Sitting across the table from Robert in his airy Wapping studio, he gives the impression of a mild-mannered, traditional soul – quietly confident, and holding a deep-seated respect for the great span of artists and designers that have come before him. Yet Robert’s decision to strike out on his own and set up a design studio bearing his name during the recession is testament to the drive and passion he possesses in the fast-paced climate of interior design today. Hospitality Interiors’ Gemma Ralph met with Robert to find out more about this young, but exciting practice ...
Without entering into the age-old cliché of the born creative, Robert was aware that his interests lay outside of academia from a young age, and the rural surroundings of his childhood home in Dorset acted as a playground for his imagination during these early years.
“I think I’ve always had an interest in things from a creative, rather than an academic standpoint,” he explains. “Where I grew up there were lots of things to do and create and have fun with, which led to my interest in structures and architecture, and my decision to go to university and follow my dream.
“It has been essentially a dream career, because it wasn’t something I ever thought I’d change half way through … I always thought I would do something connected with making, creating, buildings and interiors, rather than go into the city. I knew that was my destiny.”
During his BA (Hons) degree in Interior Design at Nottingham Trent University, Robert took full advantage of classes on art and design history, developing a keen sense of the merits these former movements and cultures possess, and the ways in which they can be brought to bear upon his own work.
“I think you’re like a sponge when you’re at college – I was definitely,” he says. “I just wanted to learn and know everything about design and designers. When you’re learning back then, you don’t know particularly what’s going to interest you – is it going to be a more traditional slant, or are you going to learn about Jacobean architecture, or the high-tech architects, such as Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster.
“It’s great to have knowledge about all these different styles so that you can draw on them when you’re given a brief, and come up with something that’s completely unique for that building or interior. I always think there needs to be some sort of inspiration, some sort of provenance to what you’re designing.”
Running throughout Robert’s portfolio of high profile commercial projects, the notion of provenance was particularly key for the studio’s acclaimed refurbishment of Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill at The Savoy.
“Understanding the significance of the Savoy ... you’ve instantly got a good starting point, you’ve got a very strong identity, you’ve got a very strong movement,” Robert explains.
“Of course when you design you have to then take that and bring it forward 80 years, because people are living in the 21st century, and yet people do have a certain nostalgic feeling for, and feel comfortable in, those kind of surroundings.
“I wanted to create a real buzz at the riverside of the hotel. We wanted to bring in the colours of the hotel, some of the DNA of the Art Deco movement, for example the sycamore panelling, the nickel, the mother of pearl on the bar, the cellophane greens and the dark timbers as well...”
Robert’s talent for intelligent, considered design is a given, but his desire to make his own mark on the prestigious design legacy of these venues is what takes his design to the next level.
“The Savoy was the first hotel in London to have electricity, to have baths in the rooms, and to have an elevator. They’re very proud of that, and so I racked my brain as to how I was going to bring something into this restaurant that was completely original,” he says.
“We came up with secret tables in the bar that you can slide out, meaning that when you go out for lunch you’re not looking into the depths of the bar and glancing sideways, but can look at your companion and converse more easily ... I haven’t seen it before, and I haven’t seen it since. I was talking to the hotel the other day, and we hit the nail on the head with the concept – people now go into the hotel and ask to sit at the bar with one of those tables, which is really cool.”
This drive to forge a name for himself is perhaps what guided Robert to leave his role as creative director at David Collins Studio to found his eponymous studio in 2010.
Years earlier, a chance meeting with the immensely talented David Collins – who sadly passed away in 2013 – proved a formative chapter in Robert’s professional life. Then a relatively unknown figure, David’s wish to shape and redefine the way people live through design resonated with Robert, and the pair entered into what was to become an exciting period of transition for the hospitality industry.
“He was such an inspiring designer to work for, and we just had a ball,” says Robert. “It was the most amazing time in my life, and it was a whole era of my life – I was there for 15 years, it’s insane. The projects that we won, and that we delivered just got better and better and better. It was just a formidable time.
“He was truly one of the great interior designers. But, and he knew this as well, it was always my vision to do my own thing. And the time came, and it was right. We were going into the recession, it was tough for everybody, and I just thought it was a good time. It was weird – it was probably the worst time to do it, but the best time for me.
“One good thing about a recession is that it instigates change, it makes people more willing than ever to take risks. There’s been a huge boom in new start-ups, and I’m one of them. It’s a great time for start-up companies, and a lot of that stemmed from the recession, but a lot of it also stemmed from people’s passion to do something different and to see gaps in the market at a particular moment in time.
“Take coffee shop culture and how that was established,” he continues. “You had all the old staples, the big multinational brands, and there was nothing particularly individual about them … so there was a kind of revolt against them. People started up a little coffee shop or a sandwich shop or bakery that somehow fit between these big brands quite comfortably. It just brings a new dynamic to the industry, to design, to the way people think and live. It trickles down through.”
Robert embodies the spirit of creative risk and the courage of conviction demanded of start-up businesses during the recession, and it seems this philosophy has stuck with him, even as we tentatively enter a less hostile economic climate. This attitude is valuable too, given that the hospitality industry is starting to shed the relative stagnancy of those years, and is forging ahead to deliver an ever more ambitious guest experience.
Indeed, delivering experiential designs is one of Robert’s real strengths, and is the cornerstone of the studio’s work. “A unique design requires a unique approach – that’s our strap line,” he explains. “We want to make something completely unique for people to experience – that’s why our projects probably look so different. We have a house style in approach, but there’s not a house style in terms of look.
“There are the budget hotels where you have an iPad to open your curtain and an iPad to change the light colour, which are fabulous, but I think the element of extra-over is service and experience. I think that there’s going to be a big boom in experiential stayovers and I think that’s going to be through people figuring out what people want to spend their money on.”
The recent boom in popularity for alternative accommodation providers such as AirBNB is undeniable, yet Robert is confident that hotel brands – both new and existing – can compete if they get their design and branding right.
“AirBNB was created about four years ago, and yet it’s literally bigger than some major hotel brands that have been around for 50 years – it’s insane how big it is,” he says. “So that’s going to change the psyche of how those hotels work, because you think “well they’re offering an experience, how do we do that?”
“It’s like these little voids open in these big brands, and people can see what’s not right, and what people want. And that’s what we as designers like to bring to the table – we understand how they need to evolve to stay ahead of everyone else, and we want to make sure that their design, and the way in which customers perceive their brand, changes. Because it has to change.
“More and more different types of people are travelling, but you have to tap into their psyche to be able to deliver what they want. There are a lot of entrepreneurs out there who see what’s missing in people’s lives. Working with these entrepreneurs you realise that these guys have so much vision that they want to gamble to deliver what they believe in. Because they do it with so much conviction and so much belief, they get the design right … and it works.”
Despite the strong competition, Robert Angell Design International has forged a solid reputation for itself within the luxury end of the market, and Robert’s passion for designing high-end, inspirational spaces is obvious.
“We’re very much at the luxury end – we want to design and create luxury spaces suitable for people that are spending and want to spend a lot of money on an experience,” he says. “I think that’s changing with a lot of work we do with hotels at the moment – more often than not, the people staying in the type of hotels we design are high net worth individuals and, therefore, their expectation has to be met and exceeded.
“So, if we’re designing a hotel room, yes it needs to have all the elements of a hotel room that you’d normally expect, but then you’d have to have the additional elements within that room, because the guest might come and stay with their family, they might want somewhere to work away from their family, their family might want to watch TV, etc.
“You’ve got a study area, a couple of bedrooms, big baths and big showers, great marble and lighting, and also the elements within that. You style the rooms almost as if they were a luxury apartment, you give them a library of books, you give them DVDs, you install sophisticated technology so that even your iPad has a specific charging point. There are all these elements within a hotel room that make it more than just a hotel room.”
Approaching each and every brief with a view to surprising and exciting his clients is of great importance to Robert. One way in which he achieves this is by working closely with a skilled team of craftsmen – from artists and furniture makers to fabric houses and ceramicists, in order to produce bespoke elements for his projects.
“We like working with artisan craftsmen because they’re going to bring an extra layer to our design, and an extra layer to the patina of the interior,” he says. “It makes it unique but also brings something fresh, because whether we’re designing a lacquered table top for the Berkeley Hotel, or bespoke banquette seating for Aqua Nueva, we work tirelessly to get these designs right, and to make sure they’re going to work.”
Although hospitality design is at the heart of Robert Angell Design International, Robert’s determination to push the boundaries extends to opportunities in different sectors – namely retail. Currently working on a new jewellery boutique in Knightsbridge, Robert is keen to embrace the fresh perspectives such projects bring, both to his own creative repertoire and to the company as a whole.
“I think I’ll always have a passion for hospitality design because it’s what I cut my teeth on – restaurant and hotels. It’s been one of those journeys, where you do focus initially on what you know you can deliver, but I feel that what I can give as a designer to other territories of design is something that really excites me as well,” he says.
“I always like to go out of my comfort zone whenever we’re designing. Everyone says stick to what you’re good at, which is great, but it’s always nice to be challenged and to be doing something that isn’t necessarily in your comfort zone, but also something you know you could do well at. If the opportunity’s arisen and if someone’s come to me and wants me to design something, because they understand what we’re about, then I’m happy to take that up.
“I’m as excited about design now as I’ve ever been – I absolutely love it. I’m very proud of what we’ve delivered to our clients in the last five years and I think there’s a lot more to come from us, in terms of doing other amazing hotels, residential, retail and restaurants.”
Robert’s willingness to open himself up to fresh experiences, to develop in new spheres, and to push himself creatively is certainly reflected in the prestigious position in which this relatively young practice now finds itself. With a talented team on board, a great many high-profile projects under his belt, and a bucketload of enthusiasm, there’s no knowing the limits of what Robert Angell can achieve.