A Creationist

At a time when buildings are increasingly being designed for profit and efficiency rather than human happiness, Ilse Crawford stresses the need for a more humanist approach to architecture and interior design and one which places well-being at the top of the priority list, writes Stacey Sheppard.

Creative Director of Studioilse and Head of the Department of Man and Well-Being at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Ilse Crawford has had an interesting and varied journey to get to where she is today. Having been unable to study architecture, Crawford opted for journalism working on The Architect’s Journal and Condé Nast’s World of Interiors before launching the UK lifestyle magazine Elle Decoration, which has gone on to become an international decorating bible.

From there, Crawford took a job as Vice President of Donna Karan Home before returning to London to open her own design studio.

For Crawford, the combination of careers she’s had, has greatly influenced the work that she does today. “Journalism and magazines taught me how to communicate, working in product development I learnt how to make things commercially, and education taught me how to understand the person in front of me and draw out the best of them,” she says. However, her interest in architecture and how to bring buildings to life has always been present.

“It is something that I discovered as a youngster, because my mother was very keen on derelict buildings and we lived in a rather rambling house with very little furniture, but a lot of freedom. We had a huge table so that any number could join us. One of the main rooms was dedicated to table tennis and we were encouraged to create adventures, picnics, parties and games, just so long as they cost next to nothing! I saw how the way we occupied the house attracted others, old and young.”

But it was when working on Elle Decoration that Crawford really found her niche and she began researching what makes the spaces we live in inhabitable. “When editing Elle Deco, I calculated I must have seen four or five thousand houses over the years. Very few of them, especially the ones that looked good in images, felt good,” she says.

And this has become a major factor of Crawford’s work in interiors today as she strives to create inhabitable spaces that address our basic human needs and act as a platform for social connections. She says: “One aspect of what we do is to understand the person or people that are going to inhabit the space, the reality of who they are, what they do, what matters to them and their relationships with each other.”

Crawford’s modern and emotional approach to design places the human being at the centre of everything that her studio does, whether that be product design, furniture, interiors or architecture. “The single human being and his embodied experience is the basic unit of our thinking,” she explains. “My interest is in how to make places that enhance our humanity, express our humanity and address our humanity.”

A term that Crawford has coined to describe what she creates is ‘a frame for life’. Explaining exactly what this means, she says: “Understanding the life that will be lived in a place and creating a framework that will enhance, accentuate and enable it without fixing or imposing what goes on inside the frame.”

But whilst the human perspective is an integral part of Crawford’s design philosophy, when it comes to designing a building and its interior, she also takes her inspiration from the building itself. By using the history and story of the building, and the life it once had, Crawford is able to find a way of giving it back its soul and magic.

“Context is always important,” she says. “We do a lot of renovations and in those cases I look at buildings as archaeology, and at what we do as a continuity, another layer on the way to the future. So I like to understand the essence of a building, how it has been used over the years and its essential character, which is partly physical and partly metaphysical. All buildings have a psyche and a soul. When it comes to modern buildings it is the neighbourhood and its essential character, the street, and its place in the fabric of the area that counts.”

A fundamental part of designing a great building though, according to Crawford, is ensuring that the architecture and the interior are integrated from the beginning. “Inside buildings is where we live. It is the core of the building. However, very often in the current system the interiors happen as an afterthought. Ideally the predesign, the concept should address both. Systemically, because interiors are seen as the last layer, often when money and time have run out, they are thin and unconvincing. Worse still, they are seen as styling, or a way to ‘fix’ the building when the brief has not been properly thought through.”

This approach, whereby interior design is seen more as something ambitious or supplementary, is completely different to the attitude that is taken in Scandinavia, where design is more embedded in life. Crawford’s Scandinavian roots – her mother was from Denmark – predisposed her to view interior design from a more human perspective, one which the English language lacks even the vocabulary to explain.

“There are so many words in the Scandinavian language that refer to how we live that simply don’t exist in English,” says Crawford citing ‘besjala’, which means to animate or put soul into a building and ‘Hygge’, which can be roughly translated as well-being. She believes that well-being is a word that has lost its value since 1944, when Franklin D Roosevelt, then President of the United States, cited the “new goals of human happiness and well-being” as core to his proposed Second Bill of Rights.

Crawford questions how cities came to be designed for pride, profit and efficiency, but rarely for human happiness and asks why so many of the spaces we occupy are designed more for the way they look than the way they accentuate and amplify our humanity. One of her proudest achievements throughout her career is the fact that she started a design department that brings together the way things look with the way they affect us as human beings.

But Crawford would like to take this philosophy further and use it to benefit more people, including those in difficult situations. “I am very interested in mental health and hospitals and have quite some experience of both. My mother was in and out of cancer wards and my sister is schizophrenic. There is a lot that can be done in both areas in design with a humanistic point of view.”

If only all designers thought a little more like Crawford, the world would be a better (-designed) place.