INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

On the windswept clifftops of England’s south-east coast stands an imposing girls’ public school whose boarding houses have recently undergone a transformation from unloved, old-fashioned and austere to something more akin to a boutique hotel. The man behind the metamorphosis of the world-famous Roedean School is Paul White, Director of Buckley Gray Yeoman since 2006.

Well-known for its exemplary work in the hotels and hospitality sector, the London-based practice lists in its portfolio prestigious projects such as Ascott International’s boutique apart-hotel Citadines Suites Louvre Paris and the £8 million revamp of The Rosebery serviced apartment hotel in London’s trendy Clerkenwell district.

BGY’s recent pioneering work at Roedean is now set to raise the bar for interiors in public schools across the nation. British brands such as Ercol, Innermost, William Morris and Modus now rub shoulders with Roedean’s heritage features such as Arts & Crafts fireplaces and staircases. We find out more about the project from Paul and how the girls have reacted to their new quarters (it involves a few tears...but in a good way).

Paul himself hails from the north of England and was destined to be lost to the dentistry profession before, happily, an epiphany took place in his school classroom. Ever since, that has been interior architecture’s gain, and we speak to him about that moment and the early lessons he learned from his father about getting on in the world. But first, here’s what Paul has to say about being a judge in the World Interiors News Hotels category this year...

We’re delighted that you are going to be joining us as a judge on the Hotels panel. It’s your first time judging for us, so we wondered what made you want to get involved, and what you’ll be looking for in the best submissions?

I am passionate about design, and in particular hotel design. The quality of longlisted and shortlisted entries in previous years has been very high, and I am looking forward to reviewing an equally impressive list of entries this year. I will be particularly interested in how designers have responded to context, and also questioned the conventions of hotel design.

Turning now to the amazing transformation of Roedean’s boarding houses by Buckley Gray Yeoman, why do you think the school chose you out of all the other hundreds of architects with expertise in hospitality and education?

We were very lucky to be shortlisted for the Roedean boarding houses project. We won a limited competition where we demonstrated a clear understanding of the school, its ethos and what made it special. We also showed that we could be creative within the confines of a listed building.

Did you hold consultations with the teachers and students? If so, what sort of aspects of their boarding accommodation did they feel needed improving and in what way?

Yes we did. We had a very clear brief from the school, from the outset. What we were able to do was to test a range of ideas with the staff and students that culminated in a mock-up room, which tested all of the ideas. The mock-up room gave us the unique chance to have the students test our design before rolling it out across the rest of the boarding houses – something we have learnt from doing mock-up rooms in hotels.

What were your own first impressions of the boarding houses when you first saw them? Was there anything you instantly felt you wanted to change?

Our first reaction was how disappointing the interior of the school was compared to its external appearance. We felt that the existing spaces had great proportions and aspect, but they had been neglected for so many years. I think we saw potential where others could only see problems.

You’ve described the old dining rooms as having ‘a bizarre collection of furniture’. How so? And what’s there in its place now?

The ODR (Old Dining Room) had a mismatched collection of furniture. It was a tall, cavernous space that had no real purpose other than being somewhere the whole house could congregate. The first thing we did was to give the space purpose by bringing the kitchen into the middle of the space and then we created a range of furniture types that could allow students to eat there, but also to sit and talk or work. The introduction of a dark colour to the ceiling and top section of the wall, together with the pendant lights, helped reduce the scale of the space and gave it a strong character.

You designed the four boarding houses in blue, red, green and yellow. Was that to reflect the school’s house colours?

Yes that’s right, but to also give each house a clear identity and to help differentiate one from the other.

It’s a strong colour choice. How did you take into account that some of the girls who have to live in the green house, for example, don’t like the colour green?

We were really careful to choose colours that could work on their own, but also to tie them back to the overall colour palette. That’s why each of the four separate colours has a strong ‘grey’ component, which we think helps give it a contemporary rather than a primary feel.

Having been given the full Buckley Gray Yeoman treatment, the shower units are now more like what we’d expect to see in an upmarket hotel spa than a boarding school. Do you think you’ve started something now? Might other boarding schools feel they need to compete by raising the standard of their interiors and making them more appealing for students?

Very much so. I think we are seeing a great many boarding schools look at their ‘offering’ and start to question whether it is of a high enough standard for today’s discerning students and parents.

Going back to Roedean, those shower units were certainly not always as they are now! Can you give a brief ‘before and after’ account of their journey from ugly duckling to swan?

The before was very much your classic school shower arrangement: no space to get changed, an old, rather sad, plastic shower curtain and a shower that gave out water at one temperature and speed only. We took our experience from designing hotels to make sure that the whole experience was considered: space to change, tiling that complemented the space and history of the building, and a shower experience that you would want to repeat more than once!

When you approached the Roedean project, were you thinking ‘school’ or ‘luxury hotel’, or both?

When we approached the Roedean project we were very much thinking ‘home’. The girls that live at Roedean often won’t see their parents for months at a time - some go nine months without going home - so we wanted them to feel like they were living in an English country house, and that it was a true home-from-home. We reinforced the ‘Englishness’ by specifying largely English manufacturers and products.

What has the response from the boarders been like?

The response has been fantastic. One memory that I will always have is when we did the mock up room in one of the existing houses; we had girls crying with joy when they saw what we were about to deliver across the whole of the school.

Do you believe that the students will fare better academically and personally because of their new, far more homely environment?

No. I don't believe that environments have the ability to significantly impact on the girls’ academic achievement or personal development; but I do believe that the new design will satisfy their parents’ expectations when they are spending north of £30k per year for their child's schooling and boarding.

And speaking personally, what are your three favourite aspects of the refurbishment?

We’ve created a great sense of space in the bedrooms by being clever with how we designed the fixed furniture in each of the rooms.

In the common rooms, the mix of restored internal fabric, strong choice of colour and fabrics, and re-interpretation of space really works for me.

And in the ODR, we’ve now created a space that the girls want to use; this was very much achieved by bringing the kitchen into the heart of the existing space.

Looking at other projects now, you’ve worked on many hotels over the years: do you have a couple of favourites?

My favourite hotels would have to be Citadines Suites Louvre in Paris and Citadines Hamburg. Both are quite different projects but successful in their own right.

Are there any interesting new hotel projects in the pipeline for Buckley Gray Yeoman that you’re at liberty to tell us about?

We have just started working on the remodelling and refurbishment of The Cavendish Hotel in St James’s, London.

We’ve heard that your decision to become an architect was a sudden one, prompted by the daughter of one of your teachers while you were still at school. Can you tell us about this ‘eureka’ moment?

I was studying a broad based design and construction course at college and the architecture tutor brought in his daughter’s end of degree design work to show the class. I realised at that moment I wanted to be an architect. The design, the drawings and models were a real inspiration to me.

Were you always artistic as a youngster, or did you, up until that point, have other career aspirations?

Up until that point I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. At one point I thought I would follow my family into dentistry! (I come from a long line of dentists).

And who or what were your other early influences – personal, academic or professional?

My father was a university lecturer, and has been a great influence on my life. He taught me that if you worked hard and were charming and persuasive you could achieve anything.

At just 17 years old, you began work for Keith Eyres in his East London architecture and interiors practice. Did you pick up any early lessons from him that you still adhere to today?

I was very fortunate to work at Keith Eyres in East London. It was a very small practice, and as such I was able to see all aspects of running a practice from an early age, which has been invaluable later in my career.

And what was the single most formative aspect about the 11 years with Orms that followed?

What Orms taught me was the importance of creating a vision for projects, giving each a strong identity that the whole team can get behind, support and promote. They also taught me that as architects we are put in a very fortunate position where the client ultimately asks us where he should spend his money!

When you’re not busy designing, what might we find you doing in moments of spare time?

I have recently started running again, and am enjoying pushing myself to run further and further.

Where is home now, and do you still keep up connections with your northern roots?

Home is now Teddington, very close to the Thames. I love the North of England, but find less and less time to go back there.

Gail Taylor