Farm Lane, SW6. An architectural mishmash of Victorian terrace and 90’s nondescript. As a location it couldn’t be less prepossessing. And yet on the corner of this south London street, residing in the only stand-out property on the road is high-end interior design firm David Collins Studio. Peer through the barred windows of this former dairy, carpenter’s workshop and photographer’s studio and any sense of mundanity immediately falls away. Inside you will see teams defining briefs at the beginning of a project and design workshops taking place. You will see sketches, the Studio’s unique palette and examples of luxury materials hidden in boxes…until the big reveal.
You will see all number of the 60-strong team pitching to clients, from the individually super wealthy negotiating the final touches to their penthouse apartment in London’s Chelsea, to luxury retailers interrogating the value return on a £200m design revamp such as Harrods. So, in a market that exemplifies the word fickle how does David Collins Studio remain at the top of its game 35 years on? Why do retailers, hoteliers, and house owners flock to the Studio at a time of intense competition and when everything is so last week?
The Studio’s Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder Iain Watson has some clear ideas why. For a start the business prides itself on the longevity and sustainability of its work. The message couldn’t be clearer, invest in us and you get something that’s built to last, and this ultimately will deliver on cost and time saving. A good example of this would be Piccadilly-based The Wolseley, the European café/restaurant launched in 2003 by former Ivy impresarios Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. As architecture and interior experts, the Studio breathed beauty back into the former Wolseley car showroom, giving the Austro-Hungarian Empire a run for its money.
“Our projects last. Our palette and the materials all wear well, they don’t wear out, in fact they almost wear in. Our designs last, while others wane after three years. With The Wolseley we’ve buffed it up a bit, but not really changed anything and it’s still serving 1200 people a day,” says Watson. Totting up up the 355 restaurants and bars the Studio have designed over the course of three decades they have an average lifespan of 15 years – a lifetime in the industry. As Wallpaper* magazine once put it, it is impossible to imagine London’s restaurant scene without the Studio’s touch ‘Imagine a London without Claridge’s Bar, the Wolseley, J Sheekey, Nobu or Bob Bob Ricard. Or even without Pret a Manger, Eat or Harrods’ ’Shoe Heaven’. Not only would it fail to be half as vibrant a city, but it wouldn’t be London. These spaces, and the myriad others designed by David Collins Studio over the last 30 years, define some of the most iconic aspects of London’s hospitality sector.’
This ethos runs deep through the organisation as witnessed when asked to outline some of his proudest projects, Watson chooses a New York duplex that was designed for friends of co-founder and Studio namesake, David Collins, more than 20 years ago. “(Recently) we restored the project replacing a couple of fabrics or so but essentially the design hasn’t changed. The client and team love how relevant it still is,” he comments. As Brad Goldfarb in Galerie magazine put it so eloquently, ‘its interiors virtually unchanged from the day Collins finished them—a tribute to the timelessness of the décor.’ Watson also cites the granular operational attention the Studio pays to the space in question, how it works, its purpose and flow. It did this with The Delaunay, another grand eatery from the Corbin and King stable on the outer reaches of Covent Garden. “A common theme is we need to understand the operations of the space then we can start layering in materials and textures. Some restaurants may have the look but if the operations aren’t very good and they don’t work precisely, then those places are soon dead in the water,” he says.
Another factor keeping the Studio debt-free, in profit and independent without shareholders or venture capitalists breathing down its neck is its business and geographical mix. Here commercial projects make up three quarters of the work and the remainder given to residential and private homes, with up to 80% of the business being overseas at times, equally divided between Asia and the US. A recent case in point being the November 2017 sale of a David Collins Studio designed four-bedroom home in Hong Kong’s prestigious Peak neighbourhood. Bloomberg reported that the home was sold fully furnished at a value of $149 million. This fetched the highest price of the 11 villas in the Mount Nicholson project, according to Wheelock Properties Ltd. who partnered with Nan Fung Development on the project.
The Studio also operates across three sectors; retail, residential and hospitality, all feeding off each other and generating a virtuous circle of client cross-fertilisation. “Clients are really interested in our ability to understand their customer journey across these areas, from drinking a martini in one of our bars to a property we may have designed for them.” Examples of blended learning or subliminal selling. They may visit the Studio’s designs for Alexander McQueen or Jimmy Choo, where the overall experience at the latter not only involves fashionable footwear but incorporates a champagne bar and exquisite room for private hire. And lessons from the high street, where the Studio revamped the Pret a Manger chain seven years ago, can bring the value engineering gained from rolling out designs, to other client areas. Straddling three sectors also allows the Studio to be busy all year round as the typical duration of projects differs with hotels at three to five years, houses 18 months to two years while retail can be much quicker at six to nine months. Much of The Studio’s revenue derives from repeat business from existing relationships from the likes of the Corinthia, Delaire Graff and Mandarin Oriental, to rolling projects such as Harrods. Initially taken on to design Harrods’ Shoe Heaven in 2013, the Studio has since rejuvenated the womenswear and 41,000 sq ft Men’s Superbrands departments, and last autumn its jewellery floor overhaul was name checked for contributing to a nine per cent leap in profits after tax to £176.7 million. Since then work has continued with redesigning the Food Halls and is about to continue on the second-floor menswear department.
Helen David, Chief Merchant at Harrods, describes the Studio as truly appreciating creative vision. “With almost an innate understanding of what one is hoping to create and an unparalleled ability to bring this to life. It has an uncanny habit of making it just that little bit more special than you had hoped for.” Asked roughly how many client conversations need to take place before a project gets the go ahead, Watson reckons for a conversion rate of 1 in 5, which pays tribute to established relationships and previous business. Eleven years ago the Studio took on an attic space, which housed the Connaught Hotel’s water tanks and at the time created the most expensive penthouse in London, which currently has a rack rate of £17,000 a night.
Further examples of where David Collins Studio has had a material impact on its clients includes luxury, mid-town Manhattan residential development The Charles, where sources suggest the studio’s input designing the apartments has led to a 30% increase in the property price. Meanwhile in London, Savills suggests that the Studio can add 25% to high-end residential developments.
Despite getting the client mix and the global reach right, the Studio in recent years has streamlined operations to focus less on managing big architectural projects to handling affairs after these have come to fruition.
Says Watson: “We are wary of feeding the machine with projects that are off message. I like to say our mantra is stay small, collaborate big.” In Thailand, whilst working on Bangkok’s tallest building the MahakNahon, the Studio teamed up with local architectural teams who did the heavy lifting whilst it focused on the development’s interior. “We are a creative rather than a production studio. It’s been a smart commercial decision, we take on bigger projects, do more creative work,” he adds.
And to the future. The Studio is adding travel, more specifically maritime to its portfolio by currently working on designs for Cunard’s latest luxury cruise ship. Clients are more sophisticated and switched on than ever, says Watson, which pushes the Studio even further, and brings us full circle, to its passion for delivering long-lasting, glamorous, and increasingly these days, future-proofed and environmentally-in-tune, exceptional projects.
Watson notes “We’ve resisted growing too big and taking on projects just for the money. You look back five years later, the money’s come and gone, and then you’ve got horrible work. We want to do work we are proud of that stands the test of time.”