Words: Damon Syson Portrait Photography: Faubel Christensen
As you’d expect from an interior designer famed for his perfectionism, an encounter with David Collins is all about attention to detail – even down to the biscuits.
Arriving at his west London headquarters, a former photographer’s studio with triple height ceilings, I’m ushered into a vast meeting room. The welcome couldn’t be more hospitable. There’s a Feu de Bois Diptyque candle burning, coffee is served in Haviland Orsay Gold bone china, and I’m offered three artfully arranged chocolate biscuits. But these aren’t just any chocolate biscuits. These are Liebniz Butterkeks – an 1891 confection voted a ‘Monument of German Design’. Yes, they’re the Mercedes of baked edibles.
It’s Collins’ passion for creating environments that are ‘just so’, right down to the minutiae, that has elevated the Dublin-born architect to number one status in the field of restaurant and bar design, where his more recent triumphs include the bar at The Connaught and the Artesian bar at The Langham.
Given his 30-strong team’s talent for creating ‘cultured luxury’, it’s no surprise that the services of David Collins Studio are now in hot demand for bedrooms, lobbies, spas and entire hotels. DCS has already won plaudits for its work at Lime Wood, the London New York and London West Hollywood, the penthouse suite at the Connaught (aka ‘The Apartment’) and the Restaurant and Tasting Lounge at the Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Upcoming London projects include: Marcus Wareing’s new restaurant, The Gilbert Scott, at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel; Bassoon and Massimo, the bar and restaurant respectively at the Corinthia Hotel; and a second ‘Wolseley’ (name as yet unconfirmed) opening towards the end of the year in Aldwych, also owned by Corbin and King.
So in the future will we be seeing more David Collins Studio work in hotels? “Definitely,” he nods. “We have quite a number of hotels on the cards at the moment. But the important thing is, they’ve got to be the right hotels. I believe the secret to doing well in this business is knowing the projects to say no to.”
Far from being a conscious decision to develop this side of his business, Collins insists his recent forays into hotel design have simply been the result of being approached by the right people. “Over the years I’ve often been asked to do hotels for certain large chains,” Collins says wearily, “but I never really engaged with the process that much. I find it boring being told what to design and I don’t particularly like that type of hotel anyway. But when I was asked to do the London New York and the London West Hollywood, what really appealed to me was that they said: ‘We want you to design this because we love what you’ve done in The Berkeley and The Connaught.’ As opposed to: ‘How much would you charge for doing x, y and z?’”
Although his work at New Forest country house hotel Lime Wood has been showered with critical praise, Collins describes it as “a very challenging project” and “an uphill battle” at times. “I said no to it at first but then I said yes to it because I really liked Jim Ratcliffe, the owner,” he recalls, “He had a real vision. And when Jim does something, he wants the best. But it ended up being a very prolonged project.”
Lime Wood has already been recognised in the European Hotel Design Awards and picked up a House & Garden Pineapple award. Part of the scheme’s success is the sense of ‘instant heritage’ it conveys. The hotel certainly feels like a lot of money was spent on it. And yet Collins is keen to point out that it “had to be delivered on a commercial basis like any other project” and that while some of the furnishings were bespoke DCS items or bought at auction, others were picked up from high street shops like Anthropologie.
He adds archly: “Whenever a hotel opens a budget is announced that is always far in excess of what was actually spent - because hotel operators and owners want to scare off the competition. It’s pure gamesmanship.”
Collins also worked on the design of the stunning Herb House spa at Lime Wood, which finally opened in December 2010. In May 2010 he was also responsible for new lodges and a spa at the Delaire Graff Estate. Spas and wellness are, he confirms, a major opportunity for expansion. “The vital thing with spas is that they’ve got to be lit beautifully,’ he announces. “And the robes and towels are really important. You have to make people feel as if they look better in their gorgeous snow white fluffy robe, in a flattering cut with an oversized shawl collar and extra-long belt. Unfortunately you go to some spas where the dressing gown has been in the wash one too many times and it barely fastens round you. I believe in attention to detail not just with the way things look but the way they’re experienced.”
Aside from the inexorable rise of spa culture, are there any notable trends we should look out for in hotels in the future?
“Modern hotels have got to be aspirational and stylish but they shouldn’t be too designed,” he opines. “If you equate it with fashion, too designed looks too high street. Whereas timeless and classic – the kind of the thing we do here - are more in line with, if you like, the heritage brands. That’s what people want to buy into. That’s why I’m careful about who I get into bed with, so to speak.”
Collins tends to be drawn to working with fellow perfectionists, it seems. He took on the Delaire Graff project, for example, because of “amazingly charismatic” owner Vincent Graff, and designed the Gilbert Scott restaurant out of professional respect for owner, Marcus Wareing. “I love Marcus, he’s a great guy,” says Collins. “I did Pétrus for him. He looks after his restaurants like he’s looking after a vintage Bentley – they’re kept immaculately. And he’s an incredibly hard worker. I know everyone thinks they’re busy but Marcus really does work hard. He’s all action and no talk. Whereas someone like X [he name-checks a former Michelin-star-holder turned TV chef] just sits on his arse all day.”
Collins himself is no stranger to long hours. When he’s not working he often visits Paris but generally his down time is spent catching up with sleep and with friends – one of whom, as regular readers of the gossip pages will know, is Madonna. He first met the pop diva many years ago, when she employed him to design one of her homes. He now describes their association as a ‘friendship’ – and he’s quick to add that any professional collaboration between them these days is strictly behind closed doors.
“The thing is, if people think you’re working for celebrities it’s terrible for business,” he adds. “In my experience, everyone you work for thinks they’ve got equal claim on your time. If you bring the celebrity card into it you immediately get: ‘Oh well obviously he didn’t return my phone call because he was on the phone to Tom Cruise.’ So I try not to get involved in all that.”
Collins is undoubtedly a man with firm convictions. When it comes to it, he’s not scared to dish out criticism (especially with regard to the many ‘knock-offs’ of his own work that he sees around). His 2001 book, New Hotel: Architecture and Design contains some quite stern comments in places. So what are the typical pitfalls hotel designers fall into?
“Well,” he says, “I think the worst you can say about a hotel is that it looks “soulless” or it looks like it’s come off a conveyor belt. I see an awful lot of hotels that don’t have an individual spirit or a personality and I find that very unappealing. Designing a hotel is a very personal thing and that’s why I think there’s only so much work you can do. You can’t do hundreds of rooms and loads of hotels and still make them all look good.
“At Lime Wood,” he continues, “there are 29 bedrooms that are all different. That’s doesn’t necessarily make commercial sense - designers can design 90 bedrooms and get a repeat fee on them – but doing it that way didn’t fit with my idea of a country house hotel experience. And yet at the same time I didn’t want it to be like other country house hotels where each room looks like it’s been decorated in different periods by different people. It had to be a specific aesthetic that was interpreted subtly in 29 different ways.”
Collins is a strange combination: someone who is clearly passionate about his work and yet who affects a world-weary ennui – the reluctant design guru. But when looking at the overall global picture in hotel design, he is upbeat. “I think there are amazing things happening in the Middle East,” he nods, “and I think there will be amazing things happening in China – if not already.”
His own practice has been expanding globally, with several projects underway in Hong Kong, though he is wary of taking on too much overseas work. One of DCS’ most exciting projects is a scheme for 200 Ritz Carlton Residences at the Ole Scheeren-designed MahaNakhon building in Bangkok. The Studio has developed a limited furniture range specifically for the MahaNakhon, but he is adamant this doesn’t herald a new commercial direction. ‘I’ve been asked many times to do furniture ranges but I’m not really interested in diffusion lines, despite all the tempting offers. I’m a bit anti-social. I don’t want to have to turn up and flog things in a store. I’d rather shoot myself.’
When I counter that part of every business involves an element of selling, he laughs: “Yes, but if it were down to me to do the selling, there would be no business. I’m a little old-fashioned. I can’t help feeling it’s undignified.”
Fittingly for someone so appalled by vulgarity, the words most often used to describe Collins’ signature style are ‘elegance’ and ‘opulence’. His work is described by one reviewer as “combining British style with Hollywood glamour”. This is no accident. From the age of six, he recalls, he devoured books about the golden age of cinema. “I loved books about silent movie stars and photography and set design. I was quite a precocious child. I’ve always been interested in lighting. I remember at seven years of age getting a book out of the library about George Hurrell, the famous Hollywood photographer who used to make people like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford look amazing in black and white. It really inspired me to think about the magic of light.”
Born and raised in Dublin, Collins describes his background as cultured and middle class: “When I was growing up my parents always wanted the very best of what was affordable or feasible. If they did something they always wanted to do it well. And I’m the same.”
His father was an architect and his grandfather also had an interest in housing and design. “So I guess it’s in my genes,” he shrugs. ‘I’ve also got quite a mathematical brain. I see everything in terms of mathematical equations. Maybe I’ve got some sort of Asperger’s Syndrome but I can always tell the size of a table or the length of a room or the height of a ceiling just by looking at them. I think the mathematical whirrings of my brain make me aspire to create spaces that look well-proportioned, well-structured and comfortable to move through.”
Collins moved to London and set up his practice in 1985, going on to design some of the Capital’s most successful restaurants, including the Wolseley, Nobu Mayfair, Locanda Locatelli and J Sheekey’s, as well as the Blue Bar at the Berkeley and the bar at Claridges. He describes DCS’s role these days as “interior architecture” rather than “interior design” The restaurant at the Corinthia, for example, has arches and columns that you assume to be part of the fabric of the original ballroom, but when I ask if the refurbishment was a challenge because of all the listed features, he laughs: “There weren’t any. The Corinthia had been totally stripped bare over the past 80-odd years. We created all those features. It was the same with the Artesian [the bar at The Langham]. It’s essentially an architectural structure within an existing building. I had a drink there last night and I know it sounds arrogant but I thought it looked really beautiful. And yet not one square inch of that room existed three years ago.”
I wonder therefore if the Artesian is his proudest achievement, but he insists he doesn’t have one, that his career-defining work is still to come. “I don’t feel any great pride looking back over my career,” he says. “It’s not in my nature. I just don’t think what I do is that important. You can’t take this industry too seriously.” Indeed, in a recent interview he dismissed interior design with the words: “It’s only paint and fabric, for crying out loud.”
“Well it is,” he shrugs. And then he adds with a mischievous twinkle: “I just think I happen to know the right paint and the right fabric better than most people.”