You design for a broad range of clients, across retail, workspaces, homes and hotels. How do these commissions differ, and what connects them?
For myself and my partner Ernesto Bartolini, design is the discipline and the tool. So, regardless of the brief, the approach is the same — to get under the skin of the problem and to develop a multi-tentacled concept that delivers the best solution. We believe in designing from the inside to the outside — supporting the functions of a space and finding an appropriate language that celebrates its purpose. What connects all projects for us is the understanding that interior design is not just about vision. More importantly, it is about considering and engaging all of the senses.
Your practice combines architecture, interior design and graphic design. How do you orchestrate those different disciplines to collaborate effectively and harmoniously?
The key is working from inside to out, from micro to macro. And using all the skills available from a multidisciplinary team can help achieve a 360-degree perspective. For example, it can be interesting to have an industrial designer working on architectural detail, knowing they will bring a different sensibility to its resolution. Equally, using a graphic designer to develop colour schemes for an interior. We want to avoid being complacent, and we hope to discover new things every time.
Part of being dyslexic is being unaware of the boundaries between work and life, or between the different disciplines so, for me, everything is connected. And collaboration, or the generation of ideas that spark change, isn’t just something that happens in the workplace. It’s a transferable thing and can cross from one sector or discipline to the next.
For a multi-sector approach, you need a really strong base, drawn from the tapestry of life and from art, culture, activism and beyond. I’m fortunate to surround myself with vibrant personalities in life and work, constantly exchanging ideas, sharing information and inspiration from our different worlds.
How does that collaborative mentality extend to working with clients and external practitioners?
There are no great projects without great clients. And it has nothing to do with fees, but everything to do with belief, communication and openness. For a project to be a success the client has to be a partner in the collaboration — we enjoy and value learning from them, provoking and being provoked by them to unlock the great potential of the project.
I love collaboration in all forms — in food and cooking, in designing an exhibition for an artist, architecture for building, or a shop for a fashion designer.
How would you sum up the philosophy of your practice?
Any practice today must have sustainability at the heart of its philosophy. I want to find ways to create architecture which is dissolvable, disappearing without trace; to design temporary solutions that can be used in semi-permanent ways. For example, we are designing an exhibition on mental health for the Science Gallery in Melbourne. In order to remove unnecessary waste, we have developed a collection of curtains to frame and separate the artworks, which can have a second, and even a third, life.
Collaborative, multi-sensory, multi-functional design is of the utmost importance in our work. My partner Ernesto comes from Italy and has a background of rigorous architectural knowledge; he is steady and methodical and grounded, where I am ephemeral, slippery and speedy, often lacking tethers to the ground. He must understand everything before starting; he circles the question, examines how something will work and considers all angles. Whereas I want to know how it will feel and what it will smell like. I think these contrasting approaches define our philosophy — creating design that is poetic, sensual; yet always fit for purpose. As different as we may be, like two cogs working together, we propel the machine.
Do you have a signature?
Our signature is our passion and energy. And our love of tactility, light, playfulness and, of course, colour — inspired by those found in the natural world, from the deep abyss to the rainforest.
You’re currently working on the redevelopment of the Balfron Tower in east London. Sister estate to the legendary Trellick Tower that must be an exciting commission. How do you approach something with so much history and such a legacy?
It is an incredibly exciting commission, delving deep into the archive of Erno Goldfinger to unlock his ideas and play with them. We created the character of his ghost as a means to explore his ambitions, vision and motivations. We had theoretical conversations with it in order to debate and test his response to our designs. We were keen to avoid being caught up in nostalgia or in attempting to recreate his details. Instead, we wished to be inspired by the spirit of his modernism, to take his philosophy and adapt it for today’s culture. For example, the building no longer needs water tanks in its vertical core, leaving us with spaces filled by the dappled light from the exquisite slotted windows he created to the service zones. These can be given new functions, such as yoga, music, dining, etc. It no longer needs lobbies, so now the apartments can flow from east to south with light entering from both ends. And open-plan kitchens offer extraordinary views of London and the blue sky on a fine day.
You also redesigned the interior of Heston Blumenthal’s world-famous restaurant, The Fat Duck. That’s an old building in a charming village setting. That’s quite different from your usual commissions that seem very modern and contemporary. How did you approach this project?
We have worked with Heston for many years, including redesigning the Little Chef roadside restaurants in response to his wonderful reimagining of their food in 2007. We are huge fans of Fat Duck, its food and the unique culinary experience of its cooking. So it was clear to us that the space had to be centred around the meals being served, offering a stage on which the theatre of Heston’s culinary imagination could be enacted. To place the experience of the food at the heart, there had to be no distractions on the walls. So, we focused on pulling out and restoring the bones of the 16th-century pub and exploring the architectural envelope in a way that would direct all attention to what was happening at the table. We introduced a soft carpeted plane of blue (a colour seldom seen in food) and designed bespoke dining chairs that would nurture the body throughout the four and a half hour feast — opening the diaphragm to aid comfortable digestion. We suspended a light above the table to focus the gaze, the colour and warmth of its glow shifting and changing as the courses progressed in subtle enhancement and support of each dish. We also designed a kitchen extension. Not the faux historic addition to the existing building the planners had wanted, but instead an honest, modest and clearly contemporary intervention that felt more appropriate.
Tell us about Maggie’s cancer care centre at the Royal Marsden Hospital. How did you approach the design for this project?
Our first move was to visit a range of existing centres, speaking extensively to users and operators in order to get under the skin of the experience. Many people visit Maggie’s, and we needed to find a design that would appeal to all, through openness and generosity, rather than compromise. We looked closely at the programme of functions and experiences the centre needed to deliver, and designed the interior around them, wrapping it in a series of tactile terracotta skins in different shades of red.
We strived to consider the user at every turn, making sure everywhere you stand you can see a view out, that everything you touch is welcoming and warm, to compensate for the pervasive feeling of cold that patients undergoing chemotherapy often experience.
Every door handle was handcrafted by a sculptor, each one designed to trigger different memories and thoughts. We designed small dark spaces to hide in, alongside bright, flowing spaces that bring you together. And generous wooden bookshelves containing an eclectic range of books and artefacts, about hope, struggle and beauty to provide knowledge and distraction depending on what was desired. Without wishing to sound complacent, I have sat in that space – watching visitors arriving sad and leaving with a smile – and felt that we did something good.
Working with [Dutch garden designer] Piet Oudolf on the garden was a true privilege. The context he has created for the centre inspires visitors, turning a site connected to a car park and a giant hospital into an oasis of peace and respite. It offers an escape, a place of surprise and delight where you can watch the seasons change, or simply step away from everything while remaining supported by – and connected to – the centre.
I personally hand-glazed all the lights, so as to have my fingerprints on the building. Ernesto ensured the buildings always flowed — the mechanics as well as their conceptual essence, ensuring it was true to the last tile. In this Maggie’s is perhaps the perfect example of how Ernesto and I work together, combining our individual approaches to the macro and micro, the creative and practical, the practical and poetic.
Your father is the renowned architect Richard Rogers. How has he influenced you and your work, if at all?
Yes, my father is Richard Rogers, and his influence was important, but it was just one part of my upbringing, given that my mother is Su Rogers, my stepfather is John Miller, and my stepmother is Ruthie Rogers. It is thanks to all of them I have been surrounded by architecture and exquisite food my whole life, living in their spaces and immersed in their ideas. That said, of course, my is a father giant influence. Particularly all I have learnt working for, and with, him on exhibitions and books. It has been a stealth education in many ways. I am only now realising how rich it has been and will probably go on discovering new facets to it. He taught me so much by example — his passion for humanism and for public realm that engages with its users, his campaigning nature, his belief that architecture is so much more than just architecture in buildings, his total commitment to pushing the envelope and his unwillingness to accept compromise.
What do you look for in a client brief? What gets you excited?
Many layers to solve and room to move, firstly. And then, the knowledge that there are many interesting conversations to be had. It has to be about more than increasing turnover; it needs to be about partnering, learning, challenging the way we behave, and opening ourselves up to a new idea. A good client brief should feel like a two-way conversation, asking and answering, pulling and pushing each other to raise ambitions and expectations.
What’s your favourite project you’ve ever done?
Working on Comme des Garçons’s flagship store for Rei Kawakubo in 2001 was an extreme privilege which I will never forget. And working with Shona Kitchen on our early experimental interventions taught me so much of my craft. But of all our work, it would have to be Maggie’s. To have had seven years to focus on it, and develop and deliver a solution, to work with Ernesto and the team to unlock its potential, and to have such wise and enlightened clients to go with us on the journey has made it all an incredible experience.
When we were invited to the sponsor’s dinner after its completion, we felt we had to cook the dinner ourselves and host it in the centre. So we created a seven-course menu, based around the colours of the building, and served it at one long table in the heart of the centre, with bespoke menus and a collection of seven pairing wines for each course, shifting in shades from pink champagne to rose to volcanic reds, and ending with Madeira.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to work in your industry?
Design and architecture are so much more than the sum of their disciplines. Together, they cover how a space looks, works, feels, tastes, smells, sounds. Working in the industry should be a voyage of discovery, not a journey of knowing. Work hard, play hard, and look deep. Inspiration is everywhere and only needs to be sought, to be found.
What does the term You Must Create mean to you?
You must create with passion and aspire to change the world, designing meaningful and exquisite solutions that are conceived for and inspired by human beings and their lives.