INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

"I was pretty much brought up on building sites," says Graham Harris. "My father worked on dry and wet leisure sport centres in the 1970s and '80s, and I was the official slide tester age 12, which was fun!" Harris is now the managing director of London-based architecture and interior design firm SHH, which he co-founded with Neil Hogan and David Spence in 1992, but he hasn't lost his sense of youthful playfulness. The words "exciting" and "fun" come up many times in our conversation, and I get the impression that he genuinely loves his job.

Harris met Neil Hogan, now creative director at SHH, when he was studying at Birmingham School of Architecture. "We always had a pact that we would set up a company together, that was the dream," he tells me. "When I qualified as an architect and went off to Australia for a couple of years, I came back because of Neil." Chairman David Spence, the "S" in SHH, met Harris when he was working at Scott Brownrigg & Turner. "He was running various jobs like Manchester Airport and the Ministry of Defence, fairly heavyweight projects, and I said, 'You really need to meet Neil, because I think we'd be good together.' So we all met up and the triangle was formed. And the rest is history!" laughs Harris.

The company was originally set up in Harris's front living room, and the initial focus was on graphic design - partly because Hogan was fresh from working as director at design consultancy Small Back Room, and partly because architectural design work was thin on the ground at the time due to the downturn in the industry and banks not lending. "At one stage we had ten graphic designers and had accounts with Walt Disney, the Guardian and all sorts of big names, it was an exciting time, but it wasn't the direction that we wanted to go," says Harris. The trio decided that they would change the focus to architectural interiors and commercial work, and turned a corner with a big project in Yeomans Row, Knightsbridge. "We had been working quite a lot on mews, we were known as the mews kids of Knightsbridge - we've always been in the prime and super-prime markets - but we were cutting our teeth on smaller projects," Harris tells me, explaining that Yeomans Row was a real marker in the sand for SHH. "We did three amazing bachelor pads that got published in the Architects' Journal and in the mainstream papers, and people started to really look at what we were doing."

SHH now employs 50 staff and has a global reach, with work in Lisbon, Moscow, Bahrain, India and elsewhere, as well as a large number of UK-based projects. "We're published somewhere in the world once a week, and we've just formed a joint venture partnership in Shanghai," says Harris. He tells me that while SHH is an established brand, it does not have a house style per se. The ethos of the company is based around the idea of the bespoke and the individual, with a high level of flexibility according to the client's wishes. One of SHH's most recent projects is the Clubhouse Mayfair, a top-end, 8,500 sq ft co-working office space that currently has hedge firms as its most frequent users. "The hedgers are using it because it's near Bond St, which is very attractive, and it's got the boardroom facilities that they don't necessarily have as they tend to work out of smaller units," says Harris. "There's enough area to lose yourself in, but you can have your own private spaces and you can breathe. That's where it wins." The project was not without its challenges however. "The idea was to split the arrangement over two floors, but have physical links between those spaces. But when you do that you open yourself up to acoustic bounce and things like that. So they created these booths where you could control the sound and environment." There's also a lot of "plug and play" hot-desking space, along with breakout spaces and areas to retract back into, private boardrooms and casual, more informal meeting rooms.

The client for the Clubhouse, Adam Blaskey, got a certain amount of inspiration from one of SHH's previous office projects, an award-winning scheme for a Russian energy company in Marylebone's Manchester Square. "It's one of my favourites actually," Harris tells me. "It's a grade II listed property yet it's quite a cutting edge scheme - it's got a Bladerunner feel about it. From that the client for the Clubhouse had a vision of building something above the usual serviced offices that you get to provide something a

bit more innovative and top end. High-end hospitality sits right in our sweet spot!"

Although the commercial side of SHH's business is fast gaining ground - the portfolio includes a wide variety of projects, ranging from Mittal's headquarters to McDonald's - the company's mainstay is still residential work. The Chelsea Apartment, completed at the end of 2012, is a good example of the kind of super-prime projects that really make Harris tick. "I love working with the high-net-worth clients because you get a glimpse into their world," he tells me. "It's totally surreal and a different kind of living, very aspirational."

The Chelsea triplex boasts a high level of technological wizardry, with memory-activated dressing rooms - "you walk in and the mirror remembers what you were wearing" - refrigerators built into the drawers of the bathroom cabinetry to keep your cosmetics cool, heated walls that do away with the need for radiators, and media rooms with 4D surround sound built into the sofas - "if you're watching a movie in which the building shakes, you shake!" But the apartment is not just about "all the toys", as Harris describes - it also involved a certain amount of reconfiguration to create the right feel for the client. The building was originally a Candy & Candy development offering a shell and core format, "so effectively these were just shells with nothing in them," explains Harris. "People were paying top dollar and at the time it raised a few eyebrows. Our client bought a triplex apartment, but the plan was very deep, so there was very little light in the space. We managed to get permission to work in unison with another apartment, getting agreement from the freeholder to be able to push out the bays at the front to create a better aspect and more light."

The main living space was also rearranged to maximise a lateral feel. "We took the main kitchen out of the principal space and put it into a smaller self-contained space, and got rid of the idea of the open-plan kitchen, which our Russian client didn't want anyway," Harris explains. "We then used the main space for living, lounging and dining, which was quite ambitious. You end up with a very large, lateral space, and then a series of kitchens - a kind of show kitchen for making teas and coffees, with prep kitchens below linked by dumb waiters, which is the way things are going at the moment."

The triplex also features an eye-catching bespoke staircase that was reconfigured to introduce a centralised well that runs through three floors, with a plaster bas-relief of an olive tree design that runs down the entire height of the stair. SHH worked with decorative arts firm DKT to implement the artwork. Harris finds the relationship between art and architecture exciting, and sees that many clients are looking to work more closely with artisans and artists. "If you go back to Lutyens and others, they were always working with fellow artists who would create the most incredible things," he says. "It's refreshing to see more designers using artists and specialist craftsmen and tradesmen to create amazing things - that collaboration can only be a good thing. Developers are also having the vision to make these partnerships happen - people like Tom Bloxham from Urban Splash. I have great respect for people like that."

Next up for SHH is the new restaurant/café and conference and meeting rooms for London Zoo - "our first public building really," says Harris. It's a £4 million project involving a contemporary design with glass and steel, due to open in September. "Sometimes we're the architects, sometimes we're the interior designers, and sometimes, as is the case here, we're both," says Harris. "That's why I'm so excited - it's got all the elements that make up our USP. It will be a breath of fresh air."

Rosie Spencer

Rosie Spencer is a writer and editor, and has contributed to publications including Disegno, Icon, Domus, The Art Newspaper and Onoffice.