Nicolas Block is founder of Belgium’s playfully eccentric King George Creative Agency. He and his team have recently become proud winners of the Retail Greater than 200 square metres category at this year’s World Interiors News Awards, held at the Saatchi Gallery in London. The coveted accolade was awarded for the agency’s designs for fashion retailer, Concept’s new store in Lochristi, near Ghent.

The judges described the interiors – which echo the area’s long history of floriculture – as ‘truly unique and rich in content’, using an unusual idea that was ‘out of the retail realm’ to create ‘a journey taking you to the future, but at the same time representing the past’ and featuring ‘really lovely collisions that have been brought together’. Not to mention the greenhouse specialist who helped. And the Scandinavian-style central coffee bar. If all that tickles your curiosity, read on to find out more about eclectic design at its daring best from King George, aka Nicolas, himself.

He and his court of 13 other ‘royals’ collectively specialise in interior design, pop-ups, brand identity and public relations. (He’ll be explaining the significance of the agency’s name later.) Their long and impressive client list includes the likes of Hay, Hansgrohe, Dyson, Alessi and Luceplan, among many others from the world of design, food and lifestyle.

Having worked as an interiors journalist on publications such as Nest, Actief Wonen, Weekend Knack and De Morgen prior to his move into design, Nicolas now shares with us his own tales of balancing paint pots, proud grandmothers, and taking on the challenge of online versus store...

How was the awards dinner at the Saatchi Gallery for you and the King George team, and how did it feel to win?

It was a really enjoyable evening, full of surprises for us. A visit to the Saatchi gallery has been on my wish list for a long time and it really is a fantastic place. To be honest we didn’t expect to win: it came as a big, early Christmas present! We were delighted just to be nominated, and when our name came booming out of the speakers we could hardly contain ourselves.

You were up against some big players, such as One Plus Partnership, McDowell+Benedetti and Duccio Grassi. What did you think of the competition?

Our opponents were very impressive. We felt that all of them were very beautiful architectural stores, but obviously we are extremely pleased to be placed at the top of the list!

The design of the Concept Lochristi Store certainly uses contrast to full effect. We couldn’t help noticing that amid the yellow park benches, the cowhide rugs and the modernity of the conservatories and polytunnels is a very traditional looking tiled floor area. Does the tiling have a particular historical significance?

Yes, it does. Every element – including the floor – is there for a reason. Everything in the store in Lochristi, from the till to the fitting room, is a deliberate choice that fits within the overall story we want to tell. The old tiles are typical of the houses of former florists who used to live in Lochristi. Their business and greenhouses were usually on land behind their house, so the tiles create a link to their tradition. Usually the tiles are laid in a pattern, but we just placed them at random which created a lovely graphic effect.

What aspect of the Concept Lochristi Store pleases you most personally?

I myself am a great fan of the vertical garden, because it is always a real eye-catcher in the shop as a whole and visitors are dumbstruck by a green wall eight metres high. I also think the black greenhouses and the shoe islands work really well. Particularly because the yellow industrial lamps and the fitting rooms made of corrugated sheeting in the same colour give the space a non-traditional appearance.

You mentioned in your award submission that you wanted the Concept Lochristi Store to give people an ‘aha’ moment. What did you mean by that, and is that moment happening as you’d envisaged now the store is open?

The prize showed that we chose the right strategy for designing the interiors of the Concept Fashion Store chain. Right from day one – about three years ago – we chose the strategy of giving visitors to all the Concept stores an ‘aha’ moment with the shop content. The store in Lochristi immediately reveals what it is about without any explanation: visitors connect it right away to the history of floriculture in the town where the store is located, and talk about it to their friends. In other words, our strategy has worked, and a year-and-a-half after the store opened it is still an effective advertising tool.

What do you feel makes the store different from more run-of-the-mill retail spaces? Apart from the merchandise, what makes people want to go and shop there do you think?

I don’t think it is enough just to have a beautiful shop anymore. Today’s consumers are spoiled: there are so many really beautiful shops all over the world and even that is something that everyone just gets used to. So we think you have to take it a step further: what is the story you want to tell, what is the added value for visitors and why do they come to your shop rather than buying the products online? Because, let’s not forget that online stores have become serious competitors and physical stores are going to have to change their mentality. So the message is: go further, higher and deeper.

Can you tell us more about the specialist greenhouse builder you worked with?

Because the store is located in a region where there used to be a lot of greenhouses, there are still a few companies specialised in building them. Working with local businesses seemed to me like a logical choice. When we got in touch with one of these greenhouse builders, the idea of putting up a greenhouse inside a shop made him laugh at first, but he ended up finding it one of the most enjoyable projects of his career.

Is this type of collaboration typical of how you approach projects at King George?

Yes, I think so. No two projects are the same at King George. That is what we stand for. So for every new assignment, we have to go looking for materials, suppliers or fitters who can put our mad ideas into practice. We always push the boundaries of what is possible, and that is also what makes a project unique in its class. If you just stick to your regular suppliers, you often end up getting into a rut, which is what we try to avoid.

Which disciplines do some of the other unusual specialists you’ve worked with come from?

We have just created a pond in a fashion store, for example. For that we worked with someone who usually installs outdoor swimming pools. He had the necessary knowledge for purifying water features inside a store – which is not at all easy because the heat inside the building encourages bugs and weeds to grow in the water. Intelligent solutions are needed to avoid that happening.

In another instance, when we hung heavy ship’s ropes in another store – to decorate the ceiling – we had to call in a specialist from a shipyard. As you see, our ideas are sometimes really different and we have to go and look in other sectors to find the best person to put them into practice.

Turning now to another of your recent projects – this time a pop-up called The Design Pharmacy, showcasing brands such as Alessi, BuzziSpace, Modular Lighting Instruments and bulthaup – which you staged during the Interieur 2014 trade fair in Kortrijk, Belgium. You promised a ‘rollercoaster of design and creative outbursts presented in unexpected settings’ – those settings being within the historic buildings of the Pharmacists Association of Kortrijk. Sounds very original! Did it live up to its aim of being ‘a cure for the ordinary’? What was visitor reaction like?

We occupied a 1000 square metre space for ten days, furnishing extremely original spaces ranging from laboratories to Chinese meditation areas to drugstores. The visitors were given a rollercoaster experience from start to

finish, with lighting, music, decoration and installations. Both the professional visitors – we invited 200 people for events every evening – and the consumers were wildly enthusiastic. The Belgian media paid us a lot of attention for this event because it was so different to what they had come to expect from Interieur Kortrijk. Let’s just say that is our speciality.

Probably a tricky one to answer, but of all King George’s projects so far, do you have a personal favourite?

One of my favourites is still the guerrilla installation we did for paint manufacturer, Akzo Nobel, four years ago: we placed a pot of paint on a lamppost.

A paint pot on a lamppost sounds precarious? How did you manage that, and how did people react?

The pot was adjusted to the size of the lamppost and very securely attached. People’s faces were a picture and the reaction was great. Images of the installation were published all over the world.

Any other pet projects?

Yes! I am also still a fan of a meatball concept we thought up for a TV chef that has become really famous in Belgium: Balls&Glory. The idea is to eat handmade filled meatballs accompanied by mashed potatoes in a cool restaurant setting – eat in or take out.

And of course I like the store in Lochristi that won the award, all the more because the store is in the town where I was born. So it was a real home win!

As you grew up in a flower growing town, do you have a favourite flower and what do you like about it?

The begonia. It’s a typical flower for Lochristi and it’s very colourful in summertime. Every year on the main square in Brussels, they grow a flower carpet out of begonias.

Speaking about the agency itself now, why in particular did you choose King George III to represent your brand?

When I started the agency just over five years ago, I wanted an unusual name. So it had to be something personal that you wouldn’t forget, something that would stick. ‘Mad creative agency’ – now our strapline – sounded great and I thought the name ‘George’ was cool. Throw those two ideas together and you end up with King George III – the mad King of England. Everyone loved it right from the start, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously which means we can do all sorts of humorous things with the name and the branding that surrounds it.

Your website states that as a creative agency you dare to push the boundaries. A couple of specific examples please?

That is hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling. But our clients don’t come to us to design something ordinary. Designing nice shops with clothing racks is not our thing. We need to have a philosophy of daring to innovate behind it. The Concept Lochristi Store used a lot of inexpensive materials such as reclaimed wood and corrugated sheeting, but nonetheless we created a unique look. So I would say that we always create something new, because if it has already been done then we don’t do it. And of course that is not always the easiest way to do things, but it is our philosophy.

Storytelling seems to be central to King George’s ethos. Where did you get your love of telling stories from? Who, if anyone, told you stories as a child?

I have been interested in interiors since I was a child: I devoured books about design and lifestyle. I guess it was in my genes. Although my parents are not active in the sector at all, I think my grandmother gave me a taste for aesthetics. She bought and sold Italian shoes. She is a second mother to me – she is 86 years old now – and I think she indirectly inspired me. At any rate she was extremely proud when we won the World Interiors News award, not least because she lived in London herself in her teens.

Can you give us a brief outline of your career path, from graduate studies to being an interiors journalist to becoming an interior designer? Why have you made the choices you have?

You might say it was written in the stars that I wanted to do something in the interior design line. When all the interior design books and lifestyle magazines lying around my room drove my mother crazy, I went to study communications. That is where I developed a love of writing and detecting trends. A mixture of talent and luck landed me a job at one of Belgium’s biggest lifestyle magazines, allowing me to travel around the world for seven years visiting design hotels, international trade fairs and events and inspiring homes from Lapland to Namibia – you name it. A dream job!

What prompted you to start up King George, and what were some of your main aims for the agency?

When I started the agency and gave up working as a journalist, everyone pretty much thought I was crazy to give up such a great job. Actually it was Steve Symons at BuzziSpace who asked me to do the marketing, communication and PR for his new business. Back then it specialised exclusively in acoustic design products for offices. Today, BuzziSpace has grown into an international player and Steve has become a personal mentor. We have both seen our businesses grow and still work together closely today. The King George business has also expanded from communications and PR into a graphic design bureau and interior design agency. We do everything we enjoy in the worlds of design and food: it’s our speciality. My main aim was to take a ‘different’ approach and that is still very much the case.

Who or what have been the greatest influences and inspirations in your professional life?

Above all, I think, the people who are close to me – family is always important for your personal balance. But in general I respect people who dare to stick their neck out despite the crowds thinking they are insane – whether that is in architecture, fashion or design. Who would have thought that Philippe Starck’s ‘juicer’, that doesn’t even come close to working, would turn out to be a design icon? That Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture would still be so hot today or Le Corbusier’s designs would still be loved after fifty years? Each of these people left the beaten path and in doing so started a revolution.

Where do you live, and what do you like about it?

I live near our office in a small town, but one that is only fifteen minutes from Antwerp and Ghent. Belgium is tiny and you can get anywhere in no time. And the great advantage is that we are only an hour-and-a-half away from world-class cities like Paris, Amsterdam and London. I live relatively quietly, but I am not at home very often, which gives me a nice balance between that and my everyday life in the city.

And finally, what would we find you doing when you’re not busy working?

My work is my passion, so to be honest my free time is devoted to inspiration as well. Don’t condemn me to a week by a swimming pool somewhere hot and exotic – I’ll be bored to death. Drop me instead in an unfamiliar city where I can comb every nook and cranny for fresh insights. Of course, in the scarce free time I have, I love making time for my family and friends in new restaurants offering innovative concepts in hospitality. So in a sense I’m always working, but I get the best of both worlds – hanging out with my family and discovering a new dining concept!

Gail Taylor