INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Esteemed interior designer and founder of The Interior Design School in London, Iris Dunbar is also a longstanding champion of the interior design industry as a whole. Her burning ambition is to promote the profession by inspiring clients and designers to create interior environments that nourish the soul and encourage people's sense of wellbeing.

Her pioneering work over the years has earned her huge recognition within the sector: she is current President of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI), past President of the British Institute of Interior Design, a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

We spoke to Iris to find out more about her work in the field, and her enthusiasm for inspiring that ‘light bulb’ moment in others. She was destined to be a designer, telling us that the only thing she was ever good at was art, partly inspired by her talented carpenter father (who was himself a leading light of the construction industry).

She also calls on every interior designer to take their share of responsibility for raising the profile of the profession...

Iris, we're delighted to welcome you aboard as one of our judges on this year’s World Interiors News Workspace Interiors category. What appealed to you especially about getting involved?

The World Interior News awards have a gained a good reputation over the years, and it’s a great opportunity to discuss the changing face of workplace interiors with industry leaders.

And what qualities will you be looking for in the winning projects?

I'll be looking for some innovative thinking and projects that really address the client's issues for their particular workspace. There is currently a move to address health and wellbeing in the workplace which will be an area that I will be addressing.

One of your core philosophies is that interiors should ‘help lift people’s spirits’. How do you think good interior design can achieve this? Can it really affect people’s psyche in a profound way?

It makes a difference when you walk into a space and experience a “wow” factor. The interior space can indeed have an effect on people’s mood and how they perform in their work environment.

Can you give a few examples that affect people in a positive way? And what are some real ‘no-no’s?

Design Studio, Morey Smith, have recently created a working environment for 350 Coca Cola employees, and their remit was to create a space that draws on the vibrant energy of the organisation. The result is an uplifting, comfortable space for staff and visitors to work, meet, collaborate and socialise.

On the flip side, entering a doctors surgery with curled posters on the wall, badly lit, with uncomfortable chairs and dismal decoration, is the most depressing experience. This happens all too often because of lack of consideration and thought.

If everyone had an awareness of their environment, a lot of things could be fixed.

You’re also well-documented as being a passionate advocate of interior design as a profession of equal skill and weight to other branches of architecture and structural design. Without necessarily pointing the finger directly, do you think things like the proliferation of ‘quick fix’ interior décor TV programmes – a bit of MDF here, a staple gun there, a scatter cushion (or ten) on the bed – has been partly to blame for the general public’s confusion about what interior design actually is?

It’s really important to understand the difference between interior decoration and interior design and indeed interior architecture. You can explain it by how much of the structure of the building is integrated into the process. Decoration selects and applies colours and fabrics. Interior design manipulates the space and creates an informed design, and interior architects work collaboratively within the building team to create a totally new environment.

In general, when talking about interior design, the average person thinks of their home - which is of course natural as they have created their own space, painted a wall, selected the furniture, and so on. And yes - the quick fix programmes don’t inform people of the expansive knowledge that is required to design a commercial interior.

Any other factors that might have had a similar influence?

A lot of the time a client will automatically chose an architect as opposed to an interior designer as they believe the interior designer comes in at the end of the project to dress the space.

And what’s the antidote?

The interior designer design community need to inform the public of the importance of the professional design process. Every designer has a responsibility to give time to increase awareness of the interiors profession and how we can improve people’s lives.

The theme for World Interiors Day in May is ‘Design For All’. I encourage every designer to help to make a difference for our profession by spreading the word that design can make a difference.

The British Institute of Interior Design exists to raise standards within the interiors profession. The International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers have created policies that can impact regulation at government level on issues including health and wellbeing, and universal design and resiliency. This can all have an impact on all our lives.

You founded The Interior Design School back in 1991. What prompted you to do this, and what were your main aims?

I started teaching soon after starting in practice and found that the two were very much in tandem. Informing clients is very much the same as teaching them the process. The main aim of starting the school was to help to spread the word of professional practice.

The School is run in an environment that tries to emulate as closely as possible an actual working interior design practice. Why have you adopted this approach?

We believe that design should be taught as we work in practice, which enhances the learning experience and makes it more real.

Rewinding now, you studied at the renowned Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, Scotland. What were some of the most important things you learned, and have you taken any of those philosophies forward to impart to students at The Interior Design School?

The importance of the initial brief and how to interpret this in a visual way as the basis of the design process. Also, finding inspiration from unexpected sources, and being open to ideas constantly.

My original studies gave me the understanding that design is everywhere. The interiors profession collaborates within

the construction industry - and with various other design disciplines - to arrive at a solution.

You’ve also warned against getting too hung up on trends. Why is that?

As designers, we are interpreters and each project requires a different approach. Following trends can be restrictive.

Apart from ‘trend-worship’, what are some of the most common misconceptions about what interior design is really about when students first start at The Interior Design School?

No-one truly understands how much time and effort it takes to design a space.

What do you enjoy most about teaching, and has the experience changed over the 24 years or so you’ve been doing it?

I enjoy seeing people’s enthusiasm when they are learning – it’s infectious. It’s like watching the light go on when some one realises how to look properly. Over the years I have noticed that people are more aware of inspiration around them, and also more conscious of the job market.

After your studies at Dundee, you joined the inter-disciplinary Building Design Practice, where architects, designers, engineers and urbanists work in collaboration. What were some of the major workspace projects you worked on, and do you have any particular favourites from that time?

I worked on the board room and executive offices for The English Tourist Board which was a real learning curve on how to integrate a modern interior into a historic building. The memory I have of that project was how much it cost to insure the chandelier when it was taken down to decorate the space! We integrated the red from the brand into the interior with natural and soft colours that complimented the historic cornices.

I also designed workspaces for Logica Computers who had appointed a graphic designer to create their brand, which was a yellow logo. We created a yellow sign that became the beacon of Newman Street in London. And, in the reception area we designed a floor to ceiling wall feature of three layers of glass with a printed circuit that created movement as you walked past.

In 1976, you set up your own practice specialising in workspace interiors and exhibitions. What led you to a) go it alone and b) specialise in those areas?

Whilst I was working at BDP, I was given the opportunity to do a day a week teaching at Berkshire College of Art. This was only possible as we worked flexitime. I then started to take on freelance projects and then combined more teaching as my practice started to grow. We worked on interiors, exhibitions and graphics which enabled us to build a broad client base from the London Fashion Exhibition to restaurants, offices, shops, and events.

In addition to your role as President of IFI, what also caught our eye is that you are a Freeman of the liveried Furniture Makers Company. Do you have specific experience in furniture design too?

During my studies in Dundee, I designed chairs and tables which helped me to understand interior detailing. Interiors, of course, requires multi-tasking and considering every element.

The Furniture Makers Company supports the industry by offering scholarships and work placements in manufacturing, and making sure the British furniture manufacturers’ industry stays alive. Companies like Ercol, Allermuir and Morgan are all examples of companies who continuosly re-invent themselves to stay ahead in the world market.

You travel overseas a good deal in the course of your work with IFI. Can you tell us where you’ve visited recently? And can you describe any outstanding examples of workspace design you’ve come across along the way?

I was in New York recently where I visited the re-furbished Trustee Council Chamber in the United Nations Conference Building, designed by the Danish designer Finn Juhl in 1950.

The sunken floor in front of the podium and the horseshoe configuration of tables and chairs had been important to Finn Juhl, because he felt it was a fundamental principle for democracy and the UN to enable participants to talk face to face.

Going back to the very beginning now, what or who were your earliest influences – what made you want to be an interior designer?

Charles Rennie Macintosh whose work truly represents the integration of architecture, interiors, furniture, textiles and lighting; Charles Eames for his exploratory use of materials and sense of fun.

Was anyone in your family or immediate circle an influence? Were you a naturally artistic child and did where you grew up influence you at all?

My father was a trained carpenter and started his own construction company. He was also a water colourist, singer and sportsman - and Chairman of the Federation of Builders. I was only ever good at art. I worked in my father’s company in the materials library; I sometimes made brooches from the tile samples!

I grew up in Perth, Scotland. I applied for the Interior Design course in Dundee – also in Scotland - which was a new course that integrated architecture, interiors, furniture and textiles. The words used to promote the course were ‘space, light, colour and texture’.

During that time I travelled round Europe on holidays, worked in the US in the summer break, and visited Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van de Rohe, and Saarinen buildings in the late 60’s.

Was there ever another profession you considered?


And now? What are your ambitions for the future?

For the last ten years I have been working in a voluntary capacity with the British Institute of Interior Design and The International Federation of Interior Architects /Designers.

I would like to see interiors recognised as an integral and essential part of the building design industry. Considered interiors are truly necessary to human wellbeing.

What would be the most important piece of advice you would give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in interior design?

To really understand the scale of the industry and find the right education that suits your personal ambition. Be open to inspiration, keep your ideas fluid, and enjoy the creative journey - which is a bit like being on a roller-coaster. Also be assured that you can never tire of this industry – there are always new skills and knowledge to acquire to keep our ideas exciting.

Work aside now, where is home? And what would we find you doing on a weekend?

Home is an apartment near Marble Arch in central London, and tennis is my real escape. I also love music and visiting inspiring buildings.

Gail Taylor