INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Afroditi Krassa is Founding Director of interior design studio, AfroditiKrassa Ltd. From a young age, growing up in Greece, she was destined to fly in the face of convention (as we discover in this interview). By the time she was a teenager, she realised that her passion for drawing, inventing and making things ‘had got a name – design’ and that it was ‘an actual job’. Aged just 17, she left home to take up her studies at Central St Martin’s College of Art in London.

Since then, her stellar career has seen her help re-invent the bra, win major business within just an hour of meeting a famous client, and be named Elle Deco’s Designer of the Year in 2007. Last year, she launched her own new product range at Super Brands London, where the bar was created using the studio’s debut collection of tiles, wall panels and lighting to reflect ‘the high-octane excitement of a catwalk fashion show’.

Here we speak to Afroditi about what it was like working with Heston Blumenthal on his new restaurant, The Perfectionists’ Café, at Heathrow’s new Terminal 2, how a fateful meeting with Sketch’s Mourad Mazouz led her into the world of hospitality design, her involvement with Curzon Cinemas’ 2014 relaunch, and her most recent work for Hilton Hotel Group.

We also find out what she dreams about doing when she’s not busy designing. Let’s just say it involves a passion for film, a well-known tennis player, and David Bowie – among other things...

Firstly, thank you for being a judge on three of our World Interiors News Awards 2014 categories, Restaurants, Bars, and Hotels last year. Did you enjoy the experience, and did you notice any interesting new trends emerging?

I enjoyed it tremendously. Judging is such a great way of seeing the world of hospitality design from another dimension. When you are in the middle of the action, you are very close to your subject, so it’s very refreshing to zoom out. I am always drawn to classic, honest and pared down schemes. To me this is always in-trend, and I was very pleased to see so many like this entering last year.

Moving swiftly on to your own projects, you’ve not long completed the TwoRuba café bar for the Hilton in Tower Bridge, London. A café by day, a bar by night, how did you go about making one space work for two purposes?

This is a requirement that has become increasingly common nowadays. As property in prime locations has become so scarce and consumers work and play simultaneously, many of our clients want their interiors to work at different times of the day and achieve many different objectives.

With TwoRuba, we wanted to create a category-defining interior that carves a new way forward for the Hilton Hotel Group. We sourced and imported from Canada a very beautiful aluminium mesh drapery. It is lightweight, totally flexible and filters both natural and artificial light to a warm, golden glow. When the café is in operation, the drapes are drawn back, the interior is open and bright, but within seconds they allow the space to be separated into smaller sections to create an intimate lounge bar ambience.

Lighting was also a fundamental consideration. The lighting scheme transitions throughout the day to accommodate the different needs, as well as allowing for the flexible and varied layout to be highlighted accordingly.

You also worked with Heston Blumenthal on The Perfectionists’ Café in Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 last year. To us, it has the glamorous, retro feel of an era when men wore hats and ladies never carried their own luggage or lit their own cigarettes. Where did you get your inspiration from?

From exactly that era. The film ‘Catch Me if You Can’ and the TV series ‘Mad Men’ were a massive source of visual material. Film is a constant source of inspiration – they are mini imaginary worlds – there is colour, pace, theatre and music to a film.

We referenced the American 60s as a period where flying was glamorous and elegant but fun too. A lot of this experience can be just stressful and dry nowadays. To me, it is very important to have people connect on an emotional level with an interior. Good design should delight you, or at least make you smile.

And how was it working with Heston? Did he get involved in the design process much himself? (And did you get to taste the food?)

Yes, he was extremely involved, especially at the early stages of crafting the concept. He is so creative, he understands big ideas, he references art, design and architecture constantly. More importantly, he is a ‘salmon’, one that swims upstream when so many people all swim with the current. We have invented this term in the studio as an easy way to categorise the people we respect and admire.

It was fascinating to see the development of the menu taking place at the same time as our work. It all came together wonderfully right at the end. We had many, many meetings trying gadgets that vaporise coffee, playing with brandy and looking at food photography.

The world of food totally fascinates me – it is the glue that connects all of us globally, no matter where, when and who. More importantly, the end result truly redefines the airport dining experience.

As part of a major relaunch during 2014, Curzon Cinemas commissioned you to design its new five-screen flagship cinema on Victoria Street, London. The result is classic and dramatic, and the use of a cinema curtain as a projection screen in the shopfront is both eye-catching and enticing. Speaking personally, what are some of your favourite elements of the overall design?

I love the floor. I have a bit of an obsession with tiles and monochromatic patterns for floors. I love the scale of the Curzon Victoria floor, the geometric nature of it and its classic feel. It is timeless, yet contemporary. You could swear that it is curvy, yet it is totally square – it’s a visual trick.

Curzon have clearly been delighted with the Victoria flagship project because they commissioned you to design a second cinema, this time in Canterbury, Kent, which opened last November. We’re somewhat intrigued by the inclusion of a dining area, lounge, study and kitchen space, and 10-metre long library wall in an open plan space. It sounds almost like people can pop to the back and make themselves a cup of tea during a screening! How does the space actually work?

Brilliant comment! Initially, we actually did propose a free tea making facility – a little corner with a kettle and free milk, as well as free slippers to go into the auditoria. But we sadly ran out of space.

This site is an old Victorian warehouse so we wanted to do it justice and design it to feel like a cool home rather than a cinema. It is small and intimate; there are zones where you can lounge, rocking chairs, magazine racks and a big communal dining table. The good people of Canterbury have really embraced it – it is busy even in the early mornings.

Going right back to the beginning of your story, although born in London you were raised in Greece near Mount Olympus. What was it like arriving in such a new and different place as a little girl?

My parents went back to Greece with me when I was two, so I don’t remember anything. I would spend my summers, as a kid, in London and I have these vivid memories: the park, the Scottish pipes player outside Selfridges, the ducks hanging in the windows of the Chinese restaurants on Queensway, the massive pepper mills of Pizza Express in Hampstead. London was magical, still is. When I moved here permanently for my studies, I felt that I was right in the epicentre of a massive cultural revolution. It was amazing.

You say that as a child you dreamed of ‘owning the oceans’ and building shipyards. How did that later translate into your consuming passion for design? What were your early influences?

I was quite ambitious as a kid and always wanted to challenge the status quo. I asked my Dad what profession is the most male dominated, and he answered ‘shipping’, so I said, ‘this is what I will do’. Greece has a long tradition of shipping entrepreneurs, some of my extended family is into it, so I thought it would be great to be one of the first females to break into this market. Design is not dissimilar: being female is always a novelty in client meetings.

You left Greece for London at the tender age of just 17 to pursue a career in design at Central St Martin’s College of Art. That was a brave thing to do. What made you do it, and why London in particular?

I have to say, it did not feel brave at all at the time. It felt quite natural; the ties were already there. I remember reading about Central as a young student – it was like a mythological college to me. When I got a place, I packed my bags, arrived and then called my Mum to tell her that I was fine and that she did not need to worry about me: I was where I needed to be.

After St Martin’s you then became the first female designer ever to be taken on by industrial design powerhouse, SeymourPowell, on an unusual yet uplifting project: redesigning the humble bra. Can you tell us what your involvement was? And how did it feel to be the first female on the team?

It felt very privileged. A lot of professional roles are male dominated. You either sit back and do nothing about it, or you lead by example. SeymourPowell was a mad and exotic place. There was real energy in the team, a real boys’ club. The bra was a great project – it was televised by Channel 4. We used really new technology – 3D printing, scanning, modelling, all new.

At the same time, I knew that this was not to be permanent. I longed to deal with less industrial processes, with more emotional issues.

Next you moved on to another prestigious institution, the Royal College of Art. What prompted this move back into study?

It was the perfect stepping stone for setting up my own studio. I knew that I wanted to run my own place and the RCA gave me the mental space to think it out, as well as research and experiment within a great and supportive academic environment, prior to venturing out to the real world.

At the RCA, you studied under architect Ron Arad. What was that like, and what was the most important lesson you learned from him?

Ron is a brilliant designer. He says very little as a tutor, he is quite enigmatic, and there was a lot of decoding. He once commented that I had an issue with scale, all I did was small scale, table-top sized objects. I think since then I have never designed anything small again – I kept going bigger and bigger.

He also said that we overestimate what design can do for the world. Cynical or realistic? I don’t know...

In 2002, you started up your practice, AfroditiKrassa Ltd. What made you go it alone, and what were your aims?

I dreamed of a studio that did not exist, and then I decided to set it up myself. Culture within a studio is very important to me: integrity, dynamism, and a drive to break rules and question the clichés.

I was never a good employee really – hated hierarchy, hated rules and regulations. In the first few years of my studio, what kept me going was the fear of being unemployable if I failed.

How and where did you meet the man behind Pret A Manger, Julian Metcalfe in 2004, and what do you think made him entrust you with his ‘baby’ brand, super-healthy food chain, Itsu?

I wrote him a handwritten letter. I used to write to people I admired by hand and tell them how I felt. I wrote to Julian and he called me back the next day to ask me to meet him. He asked me to design Itsu; I thought ‘he is either mad or a genius’. He did not know me for more than an hour. I think it is not the case of him entrusting me, but him entrusting himself. Most people lack the confidence to trust themselves.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you do not favour the idea of a house style for AfroditiKrassa. Can you say why, and what approach do you take instead?

There is something about a house signature style that is fundamentally wrong. It is saying that interior design is irrelevant to the brand and its story, its people, location or any other context – one size fits all.

I cannot see how this can work. We have developed our own system of researching and analysing an interior brief. The end goal is always the same: to create a design that becomes the ‘poster boy’ of its category, the one that changes all the rules of the game.

Looking back over your career so far, what for you was a real seminal moment?

Meeting Mourad Mazouz of Sketch. He introduced me to the world of hospitality and I fell in love immediately.

How did you meet Mourad?

He wanted to use my lighting designs as an installation in the gallery at Sketch. We are still friends – he is a genius.

And what made you fall instantly in love with hospitality?

It is the happy side of life. It is magical, theatrical and mystical. People go out to be looked after, feel special, be nourished culturally and physically.

And we hear on the grapevine there’s plenty more to come from AfroditiKrassa because you are recruiting for new interior and product designers at the moment. Can you tell us more? Why the expansion, and what’s in the pipeline?

We are working on a few very exciting projects in London and beyond, with some like-minded people. This is always exciting! I can’t reveal a lot, and some of our projects will not materialise soon, so you need to be patient.

On a personal note, your profile states, “When not designing, she teaches design, writes about design, judges design and occasionally dreams of design.” There must be other things you like to do sometimes, other things you dream about? What might those be?

Cooking. This is my pastime, it relaxes me. I dream of owning my own restaurant, art directing a movie, meeting Roger Federer, devoting more time to volunteering, singing live with David Bowie, being politically active one day, and probably another million things that I keep coming up with that change on a daily basis!

Is London home now, and what do you like best about living there? Do you think you’ll ever leave to live elsewhere again?

London is 100% home: I am in love with this city. It can be the hardest place to be in – crowded, noisy, polluted, expensive and with really crappy weather, yet it is so addictive, there is a never-ending buzz that is contagious. I have no plans to move – it is hard to replace London with any other place in the world – apart from maybe New York, which is always tempting.

Gail Taylor