to setting up Exhibit-A with Adrian and conceiving, designing and delivering the ‘Ultimate Experience’ a series of exhibitions on Jimi Hendrix which toured for 7 years. We also did a year’s consultancy for the Elvis Presley Estate – working at Graceland, which was mad and surreal! I still get involved in music events and festivals, for the enjoyment as much as anything else. I think, going back to the earlier point about the informality of The Arts Foundation, maybe I injected some of music’s resonance into The Foundation?!
GE: What is the fundamental role of the Arts Foundation?
SW: In a nutshell, we champion the contemporary Arts, giving individual awards to artists at a breakthrough moment.
GE: So The David Collins Foundation supporting artists, and art, is an exchange. What do you think The David Collins Foundation get back from art and the artists they support?
SW: Tapping into current creative practices is hugely useful I believe when you run any type of company. It keeps you in touch with a creative baseline, it inspires you to think outside the box and see what’s possible. I understand that’s how David himself worked, surrounding himself with creatives and collaborators and artists. In addition, apart from the relationship that The Foundation has with the winning artists and watchingtheir careers develop through the Fellowship, they might also bring ideas to the table – that’s the ultimate goal! Will Harris’s words on the walls of interiors, design inspiration from Jochen Holz’s lights - anything is possible!
GE: A Foundation has to be about more than financial support though?
SW: Of course, just being a finalist of the David Collins Foundation award is a great accolade for an artist regardless of the funds. Many artists use this to garner support for other commissions or funding – it’s a door opener.
GE: Going back to the matter of disciplines and category, what category do you hope will one day be represented in The Arts Foundation Awards?
SW: I like the idea of an award for artists working in virtual & augmented reality as there’s some really interesting work in the UK, both in the performing and visual arts, utilising this.
GE: I wish art could feature in everyday reported lives more. We get headlines when a piece sells for a new record price but we don’t read, or hear much about art at a more relatable level. For a subject which is so present in our consciousness, it gets a disproportionately small amount of media exposure. Why do you think that is, or maybe you disagree?
SW: Art should get at least as much coverage as sport does, although I’m not sure that my son would agree! It’s always been under-represented in the media especially on television – and now more than ever with so many specialist Arts writers being axed from the papers. That said, the versatility of social media has been very useful especially giving visibility to so many artistic fields.
GE: The late Glenn O’Brien used to write about his sadness that young artists are more committed to getting a gallery deal or getting investment than they are about creating art. Do you agree or was he just hanging out with the wrong young artists?
SW: I don’t really come across that in my involvement with artists. Most artists I meet are realistic about what galleries can or can’t do for them. The rose-tinted glasses are usually firmly on the table! What I find more pressing with artists is that need to connect or be attached to an artistic community which nourishes both them and their work. It can be a lonely business being an artist!
GE: Is London, or any major city, the right place to commit to being an artist, especially at the nascent, emerging and fiscally challenged stage?
SW: Places where there are Arts universities and big Arts institutions, funders and opportunity, and of course lots of Arts activity, are often where creative people congregate. I’ve found, however, with many of our finalists, that London is prohibitively expensive. Other UK cities like Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester are becoming important Arts hubs which is great although many also go to cities such as Berlin.
GE: As art has a duty to provoke, to challenge, to express and to subvert do you also think design has an obligation to do more than simply look eloquent and elegant?
SW: It certainly does. We had experimental architecture as one of our awards this year and none of the shortlist were actually involved in making buildings! Issues of homelessness, sustainability, overcrowding, disability, environmental issues and inclusivity – these are all issues which featured and with which designers are tackling.
I am currently researching the categories for the 2020 Awards which include Experimental Film, Comics, Social Innovation in Materials and Visual Arts. It’s part of the job that I love – finding out more about the artform, the networks and the artists who are emerging, it is really fascinating!
While not completely unrecognizable as the definitive global metropolis that it was to become, back in the early 1990's London was a world capital in training. In those days, New York was still unchallenged as offering the apotheosis of the urban experience. London meanwhile had a slightly sleepy charm. Belgravia was where rich, posh English people lived (this was a time when posh still mattered) rather than the polyglot mini-Monaco of stucco and non-doms that it is today. Notting Hill was more haven of bohemia than banker ghetto. You could drop a pin at one end of Mount Street and hear at the other end. What is more the city emptied at weekends as people went to the country.
London was nice but what it lacked was glamour and if David Collins understood anything it was glamour; he could make anything glamorous no matter whether it was a cocktail bar or a sandwich bar. It was almost as if he couldn’t help it.
The other night I ate dinner at J Sheekey and I was stuck by how well it was wearing, especially as I remember when it reopened at the end of the 1990s. According to the supposedly inexorable mathematics of style and fashion it should be looking at its most dated, James Laver’s eponymous law would dictate that it should be somewhere between ‘hideous’ and ‘ridiculous’. And yet it is not. I remember being terribly struck by the texture of the craquelure finish to the walls at the time, while not quite a Proustian moment the sense of being so forcefully reminded of a time and a personality both now part of history was strong.
It is not often that the fingertip felt memory of the walls of a restaurant are what stick in the mind. But then this was a David Collins designed restaurant and back in the 1990s when London was moving up through the gears, sloughing off its quaint slightly parochial image and metamorphosing into the capital of Cool Britannia and then the world, David Collins was the set designer for the city’s fin de siècle drama.
David made everything dramatic, even interviewing him as I found myself doing quite frequently in those days, was a performance. On one occasion, late at night before our 14:00 meeting he left a dramatic message, to say that he was most dreadfully awfully sorry but he had to go to America at extremely short notice and couldn’t possibly meet. Thereafter the excuses piled up like car crashes on a fog-bound M25. Not only was David going to America “within 36 hours” (I had visions of a huge clock counting down the hours and minutes until wheels up), but his right-hand person was going down with appendicitis. The appendicitis turned into an even more serious condition (exactly what I cannot quite remember); then David could not bring himself to come to the phone because he was terrified of the mobile microwaving his brain.
Of course, after all that, we met at 14;00 as planned.
He was also very funny. He used to get so sick of people asking him how he became friends with Madonna that he would snap back something along the lines of “I think that you should be asking how someone becomes friends with me.” Although on occasion this sort of high-handed humour did not serve him well. “I was once asked to pitch for a job and I said it was like asking Tom Cruise to do a screen test” he told me. “Sadly they didn’t get the irony and I didn’t get the job!”. However it was not as if he was short of jobs. The London interiors that are so much part of the 21st century city are but a fraction of a body of work that spans continents and hemispheres: Stellenbosch, Singapore, Baku, Moscow, Los Angeles… “People have a misguided impression of how successful I am,” was the way he put it to me once, but I knew better than to expect an admission of vulnerability or humility as his face cracked wide open with a smile. “I am more successful.”
I find the death of David Collins is rather deceptive because it feels like he is still alive. Every time I walk into the bar at the Connaught, the Kent & Curwen store on Savile Row and dozens of other places that he either designed or influenced, the charming Prada-suited Irishman is there; the soft, soothing, Irish burr seducing some client or opening their eyes to the wonders he has created for them.
David took what was best about London and rendered it exciting and glamorous. His break came when he was plucked from the relative obscurity of a modest flat in Earl’s Court and anonymous job in a large architecture and design practice in 1985, when someone asked him to decorate a restaurant that belonged to a friend. The friend was Pierre Koffmann; the restaurant was La Tante Claire; and in those days (before the term celebrity chef had entered the lexicon let alone became a haggard cliché) the opening of a gourmet restaurant in London was a major event.
Good food was something of a novelty, but restaurants and hotels were to become a big part of the transformation of London and I was one of those clever clogs restaurant critics. It was a type that was fashionable at the time: we observed and commented upon the walls, the floors, the customers, their clothes, their hair, their jewels, the issues of the day… and occasionally the food. David’s interiors were a gift because if you were not inspired by the food then at least there was interesting design to talk about.
In this milieu David became more than an interior designer he became an adjective. He seemed to have an almost magical power to transform dead space into highly profitable pieces of real estate. When the visionary John Ceriale took over the Savoy Group at the end of the 1990's one of the first things he did was have David in to redesign The Causerie, an antiquated buffet restaurant with roots in post-war austerity, one of those institutions that everyone felt warmly about but hardly anyone ever visited. The high glam, slightly Deco makeover was such a success that he created the Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel – previously an area where luggage had been kept and those older patrons who had dropped dead were stored. Thereafter a David Collins designed bar became something of a sine qua non of a successful hotel and his clean, cool, brand of glamour became almost mandatory and soon he was designing hotels all over the place.
The list of restaurant designs is equally illustrious and comprehensive. His transformation of what had been a car showroom and then a rather grand branch of Barclays Bank into the bustling all day (and most of the night) brasserie The Wolseley has worn exceptionally well. But then so have all his designs, looking through the book that was published shortly after his death a Collins-designed bar from the 1990s looks as beautiful as a corner of private house from the early noughties or a tea room designed the year before last. There is a sense of quality that is universal to the Collins oeuvre and that is something that was also evident from his private collection of furniture, objets and pictures.
He once told me that he felt particularly in tune with the fragmentary nature of the times in which we live. “It just so happens that my personality works with the way people live today. I have a short attention span. I have never wanted to develop one look. I am creating new things all the time.” And yet just he was capable of skimming elegantly across the surface of things like some jewel-hued dragonfly; all box-fresh clothes and witty badinage; this engaging superficiality which he presented to the world, concealed an almost Stakhanovite work ethic, a forensic attention to detail and a love for and deep knowledge of the past. David was perfect for today’s fragmented times not just because his mind was lively inquisitive and forever on the move but also, almost paradoxically because he also thought long and hard about things and thus what might appear as happy felicities were all carefully stage managed.
The colours he used; he was particularly fond of violet, a loose definition for anything from raspberry to aubergine; would reveal different aspects of themselves as the light changed during the day. Some of his furniture would have an almost dip-dyed feel to it, giving subtle chromatic effects that changed minute by minute. In his world luxury was not synonymous with bling for the sake of status conferral, but with the sort of enduring quality that makes for long-lived personal enjoyment, I remember once hearing that he had his curtains made by Lesage the Chanel-owned embroidery house… trust David to have couture curtains.
He delighted in mid-century French taste, which he mixed with cabinets, sofas, chairs of his own manufacture. This catalogue is rich in work by Dupre Lafon, Line Vautrin, Jouve, Rene Coulon, Jean Besnard and Adnet: fascinating because these pieces provide an insight into the creators in whose tradition he saw himself. He would freely, almost proudly, admit his debt to Jean Michel Frank or Marc du Plantier.
Similarly the art is split between the beginning of this century and the middle of the last one. There is for instance work by Testino and Tillmans; but it is in the collection of Christian Berards, many gouaches and a couple of superb canvases including a masterpiece depicting an acrobat, that one sees his appreciation of a talent not unlike his own. Berard worked at high speed as a fashion illustrator, set designer and painter. He moved in the beau monde of mid-twentieth century Paris, the world of Les Ballets Russes, Etienne de Beaumont, Christian Dior and Charlie de Beistegui, a world that valued beauty for its own sake in a way that is far less common today. And beauty was always the goal David sought in his work.
“But is it beautiful?” was a favourite rhetorical refrain of Collins.
Looking through a catalogue that is also a visual biography of one of the great talents of his time, the answer is yes.