BUREAU DE CHANGE - AN INTERVIEW WITH CO-FOUNDERS - KATERINA DIONYSOPOULOU & BILLY MAVROPOULOSKATERINA DIONYSOPOULOU AND BILLY MAVROPOULOS FOUNDED ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE, BUREAU DE CHANGE, IN 2013. BASED IN THEIR LONDON STUDIO, THE DUO PRIDE THEMSELVES ON COMBINING PRAGMATISM AND A SENSE OF PLAYFULNESS IN THE SPACES THEY DESIGN. LAST DECEMBER, THIS APPROACH WON THEM THE WORLD INTERIORS NEWS RETAIL INTERIORS GREATER THAN 200 SQ M AWARD FOR ON-LINE FURNITURE RETAILER, MADE.COM’S NEW HQ AND SHOWROOM IN LONDON’S HIP SOHO QUARTER.
Both Katerina and Billy had notched up some extremely impressive experience before launching Bureau de Change, having originally met while working at Foster + Partners. Katerina went on to oversee the creation of Thomas Heatherwick’s unforgettable Cauldron at the London 2012 Olympics (more on that later), while Billy designed and curated for the likes of Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and Selfridges (not bad for a boy who started out as a chemistry student!).
Since founding Bureau de Change they have worked on projects for prestigious clients such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Twitter at Somerset House as part of the London Design Festival 2015.
Here we talk to Katerina and Billy to find out more about the amazing MADE.com HQ, in particular about the 40,000 hollow plastic rods it involved, and what’s in the pipeline for them next. They also share some valuable insights into the ‘clicks’ versus ‘bricks’ future of retail, and tell us a little about growing up in Greece.
But first things first; we speak to them about their WIN Awards win…
Congratulations! How does it feel to be this year’s winners in your category?
We are really excited! We’re delighted that the project has had such a positive response, both for us as a practice and the MADE.com brand.
How did you enjoy the gala Awards evening at Rafael Viñoly’s Sky Garden in London?
The WIN gala awards was a fantastic night – the venue was the ideal environment for the calibre of the event. The atmosphere was contemporary, stylish and relaxed - perfect for networking with a fascinating group of industry peers and seeing the breadth of projects that have stood out over the last year.
The MADE.com flagship showroom and HQ is located in London’s Soho – one of the busiest shopping districts in Europe. In order to compete with the ‘noise’ of neighbouring shopfronts, you got clever with 40,000 hollow plastic rods! Can you explain what you’ve done with them?
The aim was to design a scheme that would stand out amongst the dominant façades of surrounding retailers and theatre buildings. We felt that continuity across the full length of the glazing was essential, in order to create the kind of visual impact we were aiming for. Secondly, as the space is a showroom for this online brand, as opposed to a buy ‘off the shelf’ store environment, it was important to go beyond the traditional window display format.
Rather than display product behind the glass, the glazing itself became a full-scale representation of MADE.com’s products, in an intricate installation. The 40,000 rods punctured the 10 windows of the store to create three-dimensional ‘pinpressions’ - like the 1980s executive PinArt toy - of some of MADE.com’s most iconic pieces of furniture.
Tipped with 80,000 bespoke machine turned steel caps, the scheme resembled an undulating digital display, referencing the foundations of the brand. This appears almost animated as you pass by, and grabs the attention of potential new customers.
And what do each of you like best about the showroom now that it’s completed and open for business?
KATERINA: I think the showroom offers a more complete brand experience, because the physicality of the space is about more than just seeing the product in the flesh. We wanted the company’s office space to be visible to the customer, creating an insight into the ‘inner workings’ of the brand. Boldly coloured and glass-clad meeting spaces act as a kind of lens, inviting customers to view the substantial back-of-house space that makes up the other half of MADE.com’s HQ. Most customers will only have experienced the MADE.com brand via the website – this behind the scenes view imbues it with a more human quality.
BILLY: For me, it’s the integrated and coherent user experience that has been created. The new showroom capitalises upon the tactility and immediacy of a physical space, which are missing from the online experience. The brief was to re-think the concept of the ‘showroom’ and incorporate technology in a way that would genuinely add value to the customer experience.
The store blends physical product with full-scale projections in a series of room sets. Customers are guided through a network of whitewashed walls - curved like the pages of an open book, which references the literary history of Charing Cross Road. These walls provide a clean backdrop for the furniture and a canvas upon which products can be projected.
This opens up the possibility for customers to experience the full product catalogue without requiring a hangar-like showroom or costly central storage facilities. Alongside the digital experience, a large physical furniture sample archive provides an opportunity to touch and feel fabrics and explore colour swatches.
As well as creating exceptional retail spaces, Bureau de Change has its own furniture range, Efasma. Can you describe it briefly, and tell us what led you down this particular avenue?
We were approached by a client, who liked our work and asked us to design the brand’s first furniture collection. Naturally, we jumped at the chance. The range, launched at 100% Design during London Design Festival, consists of single and communal seating, tables and a room divider.
The idea was to play on the brand’s Greek origins and explore traditional fabrication techniques that are native to the country. We were inspired by the basket weaving industry in Greece and have translated its techniques in a contemporary way, in order to create three dimensional, tactile woven surfaces from single lengths of 100% cotton rope. The weave surfaces also act structurally, binding and bringing rigidity to simple walnut frames.
Each piece is hand woven in Greece by craftspeople whose skills are slowly being made redundant by heavy industry. This brings a unique character and texture to each piece.
Taking Bureau de Change as a whole, what three words best describe your approach to design?
Surprise; immediacy; physicality.
And what prompted you both to set up the practice together back in 2013?
BILLY: We met years ago while working at Foster + Partners. I then went to study at the Royal College of Art and Katerina went to work for Thomas Heatherwick. We had discussed the possibility of setting up a practice together at length, and as chance would have it, a unique project opportunity came along, which we felt we couldn’t turn down.
KATERINA: Aside from the fact that we get on so well as friends, we’ve always had very similar outlooks in terms of design and architecture. Our personalities and approaches are alike in some respects, and different in others, but any contrasts create a complimentary dynamic. We felt that this would work in our favour on both a design level and in the day-to-day running of the business.
What’s next for Bureau de Change?
New projects? New products?
We’re working on a lot of exciting things at the moment, which is certainly keeping us busy! A boutique hotel in central London and two office spaces in Soho, for example. Our projects are also taking us further afield with a hotel in Greece, a restaurant in the Old Town of Mykonos, a research project in Turkey and a new holiday house in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
We’re also lucky to be working on some unique residential projects, including building a new house on a beautiful plot in the Cotswolds and a property in south London, for which we have designed a waffled concrete roof. Following the success of the Efasma launch and the subsequent demand for the furniture, we are also working on expanding the product range.
Living up to its name, Bureau de Change is tipped as a major catalyst for change in interior design in the coming years. Why do you think people are saying that?
We think it’s the way we approach our projects. Whether it’s a house, shop, office or building being designed from scratch, we’re motivated by the user experience and the physical processes by which spaces are made.
By way of example, a past project explored how the traditional hair salon format could be reinvented. The design adopts a trio of inward-facing seats, each paired with a large ceiling-hung mirror. Clustering the seats in this way provides a more communal, sociable salon experience, encouraging interaction between the stylists and customers.
Our fascination with fabrication processes also means that our projects are often manufactured or detailed in an unexpected way. In fact, in all of our projects there are one or two elements in which the process of making is crucial to the overall concept – for example, challenging the structural capabilities of a brick façade by replacing the mortar with a series of interlaced steel pins.
Increasingly, we work with uniquely skilled craftspeople and fabricators, whose manufacture techniques – often hand applied - bring an extra layer of texture, narrative and intimacy to the space or object.
What innovations and changes in retail interiors do you see emerging in the next 10 years or so?
There has been an interesting shift from bricks to clicks, and back, over the past few years. As companies have gradually moved their focus from the high street to e-commerce, consumers are understandably beginning to crave a more traditional and authentic shopping experience. They have more choice than ever before and convenience is no longer enough. Brand loyalty is more likely to emerge from an intimate and personal shopping experience.
Within their online and physical stores, retailers are presenting an increasingly curated product offer, which creates a more complete, personalised and persuasive brand experience. We think that physical and digital commerce will merge even further in coming years with more seamless and integrated technology.
You met each other while both working for Foster + Partners. How did your paths cross there, and what was the single most important lesson you each took away with you when you left?
BILLY: Katerina was already working at the office when I started. Our paths first crossed on my second day in the Foster + Partners parking lot. We were introduced because - aside from the fact we are both Greek - we were working in the same group. As we were involved in separate and demanding projects, we didn’t have the opportunity to bond immediately, but our paths kept on crossing and we quickly became good friends.
Fosters was an incredible education for both of us. We learned so much it’s impossible to sum up in one sentence: how successful teams are built; how presentations are planned and delivered to achieve the best possible results; how an architecture practice can thrive as a business and brand; the long term benefit of investing in resources; the importance of interrogating different options throughout the design process; how to seamlessly integrate a sustainable approach into architectural projects.
On a personal level, we have made lasting friendships with colleagues that are the result of excellent team building.
A question for Katerina…While working for Thomas Heatherwick, you led the team designing the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron, which became an instantly recognisable global symbol overnight. Were you there when each ‘petal’ was lit, and how did it feel to see it fully alight at the opening ceremony?
KATERINA: For me, overseeing this project was very important for many reasons. Firstly, it was a phenomenal experience working with so many talented people, and collaborating with Danny Boyle and his team was extraordinary. Being Greek, to be so deeply involved in the design and delivery of what is probably the most important and historically saturated moment in the Olympic ceremony felt like such a privilege.
When the petals were lit one by one and they finally rose to create the cauldron, it was the kind of feeling you wish you could bottle.
And now one for Billy…You studied chemistry while you were still in Greece, then came to the UK to study architecture at the Royal College of Art, and went on to work with the likes of Tate Modern, Tate Britain and Selfridges as an independent design consultant. That’s quite a departure. Can you tell us what your original career ambitions were and what made you drop chemistry for architecture and design?
BILLY: For as long as I can remember I’ve had an interest in architecture and design, but as my father is a chemistry professor, it was a subject I was intuitively drawn to. I began studying chemistry in Athens, but I soon developed an itch to study in London. Once I had made the decision to go, I also started thinking more fundamentally about my long-term goals, and I made the leap to pursue architecture at the same time.
The Royal College of Art was a great school for me because we were given the opportunity to work with the ‘non-architectural’ departments. At this stage, I decided I wanted to pursue a more diverse design career, shifting away from the more traditional architecture route. This is how I became involved in all sorts of very interesting design projects for the Tate, Selfridges, and New London Architecture.
From early on, I was fortunate enough to create a working platform at the point where architecture and other creative disciplines meet.
Same question to each of you please…You’re both originally from Greece. What was it like growing up there, and did your environment inspire or help to shape your future creativity?
We each come from families with diverse backgrounds, so we were always exposed to a plethora of influences when we were young. A key thing is that we both travelled a great deal with our families from a very young age. When living in Greece you’re lucky enough to have sunshine and beaches on your doorstep, so rather than take summer vacations, we travelled a lot throughout the rest of the year, to Europe, North America and Asia.
We had similar upbringings, in the sense that our parents encouraged a very broad approach to education, giving us the opportunity to study arts, literature and languages outside school. They helped us to discover and nurture our passions.
Living in Athens is, of course, such a contrast from living in London - the offer is much smaller, but it has a nonetheless rich cultural scene.
What do you like to do when you’re not working, and do you socialise together outside studio hours or do your own thing?
We try to socialise outside work as much as possible - it’s our way of keeping our non-working relationship alive. We travel together for work a great deal, but we also use this as an opportunity to spend time together as friends. We never open our laptops in airports or on planes – strict Bureau de Change rule.
We try to keep culturally up to speed both in London and internationally. In London there’s always so much happening in all of the creative fields, so this is a great excuse to spend some time together outside work. If we are abroad on a business trip we always research the goings on in that location and try to steal at least one or two hours between meetings to explore the zeitgeist..
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1 & 2: Twitter – LDF 2015
Img 3: Katerina & Billy – WIN Awards Ceremony 2015
Img 4, 5, 6 & 7: MADE.com HQ
Img 8: Efasma Furniture
Img 9 & 10: Talking Heads hair salon
Img 11: Folds House – London