INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

James Dilley heads up the Hospitality and Interior Design teams at world famous architects, Jestico + Whiles. Since cutting his teeth on his first professional project, Gordon Campbell Gray’s stunning One Aldwych in London back in 1998, he has gone on to work on a phenomenally diverse and contrasting portfolio of hotel projects.

These range from the delicately restored Grade II listed Adria Hotel and the funky W London, both also in London, to the ultra-modern Yas Hotel on Abu Dhabi’s Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit, and Europe’s first Hard Rock Hotel in Ibiza.

As well as creating award-winning hotels, James has been the creative force behind numerous hospitality projects. These include the reinvention of the iconic Playboy Club and Casino with its plush yet playful interiors, and David Yeo’s Aqua Shard restaurant in the landmark London skyscraper.

Image: Aqua Shard by Richard Southall

Never one to adopt a generic approach, James’ work is imaginatively tailored to reflect each project’s own unique context and character. Unafraid of the unconventional, he has even created his own rather unusually flavoured ice cream (Heston, move over).

This year we’ve been privileged to have him on three of the World Interiors News Awards judging panels. We spoke to him about being a judge, future trends in hotel interiors, the ‘happy accident’ of fate that led him into architecture and interiors in the first place, and...that ice cream.

Image: Adria Hotel by Will Pryce

We’re delighted that you’ve judged the Hotel, Restaurant & Bar categories at this year’s WIN Awards. What made you want to be part of the WIN jury?

You can learn a lot. It is a bracing immersion in a huge number of excellent projects. It also allows you to see who of your peers is moving up and in which direction, as well as the general movement of the industry. I like to see how people present, and the elements they want to highlight, which reflects how they prioritise the importance of those elements.

And what were you looking for in the winning submissions?

A little irrepressible twitch of a smile that means that something has some wit, and, of course, originality. The recession has brought a welcome return to authenticity from the generic and universal that we saw in the boom times and I hope we don’t see that returning if the recession is really over.

During your time at the practice, which project or projects have you particularly enjoyed working on and why?

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work on a series of once-in-a-lifetime projects, all of which have been challenging but hugely enjoyable. They vary widely in scale, budget and purpose and are scattered across the world. A great benefit is the inspirational people you meet behind the projects.

As a new, young architect, my first hotel project was One Aldwych. The first project always holds a special place in your heart. I have also enjoyed working on the Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi, which spans the Formula One Grand Prix track there so has a unique context. Andel’s Hotel Lodz is located in an awesome former textile factory in Poland and could not be more different.

Image: YAS Hotel by Gerry O’Leary

Which project has been the most challenging and in what way?

Well, I am trying to design a small bathroom at home with my wife, who is also a talented designer. That is far more challenging than a 400-bedroom hotel in Siberia...

Going back to the beginning of your story, is architecture something you always wanted to do, and who or what inspired you to go down that career path?

No, it really was all by happy accident. I enjoyed art at school when I was younger, but at that time and coming from my background, art wasn’t necessarily something that converted into a career. So I looked around for the nearest thing to art that had a qualification attached to it and a potential career path, and I decided to study architecture at Manchester University.

Architectural education was not a happy time for me, it was too academic with a focus on theory and I am shallow. Too many teachers doing the teaching, when I found it easier to respect ‘doers’ doing the teaching. Arriving at Jestico + Whiles was shocking, it became real very quickly and I worked under some inspirational people, real doers.

What did you do after you qualified, before joining Jestico + Whiles?

I went off to see the world, totally ill-equipped, with only a cloak of ignorance and immaturity to protect me from bad things...nothing much has changed! Actually that was just before email and mobile phones, so I remember booking international phone calls in advance and waiting in dusty GPO buildings for calls home - so different to international travel now.

And how did you come to specialise in interior design, and in particular the hospitality and hotel sectors?

It was a question of right place, right time. Fate really. When I joined Jestico + Whiles the practice was just finishing The Hempel, as architects. That was a very special and unique hotel, RIP, and that led to an approach from Gordon Campbell Gray, the inspirational hotelier who had recently conceived One Aldwych. One thing led to another and twenty something hotels later, here we are.

What would you say are emerging trends in hotel and hospitality interiors?

A return to simplicity. An analogy might be that gyms are returning to wall bars, climbing ropes, boxing rings and medicine balls, and proper bikes that move over those fixed, whirry, indoor pedalling ones. That is what is happening to hotels. Another analogy might be that James Hunt’s private car was an Austin A35 van and he particularly enjoyed overtaking Ferraris on the Wandsworth roundabout in the wet.

Image: Hotel Lodz by Ales Jungmann

Are new technologies changing customer expectations? If so, how?

Pah, technology, it’s how we live. Email and mobile phones have been commonplace for nearly 20 years and we still want to discuss them as new technology. Reception desks are disappearing, for the time being, but will return in luxury hotels; the human touch in service still denotes luxury. However, ‘check-in’ as a ritual will disappear altogether in grades below luxury.

A little bird tells us that your grandfather owned a dairy called Dilley’s Dairy? Did you grow up in the countryside, and, if so, has that influenced your work at all?

No, I grew up by the seaside, inspired by beach huts painted with the left-over paint from the tins in the shed, and by black weatherboard, and the umber brown sails of Thames Barges.

Is there another career you’d like to have followed if you hadn’t gone into architecture?

Yes, I would have opened a deli, specialising in English charcouterie and English ice cream. I made Dairy Milk and Marmite flavour recently; it’s actually not far off salted caramel.

Whereabouts do you live, and what do you like most about it?

We live at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. You can see just about every type of person walking there, the full gamut, normal and other.

And one piece of advice for aspiring architects/interior designers, please?

If you have talent, energy and humour, you will enjoy it and you will make it - and you can send me a letter. If you don’t, you won’t.

Gail Taylor