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Here’s the secret to making spaces feel like home

Ilse Crawford is changing social spaces to suit human behaviour, one lounge at a time.

It makes no sense. Here we are, at Shanghai’s Plaza 66, one of the city’s most luxurious shopping centres, which has just undergone a revamp and now houses over a hundred sprawling designer stores. Nearly all of them heave with exclusive items or hard-to-get pieces. Yet, instead of shopping up a storm, we’re ensconced in the mall’s plush new VIC (Very Important Customer) Lounge, loath to leave our very comfy chair.

But perhaps we should have expected it. The space was designed by British decor guru Ilse Crawford, whose Studioilse firm is focused on creating environments where humans feel comfortable. “No one, rich or poor, wants to be in a space that feels cold or in some way neglected, uninhabited,” she tells us in the 400 sq m parlour for the mall’s elite customers, both of us cocooned in a tall striped sofa that has the effect of making us feel like we’re having a private conversation. “Ultimately, we are all people and we have more in common with each other than that that divides us. And there are things we all want. We want care, we want attention, we want to be in spaces that someone cares about.”

Refettorio Felix

DESIGN FOR ALL Refettorio Felix, a charity kitchen in London, features a warm colour palette that creates a welcoming ambience.

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Crawford should know. After launching Elle Decoration in 1989 – which she helmed for nine years – and establishing Donna Karan’s Home division, she set up Studioilse in 2001 from her London flat. Since then, she’s built a reputation for her intuitive style of design that “supports and enhances human behaviour”, and delivered a string of impactful projects including UK celebrity hotspot Babington House and New York’s Soho House members’ club.

Then there’s Refettorio Felix, the London charity kitchen for the socially vulnerable and homeless that she completed in June this year, together with celebrated chef Massimo Bottura’s Food For Soul non-profit. Far from creating a utilitarian space, the designer filled the high-ceilinged former church with warm-hued Artemide lighting and softly curved furniture donated by Vitra and Artifort, which gave the community kitchen a sense of intimacy. The result is an interior that’s beautiful yet unintimidating, prompting one visitor to ask: “Where’s the Petrus?”

“List the things you touch everyday and make them as nice as you possibly can. It’s important to focus your money on the things you actually engage with.”

– Crawford, on adding the human touch to the home

It’s that knack for making people feel at home which helps Crawford stand out among the designers who dedicate themselves to nailing that intangible factor, something that’s probably due to the level of detail she drills down to. Apart from having “endless conversations” about how high, say, the back of a chair should be, she begins every commission with a robust examination of the project’s clientele and priorities, often interviewing potential users on site. “That’s the designer’s job, I think, to interrogate the human experience and understand what the design response should be to that question. Design is about understanding what will happen; what the emotional, physical, practical needs are of a space.”

For Crawford, the on-the-ground presence is integral to coming up with a design that works. “Obviously we count on data that tells us how many minutes (people spend in a place), what they did and all that, but the data doesn’t tell you  that they’re tired, that they’re jet-lagged, that they’re doing what you’re doing now,” she says, gesturing towards the way we’re seated. “They sit diagonally because we’re all working with tablets. People used to sit (facing front), but people today, men included, sit like you’re sitting.”

Cathay Pacific first- and business-class lounges

AIRPORT COMFORT Crawford will be designing more than a dozen Cathay Pacific first- and business-class lounges in cities such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.

She adds: “It’s a completely different gesture. It’s a completely different shape of furniture. It means you need a lot of swivel chairs because you need people to be in the same space but avoid eye contact. It changes the brief completely.”

Speaking of briefs, Crawford has of late received an increasing number from Asia. Plaza 66’s VIC Lounge aside, she was also commissioned by Cathay Pacific to design 17 of its first- and business-class lounges, among them those in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore (at Changi Aiport Terminal 4).

As a designer who says her favourite jobs are those for clients who are “really interested in exploring something together and are up for what the design process will bring”, she’s especially enthusiastic to take these on. “I like working in Asia. There’s a sort of scale of ambition here which I think is quite different. You have the sense of being able to make environments that will change things; I think you don’t feel constrained by what’s already there. You’re building the future. It’s quite a progressive moment, isn’t it?”