What I've learnt in design - FX Magazine interview Helen Berresford

19th May 2015

Helen was interviewed by FX Magazine's Pamela Buxton about some of the key things she has learnt in the design industry. The below article was published in the June issue of FX.

I love working with people. I’m fascinated with what people as occupiers want and need in terms of design, and I love working with them on what is very much a journey.

I’m very passionate about diversity of design. I’m an architect by training, but my time at the Royal College of Art, where there were all these amazing people such as Philip Treacy and the Chapman Brothers, showed me such a great diversity of design skills. Eventually this led me to work in interior design myself.

I’m as much of an architect now as I ever was. There still can be a prevailing attitude out there that interior design is just about furniture, fixtures and cushions. However I’m working directly with more developers than ever at ID:SR and using architectural rigour to create designs that feel like a continuous experience inherent to the architecture rather than some applied decoration rattling around in a space. In our residential refurbishment of the former Pathé building on Wardour Street, we engrained the energy of the building’s history into the fabric of the building and told the story that way rather than making overt references to its past. My architectural training really helps with being able to understand architectural details and complicated contracts.

My design context is always the client organization. I find understanding the business, its people and the challenges they face to be a fascinating process - writing the brief with the client is fantastically exciting. I build a relationship with the chief executive but also engage with those that form the warp and weft of the organization in order to understand the psyche of its business. At BBC Wales, for example, we aren’t creating just desks and meeting areas, we’re masterplanning a community for 1500 people, almost like a microcosm of a city, which is tremendously interesting.

We’re also working with Coutts on the refurbishment of its Strand headquarters, and are very cognizant of its history as a wonderful British institution that as part of RBS is part publicly-funded, yet handles a huge amount of private wealth from an increasingly diverse client base. Our approach there is a classic but contemporary light-touch refurbishment that helps the place work harder as it reinvents itself for the future.

Sense of place is more important than ever. Material place is becoming far more significant in the digital world.

Blurring of domestic/work boundaries has had a profound effect on the nature of the workplace. This allows us to design much more interesting and human spaces. At Fitzroy Place, a speculative office building in the West End of London now let to Estee Lauder, we created a reception with warm authentic materials including a timber ceiling, concrete floors, and suspended fireplace that looks more like a grand loft apartment. It was unusual for a spec building to look so domestic but we’ve since been asked to do other spaces that are less corporate and more human. We even got turquoise sinks into Fitzroy Place – you wouldn’t have got that 5 years ago. It’s great to support developers who are open to more creative design that aren’t so corporate solutions for spec developments.

Workplace design has become more fun. Technology has brought a huge sense of freedom and empowerment and this should be celebrated in workplace design. Since people can choose where they want to work - home, the coffee shop, as well as the office – they have become far more demanding as to what they look for in an office. We create activity-driven, diverse environments that make people happier and more effective as well as celebrating the organisation’s brand and vision.

You have to use space smarter. Despite a sense of optimism in the economy there is still an inherent air of austerity in client attitudes. I have to work harder on the figures in the business case and help clients to use their space more smartly. In the average organization for example, desks are only occupied for 50% of the day. We support the business case by coming up with an empirical % of what types of spaces are needed such as areas where people can get together in small and large groups, where they can collaborate and communicate, and where they feel comfortable. If you can be more agile in how you use your workplace and offer more choice and flexibility to staff, you do save money. At Channel 4, for example, the whole restaurant can be cleared and used as a studio.

We all need time to think and reflect. Managing the complexities of life in a world that’s so speeded up is challenging. The danger is that we’re all so busy that we never relax and find the time to think and reflect, which is vital. At Channel 4, the most popular spaces are the hideaway, cocoon-like booths in the basement, which are 73% occupied. To build them into the workplace took a lot of courage, but there’d be an argument now for having even more.

The effect design can have on people is a wonderful thing. When people say how much better their workplace is and how that’s made their work and life better, it’s one of the most deeply satisfying things there is. If you can add a bit of delight to their activities through design, then it’s been very worthwhile.

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR

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