Sunday 20 October 2019

How the first Design Crime ever started in Dublin - Sophie Robinson and Kate Watson Smyth on their pioneering design podcasts

Eleanor Flegg talks to BBC interiors star Sophie Robinson and top blogger Kate Watson Smyth about their pioneering design podcasts (for your ears only)

Furniture by DFS and Sophie Robinson
Furniture by DFS and Sophie Robinson
Kate Watson-Smyth sits on a sofa by DFS
Mustard armchair by DFS
The bar area at the Dean Hotel
Table and chairs from Homesense
Mod pod room at the Dean
Penthouse bedroom at the Dean
Floral armchair from DFS
Cushions and leopard ceramic from Homesense
Penthouse livingroom at The Dean
Playing with pattern: Sophie and Kate discuss Design Crimes in Dublin

It's not enough for a hotel to be luxurious. To be up to scratch in the modern age it needs an Instagrammable loo. I've been to designer hotels in Dublin where there are two queues for the Ladies: one for the cubicles and the other to get the best Instagram angle. Madness?

Interiors experts Sophie Robinson and Kate Watson-Smyth think not. "Hotels are right up there for me in terms on inspiration and the loo is often a benchmark of the overall design," Robinson says. "It's such a small space that you can be really bold with it." There's a lot that we can learn from hotel toilets it seems. Many of us have small downstairs bathrooms at home. Why not seek inspiration from a designer hotel? If you fancy some of the season's nuttier trends - upscaled floral print wallpaper on the ceiling, for example - there's no safer room in the house to experiment with. People don't spend a lot of time in there and, when they do, they have something else on their minds.

Last week, Robinson and Watson-Smyth were in Dublin to record an episode for their podcast, The Great Indoors, sponsored by DFS.

Sophie Robinson is an interior designer but we know her best from the telly. Married to a builder and living in Brighton, she has appeared on Design Masterclass and Cowboy Builders, but most of us will have seen her on the Beeb's The Great Interior Design Challenge - the television equivalent of The Great British Bake Off - in her role as good cop adjudicator to Daniel Hopwood's bad cop. She has been described as being "posh, forthright, and prone to Kevin McCloud-esque pondering." In her 20s she was previously a rally driver, having competed in the British Rally Championship. Competitive, incisive and charming. Then there's Watson-Smyth with her trademark touseled mop of silver hair and designer specs. She's is a top design blogger, a journalist and the author of Mad About the House (2018), a book of design ideas from her blog of the same name. Last October, the two got together to launch The Great Indoors, billed as "the UK's first professional interiors podcast." It might be the world's first.

Playing with pattern: Sophie and Kate discuss Design Crimes in Dublin
Playing with pattern: Sophie and Kate discuss Design Crimes in Dublin

The jury sat back and scratched their heads. Because stating the sort of obvious: interior design is all about the eyeballs. How was it going to work on audio? Turns out, interiors make great listening and the series is now in its second season. A lot of that is due to Robinson and Watson-Smyth as presenters, like two peas in a podcast. They're rowdy, funny, and extremely well-informed, their casts are a unique mixture of lively banter and practical advice, and they don't always agree. Especially about cushions, a topic of conversation that often ends up as the verbal equivalent of a pillow fight. What more could you ask from a podcast?

It's the last Wednesday in January and the Blue Room of The Dean Hotel is jammers with interiors buffs, all eager to hear the live recording. The debate kicks off into a riff on taking inspiration from hotel design.

We're back to hotels again. "Hotels often lead the way in terms of colour," Robinson explains. "You see paint colours in hotels that you don't see in people's homes for another couple of years."

That's certainly true of The Dean. When the hotel opened in 2014 with wood -panelled walls painted in a deep dusky blue, few of us had seen anything like it.

Five years later, dark blue walls are widely admired, if not exactly mainstream. In The Dean, they're part of an interior scheme by O'Donnell O'Neill that combines the panelling with reclaimed wooden flooring in a chevron pattern and industrial-style lighting.

"It's a gentlemen's club vibe," says Robinson.

Kate Watson-Smyth sits on a sofa by DFS
Kate Watson-Smyth sits on a sofa by DFS

"It's industrial luxe," adds Watson-Smyth. She describes her bedroom in the hotel as: "Dark, with orange chairs and textured with leather, rough linen and slubby velvets. It feels lived in. It's a look that you could totally recreate at home." She adds that, if you're staying in a hotel, it's worth paying close attention to the layout of the bathroom. Most of us live in small houses and designing a bathroom can be a challenge. In hotels, where all the bathrooms are most usually small (not in a suite then ladies?), the interior designers have often thought long and hard about how to make it work.

Hotel bathroom fittings can be adventurous too and the black taps in Watson-Smyth's ensuite are a point of admiration. "Brass is a classic but it's quite expensive and you can't mix it with chrome." Black taps, in contrast, will fit in fine with any chrome fittings that you already have, so you don't have to change everything at once.

In time, the talk comes round to cushions. "I have a complete cushion problem!" Robinson confesses. "I think I have nine scatter cushions on my sofa at home." They agree that if there were an AA for cushion-a-holics, Robinson would be going to meetings. She settled happily into the velvety nest of cushions on the two-seater Joules Windsor sofa in purple velvet (€1,649) that DFS provided for the big Dublin podcast recording session. To make it sound better you see.

"I'm the complete opposite!" Watson-Smyth declares. "We have three cushions on our sofa. I upped it to five and my husband walked in and said "Bloody Instagram!" and threw them off."

You should also know that in her hugely popular interiors blog, Watson-Smyth refers to the poor man as "The Mad Husband."

I'm sympathetic. I too have a husband who is incredibly particular about design and who sees to it that any cushion coming into the house is carefully policed.

The bar area at the Dean Hotel
The bar area at the Dean Hotel

In Robinson's world, there's no such thing as too many cushions. "I like a complete riot of them on the sofa, and the more clashing and bashing the better!" My view on this is that you need an innate eye for design to pull off this look. Otherwise, it just ends up looking a mess. But Robinson knows how to make florals and stripes play nicely together. There is a trick but, when we meet for a post-recording chat, I promise not to tell. "Wait and listen to the podcast," they say.

Well it makes a change from "buy the book".

At the end of the session, they move on to Design Crimes, one of the recurrent favourites of the series. Everyone loves Design Crimes and, this time, suggestions are invited from the Dublin audience. Are giant-sized ceramic animals a design crime? How about short curtains? And small rugs? There is an energetic debate and a member of the audience falls off her chair with excitement. "They're having a brawl!" Robinson exclaims delightedly.

"Did you know that Design Crimes were born in Dublin?" asks Watson-Smyth, casually, when I meet them after the event. "Last year, Sophie came here on a visit and she was staying at the (censored) Hotel in the city. Everything was lovely until she let herself into the bedroom and saw that the cushions on the bed were arranged in a diamond pattern. I'm not sure what she means, so Robinson comes over and shows me by taking the square cushions on the sofa and balancing them on their points. She shudders and puts them back on their bases, giving them a reassuring pat. Indeed.

"She was so horrified that she took to Instagram," Watson-Smyth says. "And that was the first Design Crime ever."

The Dublin episode of The Great Indoors will be ready for download on February 21. You can find it on all the usual podcast places. Cushion yourself first.

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