Episode 107

Ilse Crawford on Creating Lasting, “Living” Spaces

Interview by Spencer Bailey

To the cult British interior and furniture designer Ilse Crawford, interiors too often take a backseat to architecture. Through her humanistic, systems-thinking, “Frame for Life” approach, however, Crawford has shown how interiors and architecture should instead be considered on the same plane and, as she puts it on this episode of Time Sensitive, “walk hand in hand.” Widely known for creating indoor spaces that are notable for their tactility, warmth, and comfort—environments that incorporate, to use her phrase, “visceral materiality”—Crawford oversees her namesake London-based design studio, Studioilse, which she launched in 2003, and which famously designed the first Soho House members’ club in New York. Crawford is also the founder of the department of Man and Wellbeing at the Design Academy Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, which she headed for two decades. Prior to her career as a designer, Crawford was the celebrated founding editor of Elle Decoration U.K.

At the heart of her work is the notion of home, something perhaps best expressed in her three books, Sensual Home (1997), Home Is Where the Heart Is? (2005), and A Frame for Life (2014). A sense of homeyness pervades practically everything she designs, whether the Ett Hem hotel in Stockholm, the Cathay Pacific lounges in Hong Kong, or a Wästberg table lamp. By taking the time to listen to, watch, and understand her clientele, time and again she creates beloved, tailor-made spaces and objects that stand the test of time. 

On this episode, Crawford discusses her approach to crafting beautiful, highly original spaces that push against today’s speedy, copy-paste, Instagram-moment world; her early career in media; and her personal definition of the word “slow.”


Crawford talks about her design concept “A Frame for Life,” and describes how this line of thinking has played out across the past decade of her career. She also shares some of her personal philosophies around time.

Crawford meditates on the idea of “home” across time, and how her understanding of “indoor time” influences the way she designs spaces.

Crawford considers the durational aspect of design and the strategies she uses to push against Western society’s disposable culture and create spaces that stand the test of time.

Crawford recalls the texts on design and the senses that have served as beacons for her own design philosophies and that inspired her book Sensual Home, including The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, and Undesigning the Bath by Leonard Koren.

Crawford, who was raised by an artist-pianist mother and a meticulous journalist-editor father, reflects on her unusual upbringing in London alongside triplet sisters. She also considers how her mother’s cancer diagnosis and passing reshaped her outlook on life.

Crawford recounts her career trajectory, from studying history and the history of architecture at university, to entering the world of media—serving as an editor at the Architect’s Journal, then at The World of Interiors, and ultimately as the founding editor of the U.K. edition of Elle Decoration.

Crawford discusses her writings on the subjects of time and speed in her book Home Is Where the Heart Is? and how she defines “slowness” in her own life. She also delves into the notion of “designing minds.”

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi Ilse, welcome to Time Sensitive.

ILSE CRAWFORD: Hello, Spencer. It’s very lovely to be in your home. Thank you for inviting me.

SB: I thought we’d start with your design concept “A Frame for Life.” It’s more than a decade old now. You put out a book of that name in 2014. Could you lay out, just to get going here, what “A Frame for Life” looks like for the listeners?

IC: It’s how we approach the spaces that we work with. Essentially, we want our spaces to be the place—literally—where our life plays out, so we think about them entirely from that perspective. Bottom line, it’s about designing better and long-lasting realities. Ultimately, buildings are where we live, so we think about them as organisms, really, as a living thing. In practice, what does that mean? It means that we are looking at the human experience of that building, but also thinking about the human experience in terms of that context of well-being as a system. 

After all, we’re talking about living systems. We’re talking about furniture that is made by people. We’re talking about rooms where life will play out. We’re talking about how a space is run, how it’s maintained. It’s really about creating living spaces.

SB: You have these principles that go along with this concept, the first of which is, “We are the system.” What exactly do you mean by “system”? Could you share a bit about what that might look like when executed on?

IC: “We are the system” or “a system,” it’s basically saying that we are part of something; we are part of something bigger than ourselves—so all of our decisions are going to have an impact and are connected.

We have in the studio, and also when I was teaching at Design Academy Eindhoven, a map, if you like, of this living system, which starts at the small scale, the human scale, but then looks at connecting to, obviously, health, community, well-being, sustainability, economics, the way that we treat natural resources—air, water, et cetera—and how to connect these things in a healthy way.

While that might sound wildly ambitious, I think if you start to think in terms of everything being connected as an eye of the needle for making decisions, you end up with a very different outcome. For example, if I think about a recent project in Stockholm, we worked really hard to make sure that any of the new pieces were pieces that could be repaired, that came from companies that were enduring companies that trained people—George Smith, Svenkst Tenn. We use a lot of vintage pieces, refreshed and repaired. We made sure that all of the textiles were “healthy” textiles, if you like. It’s really a way of looking at the decisions that you make and how they layer.

SB: It’s been a decade since you published this book—or manifesto, really, A Frame for Life. It serves as this line of thinking that I feel like has become evolutionary, almost. Looking at your work over the past decade, you can see subtle shifts, but the basis of it is still at the core of what you originally wrote. How do you see it, this thinking playing out across ten years?

IC: Well, in ten years we’ve built quite a few buildings, so we’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone. Some of it is incredibly aligned with what we imagined, but then there are things that you can never plan that happen along the way. For example, with the hotel in Stockholm, Ett Hem, recently two additional buildings have opened, or one and a half actually. And we had, for example, no idea that Ett Hem would be so successful. It proved to be, we wanted it to be—and so successful that Stockholmers wanted to come. Whereas when it opened, a lot of Stockholmers were like, “It’s miles away. Why would we come?” It’s not miles away at all, but it’s just not bang in the center.

Now, of course, they really want to come and they love the fact that it’s just slightly out of the center. So it needed more space to be able to have a slightly bigger kitchen, restaurant, to have rooms for parties and meetings and so on. Then the other thing that we had no idea would happen was that people would stay longer. But it turned out that, actually, Ett Hem was just so lovely to be in that some people loved to stay there longer. They were maybe newly separated or they had a house renovation going on or they were traveling for business, and they wanted something that was more than a hotel room, but less than a service department. Again, you learn as you go, and I think that as a studio we’ve also learned.

Interior view of the Ett Hem hotel in Stockholm, designed by Studioilse in 2012. (Courtesy StudioIlse)

SB: Looking at that book, there’s an essay by the architecture critic Edwin Heathcote I wanted to quote here. He writes, “Luxury is no longer an idea defined by expense or display, but rather a notion of what is valuable in life. And the greatest value in contemporary life today is ascribed to time. Time to read or talk, to think or eat. But also the time which is embodied in the preparation, in the crafting of materials; this is something which can be implicit in the architecture, the furniture, and the design itself.” With that in mind, I was hoping you could share some of your own personal philosophies around time and how you think about time when it comes to your life, your work, your projects, interiors, architecture.

IC: I find it so interesting that, in what is essentially a super-consumerist world that we live in, still we cannot buy time. It’s the one thing that as humans we all have in common. We have a finite amount of time and nothing we can do can change that, which makes it, I think, an extraordinary and super-precious commodity. Personally, I was very lucky, I grew up in a somewhat bookish environment. And, not so luckily, I had the kind of childhood where my mother had triplets when I was six or seven, and so the attention, to say the least, switched elsewhere, so I was pretty much left to my own devices.

But in the end it was brilliant, because I was able to just deep dive into books, writing, just spending time. I had infinite amounts of time; I was absolutely not programmed. In fact, I’m not even sure if they knew if I existed for a period—

SB: [Laughs]

IC: She was so otherwise wrapped up, as you would be. And I think I’ve kept that with me. So when I take on a project, I disappear into a tunnel of investigation—trying to understand it, interrogation, fascination—and then at some point, I come out the other end. But that deep dive…. I suppose growing up realizing that if you really just let go and went in feet forward, amazing things could happen along the way, I think has been a huge asset.

SB: There’s a line in your book I absolutely love that is, “With every second we are history.”

IC: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. Time is something that—yeah, we have no control over it. And at the same time, we have agency on what we do with it. It’s a funny, funny thing. I studied history, actually, which people are quite surprised by. And for me at least, it was never about facts, it was always about trying to understand, what were the things that changed? What were the cultural shifts? What were the social shifts? What were the things that triggered change? Who were the people and why were those people significant? Because actually, history, in the end, even if those preconditions are there, is made by those people who seize, maybe not the second, but the moment. I think there’s also that side to that—that with every second, with every moment, there are people who can be the spark that changes everything. Not on their own, but we have agency to shape history.

SB: So much of your work is about the domestic and notions of home and ideas of home. I was wondering if you could speak to the idea of home across time. The centuries or millennia even, how we have defined home, and how you see it from your distinct perspective, the seat you sit in.

IC: I find the idea of home the most fascinating thing. I find the idea of home even more fascinating than the physical reality of home, because it’s inside all of us. Animals want to go home—look at their migration patterns. Birds build nests. Humans always yearn for home. It’s one of the things that— Even people who have left home yearn for home. I remember reading something by Claudia Roden, the expert on Middle Eastern food, saying that, in the end for her and her family and friends, the reason she was so passionate about recording food and the recipes was that it was the last thing that they could control that was home, because it was their culture and it was their culture in edible form. [John] Berger, who is obviously a writer that puts things so brilliantly, said, “Without home, everything is fragmentation.”

SB: Mmm. And shelter’s of course a part of it, but that’s not the full definition of home.

IC: No, that’s the how, but it’s not the what or the why. I think home is a much deeper thing and it’s animal and visceral. We all have that deep, deep desire, I think, for home.

SB: You’ve written previously—while we’re on the subject of time—that we spend roughly 87 percent of our time indoors.

IC: With caveats of in the West, in the Northern Hemisphere. But yes, we spend much more time than we realize inside buildings.

SB: What do you make of this, what we might call “indoor time”? How do you think about that and how do you process that as a designer in thinking about the spaces you make?

IC: The reason I found that statistic so fascinating, apart from the fact that it is in and of itself super fascinating, is that, as a designer who probably is known to focus on interiors, inside buildings, it is absolutely amazing how in the industry they’re really given relatively little priority, if you think about how much time we spend inside them. We had a recent project where I calculated that, at the end—it was three and a half thousand square meters or something like that—in the end, we got less than one percent for inside the building. And that’s partly a question of priorities, it’s partly a question of the way that the industry works, that project management delivers the building and then you do the interior.

But the reality is that, at the end of a process—surprise, surprise—there’s usually less money than you thought there’d be. It means that the inside of the building is the thing that gets cut. So often you have these buildings that look good from the outside, but are shocking inside, and that’s one of the reasons why.

Whereas I feel strongly that, from the very beginning, the interior and architecture need to walk hand in hand and the budget needs to be a collective thing. It needs to be integrated so that the quality of the life inside the building is given equal, if not superior, importance. And that, for example, has been why we’ve been very lucky with clients like Jeanette Mix, who was a client of Ett Hem and we worked alongside her.

More and more we have clients who come to us and start at the very beginning with the life that will be lived inside the building and how the interior can support that. But it doesn’t happen by accident and it certainly doesn’t happen as an afterthought, which is another issue. Quite often, we have people who’ve worked on a building project for maybe five years and then all of a sudden we’ll get an email that says, “Please can I have your proposal? It’d be great if we can have it by the end of the week, and can you start two weeks on Monday?” It’s like, “Hang on a minute. You’ve spent probably six years on this project and you’ve only just thought about what’s going to go on inside this building you’ve just built?” Think about it.

SB: Well, yeah, this brings up the durational aspect of design. And you’ve commented previously that, “paradoxically, most lasting design is actually outside of its time or ahead of its time.” I was hoping you’d maybe elaborate on that a little bit. How do you think about the durational aspect of design, of how something can truly stand the test of time?

IC: I think there are no hard and fast rules, but the way we look at it is to be very specific, and just really looking at the use of a building when we’re talking about commercial buildings and even, actually, in private spaces—to really deep dive into the life and how people actually use spaces. When it comes to commercial projects, we figure out, what is going to be the purpose of this building? What is going to be its magic, if you like. And then more practical stuff, like how is it going to be operated, storage, how are the staff going to be supported, what materials should be used, how will it be programmed? Yeah, just trying to really dissect, if you like, almost anthropologically, what will go on inside that building? What reality will take place? What world will we be building inside that building?

If we can create this integrated whole, this world that makes sense…. Oddly enough, by being so specific, it gives it longevity—or seems to. There are caveats to that. We have to think in terms of the things that need to be, if you like, the bones, the background. We think about it rather like a symphony. You have the background, you have the structure, the musical structure of the building. But then you also have the violins, the ones at the front, who are the more lively, more melodic, and potentially more adaptable pieces that can potentially be switched in and out if you need to turn it up and turn it down a bit. And then you have the earth, the things that just give you warmth and safety and security. And when they come together, it’s fabulous. Obviously, those worlds are not about trend, they’re about values, and they’re about trying to understand the values of a particular set of people.

Historically we’ve worked across very different communities, but digging into those communities. Ett Hem was one community, which was very specific to the context of that building and the city and the use of that building. We really updated what was essentially an arts and crafts building for the 21st century—so heightened domesticity, you might say. But equally we’ve also worked on a community kitchen, which again, was another community where we wanted to make it really work for a hundred and twenty people who come for lunch and hang out together and also use the showers and also store their suitcases and also have various interactions with the staff. And it’s understanding what matters to those communities and translating that into a space. Each world is different, and that’s of course a fascination.

But I think if you can listen, watch, understand what it is that really matters, you can make a space that is tailored to them, and therefore, hopefully rather like a really good suit, will last. It can be repaired now and again, can be in let in, let out, but the essentials are there.

SB: Yeah. So much of what you’re describing is also—and this is something that’s long been central to your work since really you made the leap into interior design—is the sensorial nature, the see, touch, hear, taste, smell of it all. You’re not designing with an image in mind. It’s not all about what you see, it’s about everything else—that’s just a part of it. And we live in a world that’s so image-obsessed, image-addicted, you could even say.

IC: Absolutely, yeah.

SB: Where it’s all about the new and the now. And you’ve written about how there’s ideas around novelty, that that’s just this obsession we have. We’re always interested in whatever feels novel and yet—

IC: Well, we’re near fights, aren’t we? And obviously, we live in a fast-moving consumer society that wants us to feel like we need it. Listen, I like beautiful things, it’s not that, and of course I buy things. But I think what’s really important when you’re thinking about spaces for people to inhabit, is that we have a longer-term game in place. Aside from anything else, construction is up there as, I think, third- or fourth-worst environmental impact in terms of carbon emissions. The last thing on earth you want is for an interior to end up in landfill. There’s just too much at stake to treat them as throwaway.

SB: Yeah. What are some tools, in your mind, that we could think about in terms of pushing against this non-place culture that we find ourselves in, where things are quick, efficient, disposable, constantly changing, rather than slowly adapting over time?

IC: Well, funnily enough, to take your words, it’s about time, and it’s about putting in the time at the beginning. Because we are a “delivery” culture, I would say, in design, one of the things we have to argue for a lot is to spend enough time at the beginning with a client to really dig in and get that information and understanding of what it is. The “plan slow at first” mindset. Whereas very often, as I mentioned, people come and they’re like, “Right, okay, when am I going to get the first renders?” And it’s like, “Slow down.” We can work fast once we know what we’re doing. But the first bit is so important, and that’s where you learn.

With a project that we did ten years ago now, or started ten years ago—because it actually went on for many years—with the Cathay Pacific lounges, we got the job, [laughs] and that’s a story in and of itself. But anyway, we eventually got the job, and one day they then delivered a ginormous box of data and we were like, “Great, okay. And this is all really interesting.” And it was all about percentage time in this space, in that space and all really useful. But then we said, “Actually, what we really need to do is sit in lounges and just watch people.” And you could see them, the guys on the ball go, “Hmm. Nice job.” But we learned so much from just sitting and watching, taking our time.

SB: Data’s one thing, but, you know—

IC: Watching how, for example, people were tired. Surprise, surprise, but they were knackered and they were sleeping on the chairs at the entrance. And the client was saying, “We can’t have sofas because people sleep in them and it’s ugly.” And it’s just like, Yeah, but they’re sleeping because they’re tired and they’re jet-lagged and they’re changing planes. And so why don’t we just embrace the difficulty and figure out a place that’s maybe not at the entrance? It’s true, it could actually be at the back. But why not just make a beautiful nap room? And these guys were saying, “Yeah, but they’ll miss their planes.” It’s just like, “Excuse me, they’ve all got smartphones.”

But so often, common sense is so uncommon. I think we also just, again, noticed how people were piling up their plates with stuff from the buffet, which is human nature. For some reason we all think we’re going to die of starvation tomorrow when we’re faced with a buffet. And then leaving it. The food waste was just atrocious. It wasn’t technically our job to look at the food, but then we reported back and said, “Look, this is what we’ve seen.” And they were like, “Yep, you’re right. The food waste is terrible, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” I was like, “Yes, there is. Why don’t you focus on the noodle soup which you do? Because we know from talking to people that what they want is something fresh and liquid and delicious, and that noodle soup is a fabulous thing.” They’re like, “Oh, it’s not enough.”

It’s like, well, as designers, we can make it enough. We can make it beautiful. We can elevate it and think about training your staff to be front of house, because actually it’s a very lonely experience going through an airport. If you go through it regularly, having someone you can look in the eye is a wonderful thing, plus you’re going to trust the food they make a lot more. And that’s become central to their brand offer now, which is great because none of that was in the data, but it’s blindingly obvious to somebody sitting in the space how it could be different. And I think that time at the beginning of a project to just watch and listen, read the data, but feel things as well, is really important.

SB: Here I have to bring up a book, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Eyes of the Skin from 1996. 

IC: Oh yes. My hero.

SB: I wanted to ask you, first, do you remember the first time you read that book?

IC: I completely do.

SB: And I ask this because I imagine it had a large impact on you. And, I guess, second, what impact did it have on you?

IC: Well. I had been editing Elle Decoration in the U.K. for probably about eight years or something when that book came out. I’d been struggling to find someone I could talk to, so to speak, around the topics that I was feeling, but was finding difficult to articulate. We had features around the senses…. I was very interested, partly because I just saw so many interiors—I think I calculated that I’d seen about five thousand or something over the decade that I was there—that were soulless, and I was trying to figure out for myself what it was that made them the spaces that felt warm and felt elemental and as if they were a part of the people who lived there, what it was….

And it wasn’t whether they were old or new, that’s a red herring. I figured out that it was definitely around materiality and places that felt like they fitted the life of the people that lived there—as opposed to that place that looked good but essentially people lived in the bedroom and came out for dinner parties. Then I stumbled across Juhani’s book in a bookshop, and he just said in a nutshell exactly what I’d been feeling around the fact that architecture, recently at least, lost its way. And then, through that lens, I started to look into the architects who clearly hadn’t—obviously like the Aaltos—who valued materiality in buildings. And I could see that one of the things that was really, really important in architecture and design was to bring back that visceral materiality to space.

SB: Yeah. And soon after, you published your own book exploring this, Sensual Home. Tell me about the impetus for that text. Was that really an outgrowth of the enthusiasm you were feeling for these kinds of projects?

IC: Completely. And actually, it wasn’t after. You know how there is that thing about how you write to understand what you think? [Laughs] And that was what that book was all about. I started writing it when I was editing Elle Deco—probably 2006, something like that?

SB: 1996.

IC: No, sorry, ’96, sorry. ’96. I used to get up really, really early, because I did it before I went to work, just to get it out. It was just burning inside me, I had to get it on the page and try and understand what it was. But I never thought it was going to be a book. I wasn’t doing it as a book. I was just writing to try and understand. So I wrote it, and then there’s this weird thing that happened where I used to walk from work to home, and I was walking home quite late. Looking in the window, I forget which bookshop it was, and a bloke was standing next to me and we started chatting, and I think I started saying about what I was interested in and so on. And he said, “Well, look, you should turn it into a book.” I was like, “Book? Blimey, never even thought about it. I’m not a writer.” But he said, “Listen, I’ve got a friend who works at Conrad, so you should approach her.” And I did.

Anyway, that was weird because I sent him my synopsis and they wanted it next Friday because they wanted to put it to press immediately. 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: They were like, “Yeah, yeah.” And I said, “I can’t do it next Friday; I’ve got a job. And I want to do it properly, I’m not just going to churn it out, I want to do it properly.” Anyway, they gave my synopsis to another writer who wrote another book, but with my titles, but who didn’t care and didn’t do any more research so it’s a really fluffy thing. 

But the editor who had taken my synopsis left and started her own publishing company; she wrote to me a year later and just said, “I’m so sorry. It was a shocking thing that happened, but would you like to do the real book?” And so I did, but it took time. I was doing it alongside the day job. It was a couple of years. And it came out, I think ’98 or something like that, ’97, ’98.

SB: What other texts on design and or the senses have been of importance or beacons for you?

IC: I have a few texts that I love. I’m forever reading around the topic, so I have a bit of a warped perspective when I read. But I would say I read a lot about the Aaltos and actually the way they talked about Paimio and their principles of design, they really resonate. My other big set of heroes, really, is Christopher Alexander and his mates, the Berkeley crew, who did that amazing book, A Pattern Language, of archetypes in architecture and design—the things that are always true, sometimes true, and can be true. And I love them, because humans are human. They don’t change what they like that much. Bed is bed, has always been bed. And the principles that Alexander et al. outline in that book are fantastic. The waist-high shelf, the three-quarter-height wall, the cupboard beds, the courtyard. Yeah, it’s brilliant. 

SB: It’s not designs—

IC: Nothing to do with aesthetics, it’s to do with, again, the anthropology of space, how you use it, what humans feel comfortable in, mostly, sometimes.

SB: I imagine Leonard Koren also probably comes into play here. 

IC: Yes.

SB: Most people or listeners would know Leonard for his Wabi-Sabi book.

IC: I know. For me, it’s Undesigning the Bath. Again, talking about how we’re animals and the bath should be this tactile thing, not an industrial product that’s cold to the skin. All of that really resonated with me.

SB: Bathing as a spiritual experience.

IC: Yeah. Oh, totally. But I’ve always been fascinated by that. I used to go to Porchester Spa in London, which was a fabulous Turkish bath in Paddington filled with old lags plotting burglaries—

SB: [Laughs]

IC: —but a lovely 19th-century structure.

SB: And Ett Hem has a hammam in the basement.

IC: It does. I really believe in bathing as a primal and social activity. In fact, there’s a project, the one that we’re working on with Frida Escobedo, in fact, in Amsterdam. It’s just got planning, so it’s very exciting. Relatively early stages for construction, but not at all early stages for the project. We did the design strategy for that building with the mindset of how something that was a pretty big site in a largely residential neighborhood could be something that the locals would actually benefit from, because the trouble with hotels is that they can be a bit of a black hole for the neighborhood.

One of the things that we’ve done—it’s surrounded by canals on three sides, interestingly enough—is instead of the usual spa gym, la, la, la, in the basement, we say, “Well, look, come on, you’ve got a fantastic opportunity to turn that whole space into a bathhouse, a proper bathhouse. And you’ve got water everywhere.” There are going to be days of the week when it’s not so busy, because hotels ebb and flow as well, and then it could be either free or lower cost for the neighborhood. And that way it’s win-win, it’s how to provide something that everyone will like. Anyway, well, that went down very well with all parties, which I’m very happy about because I think there’s nothing worse than a hotel gym with three bikes and a running machine. Who would ever want to use that? What a waste of space.

SB: [Laughs] Let’s go back to your upbringing now. You mentioned your triplet sisters, but I also wanted to touch on your parents and their influence. Your mother was Danish, an artist and pianist, and your father was Canadian and the economics editor of The Sunday Times of London. I imagine your parents probably had, as all parents do, quite an influence. But this pair in particular, it’s this very artistic-creative mother and, as you’ve pointed out, interrogator, journalist-editor father.

IC: They were an odd couple, but came together through music, which they both had a shared passion for. And in fact, they met at the Holland Park music club. My mother was, as you say, super creative, quite bohemian, however, had lots of children quite young, not entirely intentionally—triplets. And my dad was very bright—bordering on the autistic, I would say—but a very smart man to have as a father. However, I don’t think he understood what children were. You were either his equal or you weren’t, and everybody was until they weren’t. So I remember as kids growing up, we always had to have done our research, basically.

We could discuss anything at the table, but we had to justify it and explain it, because he always said that we were surrounded by appalling conformity and that the facts set you free. And he was right, he’s right. You do your research, then you see the opportunities. He was completely tolerant so long as we’d done our research. 

My sisters were every color of the spectrum you could imagine in terms of beliefs. They went through the whole gamut of being punks first, very visible punks on the scene in London at the time. And then hippie—one was a Rastafarian. We had every gang in the house, and the same values were applied: If you could discuss it, if you knew about it, if you had enough insight, you were welcome.

SB: And I imagine at some point you must have started thinking about the home, design…. How did that infiltrate your reality? When did you start thinking about interiors, environments, homes?

IC: I never thought about it in that “way.” it was just my reality, my part of the world. I don’t know if you ever saw a movie called Toto the Hero?

SB: No.

IC: It’s a Belgian classic. But there are some fantastic scenes in it, which is basically a kid growing up. And up to a certain point in life, your world is behind the front door, and at a certain point you’ve moved beyond the front door. But it’s a big world, it’s not a small world. Our world was huge, but around the home. And we had absolute freedom to make of it as we wanted. I have to say, my mother, for example, we didn’t have any furniture in the house when we moved in. It was a very nice house and a derelict old house that my parents bought optimistically. And she took the small amount of money that we had to buy furniture and spent it all on an Elizabethan trunk.

The rest of the time we were just allowed to do what we wanted with paint and with dye to transform that environment into our world. God only knows what it looked like. 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: But anyway, we really enjoyed ourselves doing it, and we used up all the kitchen pots with Dylon, and then Dye Gone, [laughs] to make our world out of color, paint, and dye. But we grew up just thinking that home was something you made—it never occurred to me that it was something you bought.

And even when the money ran out, which it often did, my mother’s response was just that we got out all the jelly molds and saw what we could do with them and made funny colors and funny things, and we thought it was fabulous. We didn’t think it was weird at all. And our friends loved it because it was very free. We had lots of gangs coming over and staying over.

SB: When you were 13, your mother was diagnosed with cancer. I imagine this shifted your reality for you. All of a sudden you’re spending time in hospitals, you’re having to watch the triplets. Could you explain that period of time? How do you think about it now, how do you process that transformation in you and your family life and the lives of your siblings?

IC: As you say, I was 13 or so, and I think the enormity doesn’t dawn on you immediately. These things happen gradually, don’t they? But yes, I think I had to grow up very quickly. That was that as far as being irresponsible—suddenly I had to become responsible. Certainly I think I became very aware that life could stop quickly. And as an adult, when I look back, I realized that I was driven from that point to get on with life. I knew that it wasn’t a given. 

I saw somebody who was a relatively young woman, she was in her early thirties, facing extinction. If I was going to do anything with my life, I clearly had to get on with it. That, I think, is embedded in me. We actually talked about it a little bit earlier, but there’s something about that, I think, that when you actually arrive at the age where your deceased parent was, it’s quite a shock because you can’t actually quite believe you are that age and still here.

So in a way it was a gift because I had to not only get a move on, but I got to have a second round—so I feel incredibly privileged to be here. We became very close, my mother and I, and she was somebody who was incredibly open. We talked about life, death, the things that were important in life. And I think that that was something that, without what had happened, would never have happened. We would never have had those incredibly close open conversations around what mattered in life. 

On the other hand, looking after my sisters was tricky, because frankly, what teenager can really look after their younger sisters? I did my best and I learned how to cook in very big pots, a very limited repertoire of things that I don’t cook now. [Laughter] Shepherd’s pie, big chicken soup, anything that would feed not only them, but also their friends.

But I also learned that a big pot was a wonderful thing, because it was really important that if Spit came for supper, there was supper for him too. So I learned how to make a generous home and one that included everybody around the table. But I have to say that was really challenging, looking after them. They, not surprisingly, went fairly off the rails. It was really tough for them, they were a lot younger than me. I do remember having absolutely no authority whatsoever over them. 

And coming back once and finding the local garage mechanic, who was very handsome, stripped to the waist with my sister walking up and down his back. And looking at them and saying, “If you don’t go, I’ll confiscate your pocket money.” [Laughter] Even now I think about it and wince, but how awful that must’ve been. Anyway, dreadful. [Laughs]

SB: Cinematic, wow. 

IC: [Laughs]

SB: Jumping forward a little bit, you go on to study history and the history of architecture in university and joined your father’s profession, in a way. You got into journalism—or editing anyway, first at the Architect’s Journal, and then as an editor at The World of Interiors, and ultimately as the founding editor of the U.K. edition of Elle Decoration, as you mentioned. How do you think about this period in your “publishing time,” I guess let’s call it, and are there any stories or moments or things that stand out to you now about that time that inform who you are today, your practice?

IC: As I said, I didn’t think of myself as a writer, but I learned how to write. And I could write, partly probably because I read so much, but maybe also all that explaining to my dad. I wanted to study architecture, but it wasn’t an option, I had to get a job. I had worked my way through college, so that helped a bit. And first of all, I worked for architects, and then because I knew my way around the vocabulary, I ended up on the Architects’ Journal. It’s so funny, isn’t it? You can’t plan things. In hindsight, it looks super organized, it really wasn’t. 

When I was on the Architects’ Journal, an ad came up in The Guardian for a job on The World of Interiors, which I loved at the time and it was an amazing magazine at that point. It was really beautiful and crafted, and you could see it had loads of former art students making things. It was a really great magazine under Min and Wendy, Min Hogg and Wendy Harrop. But I didn’t remotely think I would be selected, not even close. I was like, “I’m never going to get it. I’m not posh. No way.” Anyway, I had a friend who just said, “If you don’t do your CV, I’ll never speak to you again.” 

And so I did, and I got it. And it was the most amazing break for me, because it was just a moment in time where it was edited by the terrifying but brilliant Min Hogg. And my boss was a guy who had been Harry Evans’s right-hand man at The Sunday Times—he was his sub-editor, and the man who basically made everything that Harry wrote come out in beautiful prose.

He really taught me how to not only write, but edit. It was just an extraordinary lucky break. Also, I was really practical. You know what it’s like on small teams: Anybody who can do everything is popular. I wouldn’t say I was brilliant at anything, but I could write, I could edit, I could build a set, I could style. I was the girl who could. And so I ended up as deputy quite quickly, even though I was really young. Then ended up being talent-hunted for Elle Deco, which wasn’t initially a magazine as such. It was a supplement to Elle, and then it became more and more successful, and then it became a magazine.

But again, I think that Hachette didn’t quite know what they’d landed with when they landed with me because I think it went under the radar. I was young and I was doing a supplement, and they’re like, “Oops, we’ve now got a magazine.” And no one was looking. It was so not focus-grouped. But it worked and it sold, and there we are.

SB: In a way, you’re 27 years old with this enormous drive.

IC: Enormous drive, I was stressed out of my mind, but I had a really great gang of people, odd people around me, really fabulous, and we worked like demons. And I think connected with amazing people like Yvonne Sporre, Jane Withers, Peter Saville—we had an amazing crowd around us. Georgina Godley, Tom Dixon. That was the crowd. And yeah, we had a blast, even if, I think, the management thought we were nuts. 

They kept moving us to new offices, so we got moved out of the Elle offices because we had paint pots and piles of furniture and things that didn’t look like glamorous outfits on rails.

But then when we moved somewhere else and we made it nice, they’d be like, “Oh, this is nice. We’re going to have to move you again!” [Laughs] They realized that we could do something that the others couldn’t. But it became really the model for the other Elle Decorations, this idea of a living narrative, I suppose, of people making things alongside more affordable things, alongside more high-end things, but always presented in that very Elle way of just being both beautiful but also accessible, which was exciting for the times. At that point, magazines were either posh and country-house or cottage-y.

SB: After this editing period, you actually came to New York—you worked for Donna Karan.

IC: And that was because of the book, actually, funnily enough, not the mag.

SB: The Senses.

IC: Yeah, she loved the book. And she was mad to have employed me, I think. But anyway, she wanted me to come and try and make sense of the home product, which, at that point, was divided between the licensed wholesale product and the stuff for her store. The company had been Chapter 11, so it was actually controlled by a board headed by a chap called John Idol who went on to work for Michael Kors and was very strong in the business side of things. 

And so it was working with him and with Donna on figuring out how to make sense of something that had to be manufactured for quite a small price. But in the early days of fashion-branded product, but then being able to sell at wholesale in essentially department stores at a price that made sense, alongside her own product, which was more crafted, more high-end. It was really interesting trying to figure out how to make that work together.

SB: It was around this time that you also got tapped by Nick Jones of Soho House to—

IC: That actually happened before, funnily enough. I’d done Babington House before I came to New York. 

SB: Oh, ok.

IC: Again, quite an accident, but I am one of those people who tends to say, “Yes, why not? Let’s give it a go.” I met him and I think he wanted me to look at the colors. Before he knew it, I’d taken on the whole thing and it worked, so he was very happy.

SB: What was that leap like for you to go from running a magazine to creating an entire environment? Really a prototype of—

IC: It’s not that different. It sounds different when you describe it, but we had been making sets and rooms and thinking about rooms, and I’d been in many rooms, and I understood, if you like, the “narrative” that we were doing, and then I knew how to turn it into a list. The only difference, honestly, was that we turned it into a list, we got it delivered, but we didn’t have to send it back. 

The narrative of Babington House, he had bought this really lovely 18th-century house, and my take was, “Don’t touch it. It’s fabulous. Do as little as possible.” But obviously it’s not…. Well, I say obviously, but at the time, it felt like it wasn’t the right thing for Soho House to do a country house hotel, which is what they all were.

The contemporary version of country house hotel did not exist, and they were all super stuffy. They needed to basically make a place that was like Soho House members had gone to stay with a friend’s parents, but they’d gone away and left the keys to the drink cabinet. Something where they had freedom within a more disheveled country house as opposed to going all snobby around it. And with updates—the second wife had had some input into the furnishings, so as much as you might have the older stuff, you could also have some contemporary pieces and good modern art in the mix, which was really what those houses were like—they actually weren’t like the country house. It wasn’t The Crown after all. 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: And anyway, it worked.

SB: And that led to New York, eventually.

IC: Yeah. So then when I was in New York, Nick came back. In fact, it was just after I decided to come back, oddly enough, because I wanted to start my own studio, and I also had been invited to head a department at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. And I found that a really exciting proposition. But then Nick approached me to do New York. And it’s extraordinary now when you think about it, but there were the three floors and the roof and the spa and gym and what have you, and twenty-four rooms. And I said, “Look, we’ve got to spruce it up in New York because boho means slightly different things.”

It can be the same planet, but it has to be appropriate to the context and to the building. Country House is not really the thing to do. But we talked about it and the context of where it was, meatpacking, it was near Manhole, it was near Clemente studio, it was the land of artists and cinema and clubs. It was a very freewheeling area at the time, it was all the retail that followed on. And I presented—it was in a hurry, of course—so I presented Nick our concept, and he just wasn’t really…. And eventually I just said, “Look. ‘Soixante-neuf, année érotique,’” and I played him that, the Birkin/Gainsbourg song, and I said, “It’s going to look like that.” And he’s like, “Fine.” [Laughter]

And that was it. Forget renders.

SB: That’s great, it’s like synesthesia: “Let me play you a song…”

IC: Exactly. It will look like that—look and feel like that. And it kind of did. I spent an awful lot of time in what was then the 26th Street market, and became very good friends with [the delivery man] Eddie Rock, and then Eddie Rock, his son, and Eddie Rock, his grandson, who basically had the Poland Spring delivery during the week, but delivered stuff at weekends. And yeah, the rest is history.

SB: Yeah. And you mentioned this program at the Design Academy Eindhoven, which Li Edelkoort—who we’ve had on this show as a guest—she invited you to come create and form this new department called Man and Well-being.

IC: Yeah, I know, you wouldn’t get away with that today, would you? 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: Anyway, in the context of their language, it meant mankind, but even still. But yeah, and she gave complete freedom. It was basically, “You are in charge, you do the syllabus, your students can leave you at any point, and obviously you are judged by the quality of the work at the end.” And that was it. I just got on with it. I did it for twenty years, and I absolutely loved it. So many of the students are now friends, even co-conspirators now and again.

SB: I’m sure it must have fed some of your thinking in the studio, too.

IC: Of course, yeah. The activity of teaching I would highly recommend to anyone, because you learn as much as you teach. It forces you to question yourself and to strengthen your own beliefs. You are sharing them with others so therefore it helps you articulate your ideas without question. And obviously it’s a community, and I don’t believe in the individual genius type thing. I think that everyone is a product of a group of people. And for sure, I think I was as much a product of Eindhoven as any of the students. It was a fabulous opportunity.

SB: There’s a third book of yours we haven’t mentioned yet, which is Home Is Where the Heart Is? I did want to bring it up because you write about time and speed quite a bit in it, including the line, “We are slaves to speed as we try to find our ways through the winner-takes-all society.” [Laughter]

IC: That’s a bit sweeping, isn’t it? But it’s true.

SB: Which—this was written twenty years ago, almost.

IC: Yeah, quite a while.

SB: So it’s striking to me, even in those early internet years, you were already feeling that. And there’s this great Marshall McLuhan quote that you put in the book that I wasn’t familiar with and I really love, which is, “Everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody.”

IC: I love that. But it is true. I think we fragment at speed, and it’s very hard to keep your authenticity, or at least for me. My experience is that you need to take time for ideas and therefore yourself to solidify. To have integrity takes time, I think. I can only speak personally, but if you do things in a rush, ideas could slip through your fingers, but also you could slip through your fingers. I find it so important not to rush. It’s a bit like that thing about emails. 

No email is so important that it can’t sit in your draft box overnight and take a second look. I’m not saying that we should all become terrible slowcoaches, but when it’s important, you’ve really got to just put the brakes on and take a breath and just think, “Actually, is this right?”

SB: I did want to ask, how do you define “slow” or “slowness” in your own life? Because I think oftentimes when we hear the word slow, we just assume it means to move slowly. But it doesn’t.

IC: Yeah. No, it’s not. It doesn’t. And I think it’s a bit like with Slow Food, it was never about slow for its own sake. It’s about the right speed, doing things at their right speed. Some things have to be done fast, no question, you just have to get on with it. I think, for me at least, doing the laundry is something we need to get out of the way. [Laughs] But I think it is making sure that the things that need time get time. 

At the same time, it is also true that some things you can just drag on, and that is also not right. There are moments, for example, in a process of a building where it is just like, “Okay, we’ve done the thinking bit, we know what we want. Just get on with it, don’t overthink it. Don’t drag it out. We’ve decided what it should be, just do it. Get on.” And so it’s understanding what’s right for which phase of creation, really.

SB: We’ve talked about a few of your projects, the Cathay Pacific lounge, Ett Hem, this hotel in Stockholm. It’s magical—I recommend everyone who can, go visit.

IC: But Cathay actually, I do want to quickly go into, because airport lounges, obviously until you go to those spaces, it’s quite hard to explain what makes them so different. But they are human scale and they are warm and relaxing, and a lot of people that go there of the two thousand a day say that it’s such a relief when they leave the airport and go into the lounge, which is a huge compliment. But what’s been really amazing about them is that it was really tough to get those over the line. It was really tough because we had a board, obviously the finance was really important. It’s the measurable world in extremis.

Plus, these were people whose main skill was keeping airplanes in the sky, so the ground was not really a priority for them, understandably. 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: But now, ten years later, they’ve got new data in, and it turns out that one of the things that makes nearly all their new customers buy tickets with Cathay Pacific is their lounges. So it’s actually ended up being a real brand-builder for them, which I’m thrilled about, obviously, but they’re, I think, thrilled and slightly surprised by. It does work, I think, treating people as humans in a world that often doesn’t.

SB: I have one final question. I thought we would close our conversation today on the notion of “designing minds.” You once said, “In order to change the future, you have to design minds.” I love this idea of designing minds, but also, I feel like I want to hear your clear answer on it, because—

IC: It sounds awful, doesn’t it? 

SB: [Laughs]

IC: But what I mean is, by that, I would say a really significant chunk of our time is spent building trust with our clients, because it takes years for some projects to happen. And also a lot of what we’re doing, a bit like I was saying with Cathay, is about trying to give people the courage, which is a heart thing, actually, even more than a mind thing, to go for something that you can’t already see. 

Our world so based on looking around and doing a version of what’s there already, because it feels solid, and banks will lend you money based on what’s already there. It’s extremely hard to bet on the future, especially if it’s not your profession, so we really put so much energy and time into building relationships with our clients and becoming trusted partners with them, because if you aren’t, there’s no way you’re going to be able to get a project that has any soul over the line.

SB: Let’s end there. [Laughs] Thank you, Ilse. This was a pleasure.

IC: Thank you, Spencer. That was very well researched. Thank you for spending time on me.

SB: [Laughs]


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on January 19, 2024. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Stef Bakker.