INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

José Esteves De Matos is a founding Director of De Matos Ryan alongside fellow founder and Director, Angus Morrogh-Ryan. Under their leadership, the De Matos Ryan team enjoy working across all disciplines of architecture and design, and have gained wide recognition for their imaginative and thoughtfully detailed public spaces.

The London-based firm is particularly respected for its specialist work within historic and culturally sensitive contexts. Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples is that of the sumptuous Christopher’s restaurant and bar in London’s Covent Garden, which won the World Interiors News Restaurant Interiors award last year.

We speak to José to find out more about Christopher’s, De Matos Ryan’s recent expansion into the world of theatre, and what he, as a judge in this year’s World Interiors News Awards Public Sector category, will be looking for. We also delve back into his fascinating childhood, during which he narrowly missed two major revolutions, met a beautiful empress, and fell in love with the architecture of Iran...

Firstly, thank you for taking time out to talk to us José, and congratulations again on your WIN award for Christopher’s. It’s such a plush, glamorous looking refurbishment and so in keeping with its illustrious Theatreland setting. For you personally, what are the three things that please you most about the completed interiors?

Christopher’s was a great project to be involved with and much of the success and enjoyment we got from it is down to a very close and collaborative relationship with its owner. We had great fun working together and I believe this comes through in the completed scheme.

As a much-loved institution, we were very keen to ensure that our reinterpretation continued to evoke the real and imagined history of the building for its established and new client base. As a counterpoint to the climate of austerity and abstinence that we still find ourselves in, the sumptuous new interiors hark back to a bygone era of glamour and revelry, celebrating the ornate and exceptional character of the existing building and the atmosphere of heady decadence embodied in the very fabric of the place. After all, this was the site of London’s first licensed Casino in 1870.

I particularly enjoy the theatricality and drama that the Martini Bar and Restaurant provide as a backdrop for everyday life. These are two quite distinct spaces drawn together with a considered tonal and material palette. Lighting is key to the flow of space and mood at Christopher’s and I am pleased with the balance between sculptural feature lighting and indirect lighting enhancing the restored historic fabric of the building.

This year, you’ve kindly agreed to be a judge on the WIN Awards 2014 Public Sector jury. Do you feel your work at De Matos Ryan gives you particular expertise in this field?

At De Matos Ryan we strongly believe in the social and public role that architecture and design plays in motivating individuals and communities. Good design will indirectly influence our behaviour, mood and relationship with a space and its users. It will engage our senses and engender feelings of comfort, familiarity, belonging and wellbeing. These will be spaces that become loved and which positively contribute to and enhance our social interaction with one another, be this in the street, at school, a restaurant or a theatre.

It is within this context that we develop our projects and as a practice we undertake work across many sectors ranging from theatres and museums, to hotels, spas, restaurants and schools. I greatly enjoy the cross-fertilisation of design across these various projects and I believe this experience gives me a good basis with which to contribute to the judging of the WIN Public Sector category.

Although the Public Sector category covers a diverse range of projects from schools and hospitals to train stations and embassies, what are some of the fundamentals common to all that you’ll be looking for in the winners?

Clarity of concept in response to an in-depth understanding of the brief and site’s physical, social and historic context is key for me and this should lead to a project with a strong identity and character. These public spaces should play to all senses - both directly and indirectly - and positively enhance the user’s well-being. Perhaps as a given, these spaces will need to be functional, robust and practical without compromising the project’s design integrity. A successful public space will be one where the cohesive whole will experientially add up to significantly more than the sum of the individual parts.

Going back to the very beginning of your story now, you were born in Luanda, the capital of Angola on the south-west coast of Africa. Had your family always lived there?

My family is very much rooted in Portugal, though well-travelled. My parents moved to Luanda in 1970 where my father was setting up a new geology university department. As such I was born in Luanda when this was still a Portuguese territory. We returned to Lisbon when I was four as civil unrest grew stronger during the Angolan War of Independence, eventually leading to Angolan independence in 1975. Soon after returning to Lisbon we moved to Tehran where we lived for two years prior to the Iranian Revolution. In the early 80s my family settled in Abu Dhabi and stayed for sixteen years. Apart from me, everyone is now back in Lisbon.

What was it like growing up in Luanda – what are some of your most vivid memories?

I was very young when we lived in Luanda and I have no real memories of these early years. My first vivid memories are of Tehran as a vibrant and culturally rich city. I recall the thriving Grand Bazaars, skiing in the mountains and swimming in the Caspian Sea. I recall my first year at school, learning English and meeting the Empress, Farah Diba, when she came to visit my class.

At what age did you leave for Europe, and when did you first come to the UK?

While living abroad, we would spend our summer holidays in the Algarve with my grandparents. On route we often visited European cities including London, which at the time was very exciting. In 1988 I came to boarding school in the UK and London is now my home, where I work and live with my family.

Who or what first inspired you to become an architect? Was design always of interest to you from an early age?

I come from a very scientific family, though art was one of my great interests from an early age. I was certainly always fascinated by comic book cityscapes and interested in the design of everything from cars to products and buildings. My early exposure to many cities, cultures and types of architecture I am sure were a significant influence. My first memories of being amazed or inspired by architecture are in Iran, visiting Isfahan and Persepolis.

You studied architecture at Cambridge University for four years. Was being surrounded by incredible buildings by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and Sir James Stirling an inspiration for you?

We were very privileged to study amongst such remarkable architecture. On a daily basis, rushing to lectures and the studio, we often cycled past these great buildings in a daydream, oblivious to the very unique and special setting we were immersed in. King’s College Chapel never ceases to amaze me, and Kettle’s Yard by Leslie Martin was always one of my favourite places to visit and be inspired. We were taught to carefully consider and understand the socio-economic, historical and architectural context of any given project and to judge our interventions as part of this architectural continuum. This balanced approach is one that we very much enjoy, and is one of the many reasons why a significant amount of our work is with culturally sensitive historic buildings.

What were the three most important lessons you learned about architecture and design at Cambridge?

Firstly, continuity in design approach and ethos across the various disciplines that come together to create a cohesive and unified environment was one of the key lessons. As a design practice we treat landscape, architecture and interior design in the same way, blurring the boundaries between each discipline to create insightful and stimulating environments, which are rooted in rigorous analysis and deep understanding of the project context – both physical and historical – and the brief.

Next, the texture and quality of material is key to the sensory experience of architecture and design. Architecture is about place-making, being able to transform the way we live in a positive manner.

Finally, I learned that attention to detail at all levels and scale really matters.

You and your fellow Director, Angus, seem to have lived parallel lives professionally! He studied architecture with you at Cambridge, then you both went on to undertake post-grad diplomas at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in the US. You both qualified in the same year – 1998 – and went on to found De Matos Ryan in 1999. You even lectured jointly at Cambridge in more recent years. Did you share the same vision and values even as students?

I only really got to know Angus during our second year at Cambridge and it was only in our final year of undergraduate studies that we began to understand the similarities in each of our individual design approaches. In our year out and with our great friend, Jonathan Storey, we spent four months on an anticlockwise architectural road trip of Europe, which really brought us together and broadened our architectural horizon. Being at Harvard further drew our architectural thinking closer and when in 1999 we talked about setting up independently in practice, it seemed to make sense doing so together, along with our friend Jonny. De Matos Storey Ryan was born. Jonny is a great musician and in 2004 his passion for singing overtook architecture, so he left the practice to become an opera singer and puppeteer.

Angus and I continued to develop De Matos Ryan with a strong belief in the social role that architecture and design plays in our society. For us design makes a real difference and we very much enjoy meeting people in all sectors to develop interesting and unexpected design conversations and ideas with them. Our clients are intrinsic to the design team and key to arriving at specific solutions that enable their ambitions, avoiding a predetermined or formulaic approach.

As part of your professional training, you worked for Eric Parry Associates on a number of hotel projects. Which was the most prestigious? Which was the most challenging? And which was your own personal favourite, and why?

Eric Parry was my director of studies at Cambridge and I have immense respect and admiration for him as an individual and architect. He was instrumental in my architectural education and I have much to thank him for.

During my time at EPA I worked on numerous interesting projects, including the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel. This was a fascinating and complex project to be involved with. I spent three years working on the design and implementation of the refurbishment of the ground floor public rooms opening up through the building to Hyde Park. I gained invaluable experience on a project that was often quite challenging as the hotel remained fully open throughout the work.

Moving on to De Matos Ryan, the firm’s website tells us that one of your particular strengths is ‘patiently establishing planning and listed buildings approvals within often complex or sensitive settings’. Where do you get your patience from?

That is a question that my wife often asks! I’m not sure where I get my patience from, but what I have learned over many years of experience is that with perseverance and carefully structured and reasoned arguments, based on in-depth and detailed understanding of the respective site and context, we mostly secure permissions for what we believe is the right architectural or design solution for each individual project. Angus and I support each other in this approach which undoubtedly gives us both strength.

De Matos Ryan clearly takes a very holistic approach to design. From a client’s point of view, what do you think are the main advantages of this integrated approach?

We believe that less is more and that design by committee often does not lead to the best solution. Providing a holistic and unified approach to the various aspects of a project establishes a cohesive vision where all elements work together to deliver a unified solution. This does not mean that we do not collaborate with other design individuals and that we try to do everything ourselves, which is not the case. What this means is that for each individual project we assemble the best possible team of experts in their own field, from a family of collaborators with whom we have developed strong relationships and who share our design vision and approach.

We find that this approach is more efficient, saving our clients’ time and money, and delivering a stronger design solution.

Looking to the future, De Matos Ryan has branched out into the theatre sector, with projects in development for Sadler’s Wells and the York Theatre Royal. Those are both very prestigious venues – how did the firm come to get involved in theatre design, and are you enjoying it?

Our involvement with theatres is a result of a number of strands coming together at the right time and place. We won both of these projects in competitions by providing clear insight and vision as to how these amazing cultural institutions could be refurbished and restructured to provide greatly enhanced, accessible and dynamic civic spaces for all. We believe that our fresh thinking and determination to expose the full potential of all aspects of these projects – while being grounded with a good dose of pragmatism and commercial reality – won the day.

Our strong approach to public consultation and community engagement was key, as was our extensive experience working with listed buildings. We were also able to demonstrate that we were equally interested in the success of the back of house dressing rooms, toilets and technical requirements as we were in the front of house foyers. We are extremely fortunate to have great client teams with both these theatre projects and we’re immensely enjoying the relationship and design ideas that we’ve been developing with them.

And lastly, what do you like to do when you’re not working? Where might we find you on a weekend?

When not at work, I like to spend as much of my time as possible with my family. My wife also leads a busy professional life and at weekends we enjoy spending time together and with our daughter. We love eating out, going to the park, visiting museums and galleries and you might often find us at a street market, the Serpentine, Tate Modern or Tate Britain.

Gail Taylor