Ilse Crawford has strong convictions when it comes to design. The designer and academic believes her work, be it for a restaurant space or wallpaper hanging, must improve daily life. Her mission is to bring this theory to life through her multi-disciplinary design firm Studioilse. “Our philosophy is centred on people, on human needs and desires, on the human experience,” she says. “We look at how we can use design to humanise public spaces and create homes or products that support and enhance our lives."
Crawford founded Studioilse in 2003. Based in London and with clients all around the world, her creative team makes inviting, comfortable environments, public spaces designed to make us feel at home and homes that add value to our lives. Crawford’s furniture and products are intellectually conceived to support and enhance human behaviour.
The studio is working on residential projects in the UK, Sweden, US and Canada at the moment. Crawford feels it is vital to maintain a healthy balance of the residential within the more commercial projects to help understand people’s needs on a “very intimate level”. She believes people want to feel at home even in public spaces and this belief helps form ideas for her commercial commissions, which currently include a club for the fashion industry in Shanghai, a home for family counselling and post-graduate research in London, and a dessert bar in Copenhagen.
We look at how we can use design to humanise public spaces and create homes or products that enhance our lives
One such project is Refettorio Felix, which opened in June. Working alongside the renowned Modena chef Massimo Bottura and his non-profit organisation Food for Soul, which fights against food waste, Studioilse redesigned St Cuthbert’s community centre in Kensington, London, to create a community kitchen, dining hall and drop-in space. The idea behind Refettorio Felix is to serve meals to the socially vulnerable while creating a bridge between them and the local community. For Crawford, the primary aim of the project is to add beauty to functionality because “beauty is a universal pleasure that is often missing from social projects. It not only brings dignity to the space but also, more pragmatically, makes a space that is welcomed by the community and is attractive to hire after hours by individuals and corporates.”
For the London Design Festival in September, Studioilse exhibited hand-carved furniture made in collaboration with Bosnian company Zanat, which supports local skills. These were shown alongside “Atmospheres”, a series of wallpapers designed for Scandinavian brand Engblad & Co, and an oil lamp for Swedish lighting company Wästberg. Each element embodies Crawford’s strong values of craft and placing human needs at the heart of design. “Atmospheres”, for instance, celebrates man-made marks on wallpaper design. The collection is hand-drawn as Crawford believes that atmosphere is found in imperfections. “We looked at how wallpaper could bring that feeling of imperfection to an interior in a beautiful and accessible way.”
With empathy as the cornerstone of her design philosophy, how exactly does Crawford approach the coldness of technology, of constant connectivity and digitalisation? She admits it has transformed how we work and communicate: “Technology is both something for us to facilitate and, as importantly, to create the possibility to escape from it,” she says.
She brings as an example the Studioilse designs for recent Cathay Pacific lounges, which set out to support the needs of the modern traveller by creating side tables with integrated USB charging points “rather than the usual situation of having to get on your hands and knees to search for a socket”, she says with a smile. Additionally, observing that we tend to sit diagonally rather than front to back when using our digital devices, the team adapted the dimensions of the chairs accordingly to be wide rather than deep.
Technology is both something for us to facilitate and to create the possibility to escape from it
The furniture was then grouped carefully to allow for maximum privacy for individual travellers, while giving the impression of a more social, domestic and non-corporate environment.
“Swivel chairs make sense for privacy,” Crawford says. “The more digital we are, the more we crave the physical. We design with a strong focus on the senses because that’s what we, as primal human beings, crave. After all, we touch our screens all day, but they don’t touch us back!”
Crawford is acutely aware that her primary role as a designer is to respond to new realities, to growing urbanisation, more compact and flexible living. For a recent Ikea project, the studio worked on a collection that can be re-purposed. “Life evolves, so we need spaces and furniture that can evolve along with it,” she says. The pieces fit loosely into categories of work, dining and lounge, without being too prescriptive. So, a cork-topped table functions as a desk and a table, with a handy sling underneath for an iPad or a laptop to be quickly cleared away.
We design with a strong focus on the senses because that's what we, as primal human beings, crave
Elsewhere, Studioilse converted a former garage and laundry into a 40sq m apartment as an Airbnb rental in Milan. Here, too, the focus was firmly reserved for the wellbeing of the guests with budget allocated to the little details. “The bathroom was especially generous with high-quality tiles and fixtures since that is the space where a guest will spend a lot of time,” explains Crawford. “There is a generous dining table with tactile cork top and the linen sofa can be folded out for extra guests.”
Crawford was founding editor of Elle Decoration UK in 1989, where she remained until 1998, and she has authored books including Home Is Where the Heart Is?. Sixteen years ago, she initiated the department of “Man and Wellbeing” at the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven in The Netherlands. As the department’s head, her role is to encourage students to follow processes that put people and human experience at the core of design. “The maxim of the department is a cool head and a warm heart for a more humane society,” she says. “In practice this means understanding how to make materials speak, how to research and develop strong, relevant concepts, how to translate these imaginatively and then how to communicate them in forms of words, film, visuals, models or physical objects.” In other words, she’s nurturing the next generation of Ilse Crawfords.