INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
BRIAN JOHNSON – FOUNDING PARTNER, JOHNSON NAYLOR

Brian Johnson co-founded interior architecture and design practice, Johnson Naylor, with Fiona Naylor back in 1990. Since then, from their offices in fashionable Clerkenwell, they have designed and delivered stunning interiors for some of London’s most high-profile residential developments. Among them are Kings Cross ArtHouse, Battersea Power Station and Fitzroy Place to name but a few. All offer the type of effortless style that simply oozes class.

Under Brian’s guidance, the practice takes a collaborative approach, with architects, interior designers, furniture designers and graphic designers all working together to produce layered designs that are characterized by an inherent level of quality in every last detail. We were fortunate enough to be able to draw on Brian’s experience and expertise when he sat as a judge on our World Interiors News Awards Residential Interiors panel in 2013 and 2014 – a category in which Johnson Naylor was twice shortlisted themselves.

Here, we speak to Brian about the early influences that led him into a career spanning more than 25 years in the sector. He admits to being a bit of romantic and explains how that influenced him into converting a former foghorn testing facility in a very unusual location into his own inspirational weekend studio. But first we ask him about what has made Johnson Naylor the natural choice for so many developers...

Johnson Naylor has worked on so many flagship London residential schemes. What’s the secret of your success and why do developers come to you?

I think it’s because we are specialists at deciphering complicated projects, space plans and schemes that need to be re-interpreted or remodelled.

It’s about applying intelligence and sensitivity to create enduring interiors that respond to their context and surroundings. Our designs have an inherent level of quality in every detail.

The majority of your projects are in London. Firstly, what is it about the City that attracts so much demand for and investment in residential schemes?

London is an Alpha City and therefore attracts talented, creative and dynamic individuals. It has a rich history but it also embraces the future. This type of energy will always be attractive. However it is the diversity of London that is its core and its soul; this is true of many UK Cities.

Do you see that changing ever?

Well, life would be sad without all the energy and diversity that is a vital part of living in a city, so let’s hope not.

In such fast paced city where trends have barely surfaced before they’re dismissed as ‘so last week’, how do you as a practice achieve designs that won’t date? Are there certain essential aspects of residential interiors that transcend mere fashion?

Our work is about creating good space, using core materials that create harmony and balance. This is the backbone of our philosophy. We create places for people to express their own personalities and create their own homes.

While Johnson Naylor is renowned for its tasteful, understated work in the residential sector, you also design outside that arena. Can you tell us a little bit about any interesting non-residential projects you’ve worked on recently?

In 2012 we completed a project for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The Goldsmiths’ Centre is a leading charity and educator in the training of goldsmiths, bringing together trainee and working goldsmiths and those interested in jewellery, silversmithing and the allied trades. We designed the street space, reception, exhibition areas, café, workshop and conference and meeting rooms.

Last year we designed the Milan Furniture Fair stand for [furniture manufacturer and retailer] SCP, and also the makeover of their shop in Shoreditch for their ‘Simplified Beauty’ exhibition during the London Design Festival.

You also venture outside the big city occasionally – notably to Dungeness, but more on that in a moment. In complete contrast to sleek, contemporary London developments, standing amid beautiful gardens is the grand, ivy-clad, detached Puckeridge House. How did you come to be involved with it and what was the brief?

This was for a client we first met because they had bought an apartment we had designed. Puckeridge House was built in the late 1920s, and the client wanted to refurbish and extend the property to work in harmony with the surrounding landscape. The design is very much a contemporary take on English country - sympathetically blending traditional with modern.

The glass box was designed as an additional living space, taking advantage of natural light and providing the owners with a place to enjoy the beautifully landscaped garden throughout the seasons.

And now to your apparent love affair with Dungeness. Johnson Naylor has been involved in two projects there: the Coast Guard Tower (voted No 1 in the Guardian newspaper’s 10 Coolest Holiday Cottages in the Home Counties list) and the RIBA award-winning Experimental Station, which is now

your studio. Given its stark remoteness, Dungeness isn’t exactly the sort of place you might just happen to be passing. How did you come to know that these sites existed and were up for redevelopment?

The simple answer to ‘why the location?’ is the light the sky and the sea. I was born in Lancashire and went to school in Liverpool. Sunday would be an outing to the seaside of Southport. When I was at art school in Lancaster, I lived in Morecambe with views of the bay. So being close to the sea with a big sky and ever changing light is where I feel comfortable. Visiting the closest seaside locations to London has always been a weekend’s activity to counterbalance life in Town. For me, Dungeness was the most atmospheric of them.

The Experimental Station was formerly owned by Trinity House and was used for testing foghorns. How have you managed to strike a balance between respect for the building’s fascinating nautical history and the creation of a contemporary space?

Following Trinity Houses’ departure from the site, it had been used for storage for almost 20 years and had been sorely neglected. The existing buildings were not designed by architects but by building surveyors. Their design and construction were for practical reasons, but this fitness for purpose also gives them a pragmatic charm.

The Dungeness peninsular is an SSSi and Ramsar site and in planning terms is outside ‘the development zone’, so the buildings could never be converted into permanent homes. Yet they are so much part of the history and visual language of that area that we wanted to be able to save them before they crumbled away. That might sound romantic, but we all need a little of that to inspire us.

It took us a very long time to get planning to convert them into studios and almost as long to finalise the designs - there must be at least 20 different variations and permutations we explored.

What do you especially like about spending time there, and does it inspire your work on other projects?

It’s my weekend studio so it’s a counterbalance to our London office. It is a place to try out ideas without the commercial pressures of a live project.

Where do you live when you’re not out in the wilds by the sea, and what might we find you doing when you’re not working?

I have a flat in the Barbican, which has a fantastic city view. I can see the Gherkin, the old Nat West Tower - now called Tower 42 - and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Winding back now, you co-founded Johnson Naylor with Fiona Naylor in 1990. What prompted this and what was your main aim as a new practice?

I was the Interiors Director at a company called David Davies Associates, which is where I met Fiona. The practice was involved in a lot of retail design and I was travelling to America almost once a month, which was less glamorous than it sounds. Both Fiona and I wanted to be able to explore a more varied world than just that of retail.

Three words that best encapsulate your ethos as a practice now?

Innovative, collaborative, rational, and nurturing

That’s four words, but that’s OK! Next, can you tell us about your studio trips abroad to places such as Antwerp and Paris? Who goes on them, and what is their purpose?

We always plan one trip a year in late summer for the whole studio. It’s a chance to visit interesting and inspirational places; it is also a time to have some fun.

The trips are often centred around going to see a particular building, or the work of somebody that inspires us. Last summer it was to Antwerp. I had been quite a few times but very few others in the studio had been. We saw a lot of the work of Vincent Van Dyson, from staying at Antwerp Central Hostel "Pulcinella" to having a really great dinner at Graanmarkt 13. Plus it’s a chance to wander around and appreciate a different city, of course.

We also always try to have a Christmas lunch outside London. Last Christmas we went to Cambridge to visit Kettles Yard and then had lunch at Jesus College.

What has been the most bizarre or beautiful sight you’ve seen (or experience you’ve had) on one of these studio trips?

For me, our trip to Dusseldorf and our visit to the Museum Insel Hombroich - a park and museum which combines architecture, art and nature.

And...the sofa. What inspired you to design one yourself last year?

I think if you are a designer you always want to try out ideas. Furniture design is a real challenge and I think not many realise how difficult it is, not just to make something look good but to make it work properly. This is only one of my experiments, but it seemed to come good.

Lastly, who or what made you want to become an interiors architect in the first instance?

I was at Art College for five years and my course gave me an opportunity to try a really wide range of design disciplines, from ceramics to textiles and metalwork. In the end, it was the all- encompassing spatial possibilities of an interior that got me hooked.

Gail Taylor

Captions:

Img 1: Goldsmith Cafe – Peter Marlow (Photographer)
Img 2: Goldsmith Exhibition – Peter Marlow (Photographer)
Img 3: Peter Marlow (Photographer)

 

Img 4—5: Nick Guttridge (Photographer)
Img 6: Richard Powers (Photographer)
Img 7: Nicola Reid (Senior Designer)