interview :: ilse crawford (pt 2)

Katie | August 20, 2013

Georg Jensen Ilse Crawford collection

I posted the first part of my interview with British Elle Decoration founding editor, Ilse Crawford almost a year ago. Somewhat belatedly, this is part two, where we talk storytelling, Elle Decoration, and advice for design bloggers…

You talk about design being a three dimensional language. How do storytelling and language differ between your work in magazines like Elle Decoration when you were writing about design, and in actually creating design.

In some ways, they’re quite similar. Obviously the physical process of how you make that real is quite different, but I think narrative is a way that we connect to places, to buildings… I think that the specifics of a particular site, of a particular geography are fascinating to work with – not in a pastiche way; it’s certainly not an artificial story, but I think it’s very interesting to work with what you have and then translate that. In someways I guess with magazines, that’s also what you’re doing. You’re looking at what’s out there and you’re finding the relevant stories, and then communicating.

The other thing of course, whether it’s a book, a magazine or a building, is the idea of democracy… how you can open [buildings] up to different people, how you can have different generations in one building, how you can actually make a building a communicative tool, how you can make them open and sociable as well as intimate. I’m very interested in how you can socially engineer the space so that [buildings] speak to different types of people. That fascinates me, and that’s about how you make people feel comfortable in a space, how they connect with a space. That’s what’s so interesting about doing restaurants and hotels – how you can really orchestrate how people walk through a space, and how they can enjoy a space. It’s almost like theatre or cinema. At Ett Hem in Stockholm for example, I was very pleased to hear that nobody stays in their room and orders room service, which is great, because that was exactly what was intended – that there would be enough corners, that people would feel happy to sit downstairs, whereas in most hotels you feel a bit awkward on your own, because it’s too public.

Chairs facing a table in front of a well-stacked book case

The Royal Festival Hall is a good example of that… the democracy of the space and different people using it for different reasons…

It’s been dealt with very well. I think it’s been programmed incredibly well actually. I talk to a lot of people who run big cultural spaces, who just look at the way the Royal Festival Hall has done it with awe. And it’s such a challenge, because public space is the equivalent of the town square, or the village hall, but it needs to be owned otherwise it’s just bleak and empty. It’s not enough just to do a great big room and think that’s it. For people to inhabit it, it’s a challenge and it’s very much a combination of design and programming – the two have to work hand in hand. What happened with a lot of public buildings is that design and architecture were separated. Architecture did its thing and then it was handed over to the project managers, so the connection, the designers, the people who could animate space, fell down a crack. So you end up with a building, which was perhaps a well conceived building, but then the people who are running it, are people who are running a system, not people who are thinking about how it could be inhabited and used.

I love working with modern architects, so I’m not a critic, but I would say that in my experience, their interest is not actually in how humans inhabit space, their interest is in form and making sense of space, and making space that works, no question. But actually interrogating: “What time does he get up in the morning? Which side of the bed does he sleep on?” so the door needs to be his side of the bed. Forget it! They’re just not interested in that level of inhabitance. But the trouble is, they are the things that make a space liveable or not. It’s quite human stuff that dictates whether people feel comfortable in a space.

White room featuring bed with white bedding, wooden headboard, side table and lamp

The very interesting thing would be if people who work with interiors work with architects from the very beginning rather than being an add-on at the end, which actually is very much seen in the RIBA stages. A lot of the things that I care about [need] a systemic change, so for example, we argue for things like the interior finishes to be locked down very early on. The problem is that if the budget is overspent or cut at the end, the bit that people experience is the bit that gets cut. The whole thing should be looked at together at the beginning. In order to make a building affect you, you also need a systemic change as well as a design change, an aesthetic change.

Tell me about Elle Decoration… I’ve read that when it launched you had a struggle against what the French parent company wanted to do, and the photographers who wanted these sleek, perfect but uninhabited interiors. How did you make it your own and stay true to your vision for it and have the confidence to do that?

A ha! Tenacity I think is probably the word. I mean just never giving up. I had a really great crowd of people around me, there were very few of us initially, six of us in a back room at Elle (one ran away to be a jazz singer in New York!), and we made it happen. It was simply that. I think it was quite good being the runt, because we were, Elle was the glamourous one and we were the runt out the back. They didn’t really want us, but the fact was it was successful. We started off as a supplement, and then it became six-monthly, and then it became bi-monthly, and then it became a magazine, and it was one of those things where they couldn’t work out why it sold.

We really wanted it to be something that communicated to a generation that clearly were not going to be buying Laura Ashley, yet all the magazines out there were “country this” and “country that” and the only magazines addressing modernity were trade specific. To somehow have a warm modernity was very much the ambition from the beginning. Our cover lines were all about “Make your home a pleasure zone” or “Modern and emotional” so we talked about [it] at the very beginning.

Two copies of Elle Decoration magazine

Some might have called us a cult, I would call us a tribe, but either way we were very committed to hanging in there. And the thing is when you have an idea, a really strong idea, that holds it together… I mean our budget was [tiny] but we managed; we unpacked boxes, we built the sets, we begged, borrowed and stole locations…

But there were pretty dreadful moments. I had to go to Paris with every issue before it went to press and I had this guy, who was actually amazing, but put himself in this slightly strange position of being my ‘taste mentor’. He was in his 70s and he would say: “That is good taste, that is very bad taste, that is good taste…” We would try and trick him, so we would put in an apartment that we know was someone he really liked, he would say: “That is very bad taste” and I’d say: “Is it?!”

I became known as the black sheep and that was my role, but the funny thing was that in the end, Elle came to like British Elle Deco. It did take five or six years, because while we had the readership, the British advertisers were not yet ready to embrace that, and it took a while.

Did you enjoy the “black sheep” role? Did you relish it, or did you find it hard?

I think there were probably moments when I relished it, but it was also pretty tough, because you have to make a magazine that works, and keep your team happy and so on. It was probably one of the things that made me think: “One day I’ll run my own business.” It wears pretty thin when you’re delivering sales, when you’re delivering something that works…


Did you ever doubt yourself?

Oh, of course, but not fundamentally. Of course you have days where you think: “Oh my God. Are there really only three people like me that want this?” I never doubted the idea, but what you can never know is the time and volume of something. You just have to take a deep breath and go. But I do think that if something is credible, and has integrity, and is something that really true to a core group of people then it speaks to others.

I’ve never thought that trying to appeal to everyman does, so you have to do what you do incredibly well, and with real passion and real commitment, and I think things develop from there.

What advice would you give to someone in a similar position now? So perhaps somebody writing a design blog, who really believes in what they do? What advice would you give that person in order to make their blog as successful as… Elle Decoration?!

Stay true to yourself, because I think that’s what we find so compelling about others. If you look at the great speeches, they’re never “on the one hand, one the other hand” they’re people who speak in a very clear distinct way, and from their heart – that’s what communicates. If you’re not convinced by what you’re talking about, others won’t be either, if you are, people will gather around you. You only need to think of a restaurant. If you know a guy behind the kitchen with shining eyes and a passion, for sure, everyone will be there. Whereas if you’ve got somebody who’s desperately trying to appeal to everyone, it won’t work. You have to be distinct and credible and talk from the heart and then it will work.

In many ways I think a blog is so much more interesting than a magazine. I mean, I love magazines, but they’re now a very different animal. I think you’ve got the ultimate communication tool at your finger tips!

From top; stormy clouds, white sun loungers, turquoise pool

With thanks to Magnus Marding for the photo of Ett Hem, Martyn Thompson for the photo of the Soho House rooftop pool, and Janis Greig at Studio Ilse for all her help in compiling the photos.

Further reading for the especially geeky:

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Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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