‘Give space and attention to things you do every day’
Design legend Ilse Crawford has no interest in 'style'. Park the tear sheets and Pinterest, she tells Tanya Sweeney, and focus on the things you touch and do every day instead
As part of her remit as department head at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, Ilse Crawford recently took her students to the wilds of Inis Meain. The point of the exercise, says the renowned interiors/product designer, was to shake the Dutch design students out of their bubble, and to learn more about the rudiments of craft.
"It was transformational for them to see what design was like in a rather remote place, and the pride that locals took in what they did, whether it was creating a stone wall, a knitting factory or a contemporary hotel," she recalls. "It was impressive the way people had taken a traditional material and made it relevant and contemporary. Ireland is very inspiring [to me] in that sense. There's a robust way that they create things, combined with a lyricism that makes it very special."
Crawford is renowned for creating jaw-dropping spaces of varying scopes and budgets (on which, more later). Yet whether she is creating a new home, or designing a range for Ikea, her USP remains the ability to take items from past decades and rearrange them in different textures. This approach has stood her in good stead on many high profile projects, from the creation of Soho House New York to, more recently, London soup kitchen Refettorio Felix.
It turns out that Crawford is something of a mass of contradictions. Her output is formidable, impressive and eye-catching, yet there's a genuine humility there, too.
"Our starting point is the client," she says. "We have no stylistic approach. There's a great quote by Charles Eames: The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the problem'. Before we do anything, we listen. It's really important to understand the reality of a client's life. Reality is far more interesting than fiction."
Yet even a cursory look at Crawford's design portfolio shows a common ground between projects. Crawford's trademarks - warmth, modernity, aspiration, practicality - are infused everywhere. In a private apartment at Great Guildford Street on London's South Bank, Crawford has maximised space with multi-tasking storage and furniture. A Swiss chalet completed in 2015, meanwhile, uses a warm palette of natural materials and textiles: perfect for cosy hibernation. A 40sqm apartment in Milan, meanwhile, now feels airy and spacious thanks to Crawford's expertise. Each space is liveable, certainly, but the utterly gorgeous StudioIlse touch is writ large throughout.
"We are trying to make generous spaces that make people feel cared for," explains Crawford. "I'm absolutely not interested in things that are cool and aloof. It's not the route to making happy spaces."
The daughter of a Canadian father (Malcolm Crawford, former economics editor at the Sunday Times) and Danish mother (artist and pianist Jill Rendall), it appears that the child explains the woman. When I ask if Scandinavian design was noticeable in her childhood, she laughs: "I don't know how clean-lined my upbringing was. It was a pretty messy family house, but artsy."
The Crawford family lived in Notting Hill, near Portobello Road, then a far cry from the desirable neighbourhood it is now. In time, the family would move to a rambling ruin of an ex-vicarage in Kent.
Crawford recalls her young fascination with the demolition of the London streets, making way for new roads and buildings. At night, she would go with her mother to the ruins of old houses, rescuing 19th century tiles with a hammer and chisel. Crawford grew up in a "rather derelict" house, with a number of siblings. Though her friends lived in more comfortably appointed places, they always gravitated to the Crawford House.
"You could say that my interest in interiors started when I was young," she says. "When I went into other people's houses they seemed more formal and just not much fun. We had quite a liberal household. There was a real focus on having this generous space, where anyone was welcome around the kitchen table. We'd have activities like table tennis, dying clothes or Murder in the Dark, rather than sitting awkwardly in the living room watching TV. For me, generosity is how you generate a good human connection. It's the starting point, for me, for everything."
There was an element of Scandi influence in her formative years: "It's more the focus on making the normal feel special. It was about paying attention to the small things that brought pleasure and brought us together. It's a very Scandinavian way of looking at the world and you can see that in their furniture - the care that goes into detail. Style dates, but usability doesn't."
With an eye on eventually training as an architect, the history graduate started out as a sub-editor on the Architect's Journal, before being hired as the high-powered launch editor on Elle Decoration ("hiring no doubt an affordable, hardworking 27-year-old wasn't as crazy as it seemed").
The magazine became a prototype of sorts: one of the first successful standalone interiors glossies. Job done on making it a publishing game-changer, she decamped to the short-lived Bare magazine before being headhunted by Donna Karan in 1998. Three years later, she founded her own design studio, StudioIlse.
Commercial and residential commissions aside, there have been groundbreaking design collaborations with Georg Jensen, Swarovski and Ikea. Crawford has been credited with pushing the latter two, in particular, way beyond their comfort zones: "That's the role of the designer," she says. "[With Ikea], the Excel sheet is what drives the business, and what designers need to do is push the art of the possible, working within that system, to integrate the unmeasurables, to make a product that can be beautiful, sustainable and affordable."
Crawford's collection for Ikea, the Sinnerlig collection in 2015, uses lots of natural materials - seagrass, bamboo, wood - and it's clear that Crawford has more than a casual eye on sustainability and social conscience.
"I was especially interested in cork as it's an industry that has had its trouble since wine bottles no longer exclusively use corks," she explains. "It's good to create employment as well as finding new opportunities for the material."
The Refettorio Felix soup kitchen, too, the emphasis was less on creating a show-stopping space and more about serving its users: "Our response to their needs was to make it really beautiful and convivial so the men and women could stay longer and get to know each other," says Crawford. "They could build a close-knit group of people who looked out for each other."
Crawford won't be drawn on what trends, colours or motifs she likes or dislikes, preferring instead to focus on the emotional connection to a space. But when it comes to offering interiors advice, she has one solid, fits-all piece of wisdom: "Park the tear sheets, and put Pinterest away. Think about what you do every day, and the things you touch. That way, you can prioritise your money accordingly. My husband [designer Oscar Pena] and I make time for a good coffee in the morning - it's a moment we get to talk to each other properly - and that has more impact on our life over buying a great new wallpaper which would probably be ignored after a few weeks. It's the things you touch that matter."
Irish homes, much like everywhere else, are getting smaller and smaller due to rising prices. Crawford has a wily suggestion about how to maximise that kind of living space: "We give space to things that will never be used, like a spare room for the person who comes once a year. Give space and attention to the things you do every day. When you stay in a small flat in the city, some research shows that you spend most of your waking hours in the bathroom or bedroom. Prioritise that space and make the living area and kitchen into a smaller space. Instead of having a separate living room and then squeezing the bathroom and bedroom into tiny spaces, I would do the reverse so that the bathroom and bedroom are enjoyable to use."
Were she to return to Inis Meain and work her magic on one of the island's traditional cottages, Crawford notes that the area itself would be central to the project's charm. "It's about understanding what people's needs are, and linking that into, where possible, materials from the area," she says.
"The interesting thing about buildings is that they're rooted where they are. If you create that sense of place, it can evolve over time and the layers that happen with life can happen naturally. If you impose a style [on a place] like that, you have nowhere to go."
Ilse Crawford appears at The Future Design & Creative festival, November 3-4 at the RDS Dublin. For more information, see the-future.is.