M A G A Z I N E
It’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday in Singapore and Helena Clunies-Ross has just wrapped up a day of work. As the design director of Anouska Hempel Design, the London-based creative is planning to bring back the boutique element to a soon-to-be-launched hotel. She counts travel as a major part of her role, taking inspiration from each locale’s culture and history.
With more than a decade of experience in high-end design, Clunies-Ross has recently also launched her own firm, specializing in luxury residential and commercial design. For her debut project, she’ll be in New York working with Robert Kaliner from Ascend Group, on a gut renovation of a Greenwich Village townhouse.
AVENUE chatted with Clunies-Ross on starting her new venture, the importance good lighting and the household items she can’t live without.
How did you get into the world of interior design?
I was always very passionate about art, design, drawing and painting, so I just followed my heart. As a kid growing up in the New Forest in the south of England, I used to love rearranging furniture and always had the instinct to be a homemaker. I studied art and art history for my B.A. at the University of Surrey and after finishing my degree, I thought what am I going to do with my life? I got a job in real estate and it wasn’t until I was looking into property, that I was really drawn to design and knew I had to design buildings. After three years of working in real estate, I went on to complete an M.A in interior design at Chelsea College of Art and Design, and began working for a number of design companies, from commercial hotels to residential. Then, seven years ago, I applied to Anouska Hempel Design and worked my way up.
Tell us about your new firm.
It specializes in high-end residential properties—hotels, bars, and restaurants. It’s about creating romantic spaces. I love doing hotels because it’s like you’re setting up a stage for people to perform. Creating a vision, sketching it and suddenly, you’re watching people in that space. That’s the most exciting part of what I do.
How do you start off each design process?
The first step is visiting the site to get a real feel for the building and space. I meet with clients to understand their requirements and needs. Then, it’s a lot of hand sketching of the layout. It always starts with a pen and paper. We initially go off-site and then sketch a 3D digital version of the space and it will evolve. It’s then shown to the client to approve or to develop with them. That’s something I feel is lost a lot now in the design world. People are becoming very future-oriented and you lose that level of sensitivity and development with a client. The initial stage is important to help them be part of the process.
What is your studio’s debut project?
HCR Studio’s debut project is in New York with Robert Kaliner from Ascend Group. It’s a brownstone gut-renovation in a 22-foot-wide, 19th century Greenwich Village townhouse on 137 West 13th Street, on a landmark block. We are creating a new basement and adding another floor on the top. It’s one of the last remaining Greek Revival homes built in 1845. Robert has done a lot of similar Greenwich Village properties. It’s a wonderful project—what we’re really trying to do with the space is to open it up as much as possible. I see the design as clean lines, layered with beautiful lighting and furniture. Lighting is the key element. When you walk through the front door, you look through the hallway, which leads to the kitchen, then to the balcony where you have a canopy of trees and a burning fireplace at the back. I want your sight line to continue until it can go no further. That’s really important in my design and what I want to create in this property—to channel your vision through.
How would you describe your style and how has it evolved?
I love the simplicity of clean lines and the ability to layer works of art, furniture, and clever lighting. To me, it’s about taking a space and giving it the warmth and ability to create a place that people want to inhabit. It also depends on the building—some will scream out to you to do something different and some will want you to retain its original features and work with their beauty. You can mix bespoke pieces of furniture with antiques from Christie’s or Sotheby’s or flea markets.
Which designers inspire you the most and why?
Anouska Hempel, of course. Before I took the job with her, I was in awe of her designs and what she does. Having been so fortunate as to be made design director and to have learnt so much from her, I think she is one of the most incredible designers—for her energy, aesthetic and vision. She’s one of my biggest influences and someone I have the most respect for. I also love the works of the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. He has an incredible use of light and space.
What’s the most exciting and challenging part of your position?
The most exciting part is traveling, seeing new spaces and learning about other cultures. The most challenging part—especially when you’re designing a hotel—would be to satisfy everybody’s requirements and expectations, from the clients to the operations to the owner and the general public using the space.
What are some household items you cannot live without?
Lamps. I can’t bear overhead lighting. It’s important for some spaces to have functional lighting, but when I’m creating a home to live in, I can’t relax until I have beautifully ambient-lit spaces. A candle is another item I can’t live without and I love to travel with black lacquer Japanese trays—they’re about 6 by 12 inches. You can put your toiletries, passport or books in them and it just keeps everything looking lovely and neat. I travel with about six of these trays in my luggage.
What would be your dream project?
I would love to do a hotel in New York and bring back the glamour days of Art Deco. The era combines exotic styles from all over the world, from Japan to Persia—it’s a very united, homogenous design with a high level of craftsmanship.
What do you enjoy most about your position?
I enjoy creating the dream you have in your head and actually realizing it and seeing it occupy a space. For example, I’m in Singapore now, in a hotel room that we created from nowhere. That’s one of the most incredible feelings—you designed it, you spent time drawing it, you worked on the plan and all of the sudden, you’re sitting on the furniture. To me, that’s something incredible.