School Of Life: A Day Of Good Design with Ilse Crawford

“One  of the basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves, however temporarily, with a place on the planet which belongs to us and to which we belong. This is not, especially in the tumultuous present, an easy act, and it requires help: we need allies in inhabitation.”

Charles Moore, School of Architecture, UCLA

The early morning sun is bursting through the expansive lead panelled windows, setting off a glorious chiaroscuro between the steam of freshly brewed coffee snaking its way up from the white porcelain mugs to the receding and moody charcoal walls. The open plan living space has a fine balance between light and dark, function and decadence, spontaneity and ceremony, and is both resonant and unfussy without it being contradictory: glassware by Ingegerd Raman nestles snugly amongst market finds; the ornate lattice of a Ted Muehling tea strainer sitting atop a self-denying and purist white mug; hundreds of distinguished reference books standing second place behind keepsakes, letters of thanks, gallery invites, spools of thread, tear sheets and other tokens of remembrance. Beyond everything, you can call it a ‘human’ space, – a word its resident owner, the legendary interior designer Ilse Crawford, has come to base her whole works ethic upon.

Having launched British Elle Decoration in 1989, Ilse paved the way for such bright young designers such as Tom Dixon, Nigel Coates and Neisha Crosland. Her outlook was very different to what had come before. She banished pristine set-ups, embraced personal clutter and consciously made a point of introducing people and blurry movement into her magazine spreads. “I was obsessed with the idea that it had to be relevant to people’s lives and ‘alive’, essentially – it couldn’t just be about shopping.” Ilse continued in this vein when she founded her trail-blazing brand identity company Studioilse, who’s peerless portfolio includes Cecconi’s, Soho House New York, the Electric cinema, The Olde Bell coaching Inn, High Road House in Chiswick, Kettner’s of Soho, Rapier’s Battleship Building and the inimitable Babington House in Somerset. Her recent forays into the literary world have produced two very succinct modern bibles for creating living spaces with ‘The sensual home’ and ‘Home is where the heart is’. Both assert a philosophical approach in asking questions in seeking the emotional needs before tackling the design side of a space, in other words, – not what colour or style of chair we think we’d like, but to assess whether you prefer to sit, perch, recline etc., in order to determine if it will enhance or hinder your life. It begs the question, – ‘How can we make a home that will bring out the best in us?’ Ilse claims, that “if we are aware of our human needs, of the desires that lie behind our desires, we can make the right choices. We can make decisions that bring us balance and pleasure. And we can avoid the things that do us harm.” It also comes very much down to how we source materials. “We can reexamine the way we shop. Buying at full retail price from established brands is dull and only shows how gullible and conformist we are. We are seduced into showing off. But nothing is solid. Our newfound happiness melts into air. The more we have the more we need, even if much of it we never use. We need to become more material, to engage with stuff in a more tangible way. To commission pieces, make them ourselves, repair more, borrow more, buy second hand, buy local. This connects us to others, to how things are made, to our roots. And we can benefit the collective good. For instance, we can spend more on things we know have been made well. (And avoid the stuff that has hidden human and ecological costs. The lower the price the more likely that the product has been manufactured irresponsibly.) For this is not just about us as individuals: we are part of something bigger, and gradually the small changes add up. We can do things that make a difference as well as improve our state of mind.”  Influenced from a very early age by the way her mother made everything into a creative proceeding, Ilse makes her point in saying that “we grew up knowing that you could create your world and lack of money was no obstacle to imagination.”

Today Ilse resides in her Borough 2-storey loft apartment with her Columbian husband Oscar Pena Angarita. Carefully planned with the Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen to harmonize his obstinate minimalism with her hodgepodge of artifacts, the upper layer doubles up as her office, offering a 3-way panorama of London. “We have the sky, which gives infinity, and also the detail of the constant life of the dynamic city of London. It’s an urban landscape, and I love the messiness of the buildings around, with lots of roofs of completely different characters; we can see the big wheel, too, as well as fat pigeons strutting their stuff.” She reiterates the importance of views with big skies and greenscapes with the age-old example of hospital recovery rates aided by pleasant views, saying that really it’s just common sense. With each new project, Ilse’s core team of about 10-12 people first analyze the context to get a background knowledge of the area, to find a core character and a receptiveness and responsiveness of a place. (this also helps when sourcing local tradesmen and materials in the latter stages) Then they look at the site and the confines of the space. Next they analyze the behaviour and needs of the people using the site and lastly, is finalizing everything with the client and finding the balance between the technical and creative elements. This final developmental stage always proves to be the hardest of all, like too many chefs standing around one simmering pot. Many people come to Studioilse asking for Babington House or Soho House New York and find that they have to turn them away, as different spaces require different needs, -“there’s no soul in a place that’s been copied and pasted.” Ilse goes on by saying that many clients in fact have little understanding of design and think that saving money and cutting corners is a job well done. It’s always a battle of sorts, but through needs and practicality it’s the process to find that best result that is the ultimate reward.

Ilse then takes it upon herself to show us a few of her favoured, inspirational corners of London. First stop is the Urban Physics Garden just a stone’s throw from her front door. This space on Union Street is mutated every year to a different theme with a common thesis of thinking ‘outside the box’. Last year there was an urban orchard, and this year sees the transformation into a physics garden where all the plants are concerned with botany, medicine and healing. Still very much a work in progress, the organisers invite volunteers to help with the garden and also encourage lectures, workshops, film screenings and for artists to use the space as a platform. The space enchantingly employs its bedraggled surroundings to its advantage, with the Dickensian, grime-encrusted arches beneath the train-tracks forming a proscenium for the shelves of plants below. It just goes to show that with even a little imagination and sincerity you can bring out the beauty in any space.

Next stop is the Medicine Man installation at the Wellcome Collection. This permanent exhibition displays up to 500 pieces of Sir Henry Wellcome’s extraordinary accumulation of medicinal curiosities that range from amputation saws, prosthetics, obstetrical forceps, amulets, phrenological skulls and models for anatomical demonstration. Highlights include a lock of George III’s hair, (which was found to have traces of arsenic, a common 18th century treatment for madness) Nelson’s razor, Napoleon’s toothbrush, Darwin’s walking stick, Florence Nightingale’s moccasins, the guillotine blade appointed in the beheading of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, (a French Revolutionary, made famous for his unforgiving cruelty against his enemies) 19th century Japanese sex aids, a scold’s bridle, a Chinese torture chair, an iron chastity belt, a 14th century Peruvian Mummy and a 16th century copy of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’. Head curator, Dr Steve Cross says, “Spending time with Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection has been a revelation. It’s strange to think that as well as building up one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies from scratch, he had time to organize archaeological digs and run an army of collectors and curators scouring the world for interesting objects. I don’t think that even Henry realized that within the dusty storerooms where he kept his collection, much of it unopened, lay one of the world’s great museums, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.” The space was deigned by Gitta Geschwendtner as a huge ‘wunderkammer’ with two separate entrances where visitors are invited to interact with the exhibition by opening drawers and panels in order to feed their own curiosity and sense of discovery. Gitta is here with us on hand to explain that her brief was not to overwhelm visitors but to entice them to explore further should they want, adding that “I wanted to evoke the general mood of a dark and moody Victorian study with walnut and dark finishes, which as they acquire patina will only add to the effect.” The rest of the Wellcome Trust collection is currently stored away at Blythe House in West Kensington.

We end our day by taking a look at an example of Studioilse design in Dennis Paphitis’ Aesop shop space in Mount Street, Mayfair. Ilse is both good friend to Dennis (“a brilliant man with total integrity”) and staunch believer in the Aesop brand, – “like good coffee, once you’ve discovered them you can’t go back.” Like his other shops around the globe, this one has an understated fascia, mixing a vintage colour palette with natural materials, helping it retain both a concurrent and enduring aura. Aesop is known to many as a ‘dog whistle brand’, appreciable to those in the know, and Ilse claims that Dennis very much believes in not overdressing a product that can stand up by itself, when in fact there are more pressing urgencies in life, as sitting with friends and enjoying a good cheese and wine. This is something that I think most of us would agree upon.

To cut a long story short, Ilse points us in a direction that we already know we should be following, – to create a liveable space with a frame that’s tolerant, alive and makes us feel invigorated and enhanced, not miserable and entrenched, so that ultimately we can just get on with life and enjoy it.


As this marks a sad but possibly not definite end to my School of Life stories, I would like to personally offer my ingratiating and heartfelt thanks to Harriet Warden, Clemmy Balfour, Caroline Brimmer and the rest of the School of Life team for all their amazing efforts. I, for one, feel my eyes have been opened just that fraction more and feel very grateful for it.



About londoninsight

A compassionate photographer working to better her understanding of her town, her village, London.
This entry was posted in Alternative Living, Art, Boutiques, Design, Environmental issues, Gardening, Guerilla activity, Interesting Women, Interiors, Medicine, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to School Of Life: A Day Of Good Design with Ilse Crawford

  1. Wonderful writing and photos. A feast

  2. Suzan says:

    Truly inspiring this one Stephanie! It tackles my ongoing saga; where’s home: Holland or London?….Just back form a last minute trip to London and I feel completely recharged again; finally realising that I now have two homes and feeling very grateful for that.Thank you for capturing the uique London spirit – it feeds me.
    Hope to see you in London on my next visit. Much love, Suzan

  3. Hello Stephanie,
    While doing research for one of my projects, I stumbled upon your beautiful blog.
    I appear in one of the pictures at the Urban Physics Garden sitting right next to Ilse Crawford.
    I was wondering if you would let me use this picture in my own blog.
    Thank you very much in advance.

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