INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

David Kohn is founder and Director of London-based David Kohn Architects. Having studied architecture at Cambridge University and then at Columbia University, New York, he went on to work at Caruso St John Architects before establishing DKA in 2007.

In 2012, David achieved worldwide plaudits for his highly original hotel creation, A Room for London - a one-room installation reminiscent of a boat that perches atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall along London's vibrant South Bank. More recently, he has also been making news with Carrer Avinyó, a sublimely elegant yet deliciously unusual modernisation of an apartment in the heart of Barcelona's Barrio Gotico.

Designed as a holiday home for two brothers who grew up in the city but now travel the world, the apartment is located on the corner of two intersecting streets forming an arrow shape. Last year, Carrer Avinyó scooped Best Residential Interiors project at the World Interiors News Awards 2013.

We quiz David about this inspiring project, and also find out about an influential bag of clay, his time at Slade School of Art, why he loves teaching as well as designing, and what's coming up next for him and the DKA team...

Firstly David, congratulations on your WIN Awards win. What made you decide to enter?

The project, Carrer Avinyó, is all about how to make an interior that can be about a city, in this case Barcelona. While we are architects by training, we wanted this story to be understood in the context of the discipline of interior design, and WIN is one of the most prestigious interiors awards to enter.

Focussing on Carrer Avinyó, the judges were particularly taken by the bespoke triangular, mosaic-effect floor tiles you've created in association with Mosaics Martí (once suppliers to Antoni Gaudi). What were you trying to achieve with the tiles, and do you feel they've worked as you'd hoped?

The design for the tiles developed gradually. The first thought was that the interior could be much more engaged with the surrounding streets, which are at the heart of Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. The building stands on an acute corner where two streets cross, which gives the apartment its distinctive triangular shape. We removed several interior walls to open up the space and reveal this corner on the interior.

We then sought to accentuate this new characteristic of the interior by designing a bespoke tile that had exactly the geometry of the corner, and hence the streets. The grading in colour was yet a further development of this effort, in that the colours change from green to red in a sweep around the corner, giving the interior a dynamism that suited its use as a salon-like space, where people would get together to enjoy each other's company.

Why did you choose to design such intricate patterning by hand, rather than using digital technology?

We wanted the materials of the floor to be hard-wearing and through-coloured, so not just a surface coating. All the digital processes that we are aware of - like printing and cutting - primarily affect the surface. If one wants to literally cut mosaic pieces digitally, then one is looking at an inordinately expensive process simply because of the labour involved in laying the pieces. In fact, encaustic tiles were invented in the nineteenth century as a cheap alternative to mosaics. Arguably, digital technology has not yet replaced handmade encaustic tiles, as these remain the most cost effective way to make such a floor.

We also enjoy working with craft-based industries. The introduction of varying colour in a single tile also introduced a new aspect to Mosaics Martí's work. We are now partnering with them on other tile designs. They have been delighted with the coverage the apartment has given their product and skills.

You went to school with the brothers, who have owned the apartment for the past 20 years. Where and when was that?

Loughborough Grammar School in the late '80s.

You also used to visit the brothers at Carrer Avinyó during their student days. What was it like then as compared to its new incarnation?

The flat could fairly be described as a student dive. Friends passing through, having a good time.

The brothers must be delighted with what you've achieved there? How do you think they feel about living in an apartment that has attracted so much acclaim?

I think they are genuinely surprised and very proud. I think they also feel rewarded for putting their faith in us and supporting us in making unorthodox design decisions.

And did they give you a precise brief, or did they leave the creative process of designing the apartment up to you?

The brief was quite practical about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms they wanted. Previously a local architect had simply proposed to build a mezzanine with lots of cellular accommodation. I am glad they decided to look for other solutions.

What were the greatest challenges?

The greatest challenge was probably being at arms length to the construction. We developed quite an elaborate proposal and felt confident that the skills existed in Barcelona to build it, but were not available on a day-to-day basis to check that we were getting the best results. But this was solved by working with a local project architect, Angel Martin Cojo, who was brilliant. He found the Contractor and was extremely diligent in ensuring our design was delivered down to the smallest details.

And the strongest influences on the design?

Firstly, the city. Barcelona is an amazing place, full of life and colour and detail. Secondly, the tradition of grand salons in early twentieth century European bourgeois houses such as the Maison de Verre in Paris by Pierre Chareau and the Villa Necchi in Milan by Piero Portaluppi.

And what do you personally like best about the new-look Carrer Avinyó?

Whenever I am there, my solar plexus settles in a slightly different position, if that makes sense. I feel ever so slightly different. The main room has both a wonderful calm and an excitement to it. You feel it is waiting for something to happen. And then it does.

Moving on, over the course of your career in architecture, what would you say are your three greatest achievements/favourite projects?

Carrer Avinyó, A Room for London - designed in collaboration with the artist, Fiona Banner, and Stable Acre, a house in Norfolk we designed for the London gallery owner, Stuart Shave.

Over the years, who or what have been your three greatest influences professionally?

I worked for several years at Caruso St John Architects. They confirmed for me that rigorous, inventive design and good business can go hand-in-hand. I was taught by Eric Parry, Mark Brearley and Peter Carl, all of whom opened my eyes to many wonderful things from Rome to the Isle of Sheppey. Teaching at London Metropolitan University has also given me the opportunity to be in a community of ambitious, critically engaged architect-teachers, and to explore with students what architecture can and should be.

As you just mentioned, you've been a diploma tutor at London Metropolitan University since 2003. What led you into teaching and what do you enjoy most about it?

I started teaching before I started my own practice. I loved being an architecture student myself, mostly because so many extraordinary things I had no idea about - places, buildings, people - were introduced to me. I always felt that architecture schools are great places for this reason. It wasn't so much a decision to teach as a decision to be involved in this world of sharing extraordinary discoveries.

What is the most important lesson you try to impart to your architecture students?

To my mind, design isn't the child of genius but of hard work. You must be prepared to continually make visible your ideas, repeatedly re-describing them in different ways, until they take on their own life as fully formed identities.

What were your ambitions as a child? Did you always want to become an architect, and if so why?

I had several ideas of what I might become, but an architect was always one of them. My grandmother was a potter and had a wheel and kiln in her cottage in Cape Town, South Africa. I thought it was amazing that she produced all these things from a big bag of clay. It was something about that transformation of stuff that always seemed worth figuring out.

You undertook a summer course in fine art at Slade School in London while studying architecture at Cambridge University. How influential has art been in your work as an architect, and in what ways?

I find that art is increasingly important in what I do and how the office works. At the Slade I had the opportunity to do large scale painting, printing, sculpture. There are consequences to working in these disciplines, they shape what you produce. Consequently, the only way to continue to find those results one appreciates is to continue to paint, print, sculpt. Nowadays, it is not me who is doing these things in isolation, it is a studio of people testing ideas through different ways of working and seeing.

Some of your art was exhibited at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in 2012. How did it feel to be exhibiting at such a prestigious gallery?

A great privilege. Possibly addictive. One of my current regrets is that I haven't been sufficiently organised to submit something every year as it definitely changes your summer.

Aside from art, what do you like to do when you're not working? Where would we find you on a Sunday, say?

We have a baby daughter, Eva, who is four months old. You are most likely to find me pushing her around Hampstead Heath with my wife, Margherita.

And lastly, do you have any interesting new projects bubbling away in the pipeline that you could tell us a little about?

We are working on several houses in Devon and Buckinghamshire. Both have spaces for art, a studio in one and galleries in both, which is very exciting. The house in Buckinghamshire is for one of the Barcelona brothers, so we will have to pull out all the stops!

Gail Tailor