The Human Dimension

Ilse Crawford’s brand of immersive empathy results in rooms of uncommon warmth, tactility, and grace.

Ilse Crawford is presiding over a tray of brownies poked through with candles. As she balances both the plate and a crutch, “Happy Birthday” is being sung to one of her assistants. Recently, at a building site in Tbilisi, Georgia, Crawford fell on slick pink tiles. The crutch is electric blue and was sent to her by a client in Berlin who runs an artificial-limb factory. She laughs now and says in a fake
accent that she’s “learning to valk in zie German fashion.” Her staff presses around, and she hobbles, demonstrating the Teutonic way (using the leg, so it doesn’t atrophy).

Located upstairs from her southeast London apartment, Crawford’s studio is lined with models from various projects that are stacked almost haphazardly atop books. Polypropylene drawers offer tantalizing hints of the material samples inside them, and along the wall, magazines balance on a slim lip barely as wide as their spines (they’re held in place by elastic—an ingenious solution of the kind you might find on a boat).

Architects, interior designers, and graphic designers are all bubbling around her. When she’s finally persuaded to sit and put her leg up, I begin to see her office for the first time—not the magazines or models or mood boards. No, the room is full of women. It’s rare to find a design firm that practices everything from product design and architecture to interiors and corporate consulting that’s run by a woman and also largely staffed by women. Currently, there are 19 of them, along with three men, and all 22 are now partaking of brownies.

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Crawford believes in food; meetings at the firm always include it, and as soon as I arrive, a bowl of cookies is slid next to my elbow. She’ll say things like, “Universally, people are attracted to food,” and, “Inviting people to eat around the table, it’s very different from a conference table. It’s not confrontational. The minute you bring food out, everybody relaxes.” For Crawford, food facilitates social engagement; it’s as powerful a design tool as the furniture in her spaces.

Writing for the Financial Times, Tyler Brûlé called her most recent hotel project, the intimate 12-room Ett Hem in Stockholm, a work of “social engineering.” Guests are invited to hang out in a communal kitchen that calls to mind a splendid version of a family home. Meals are served at a long wooden table, in a space casual enough to encourage people to relax. This isn’t a formal dining room with guests at isolated tables, but one with everyone joined together so they’ll talk and linger. Even the chefs are involved, creating a sense of intimacy.

Crawford—whom everyone calls Ilse—is tall and statuesque. The broad planes of her cheeks bear a hint of freckles. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She wears subtle pearl earrings and conceals her navy-blue knee brace in opaque black tights. She heads the eponymous Studioilse, the culmination of her varied career—editing a magazine, running Donna Karan Home, and creating Soho House’s brand for owner Nick Jones in the late 1990s were all steps along the way. At a time when Ian Schrager was ascendant and London was still eager for its first Starck-designed hotel, she created Dinder House, which looked almost undesigned. The furnishings didn’t match; there was a mix of old and new—antler chandeliers, wing chairs, fat padded sofas, and beds with feet, claws, paws, and curlicues. The vibe was meant to feel, Crawford says, “Like a country house where the grownups had gone away for the weekend, and left the keys to the drinks cabinet.”

At university, Crawford studied history and dreamed of becoming an architect. She never did, but in 1989, when she was only 27, Crawford forever changed shelter magazines when she launched Elle Decoration in London. It featured photographs that had blurred people moving through them. Bedrooms had rumpled sheets, rooms were layered with stuff, the things of real life. That sense of layers and life reappears in her projects. They all share an artful clutter, like her own home, or the mood boards collaged onto the bedroom walls of New York City’s Soho House. It’s the design equivalent of comfort food, and it’s popular not simply because we’re living in a time of deep unease. In this era of isolation, when the Internet and social networks draw us to screens and to virtual interactions, her spaces literally bring people together.

Nothing in her work reads as “design” or even as “contemporary.” Ett Hem’s kitchen, with its long refectory table and marble counters, looks like the setting for a Van Eyck painting. In the restaurant of the Olde Bell, a coaching inn in Berkshire, outside of London, blankets have been draped over the backs of benches and secured in place with leather belts; it comes off as downright Tudor, as if Thomas Cromwell might soon appear. Crawford’s Seating for Eating collection for De La Espada looks like it was designed by Shakers, and her recent series of bowls and vases for Georg Jensen is elegant and simple. “You could say they’re just bowls for your rings and keys,” she says, laughing. “But, to me, they’re not.”

Crawford is downstairs at her dining room table. Shelves layered with books and tear sheets and photos run the length of the space, giving it the look of a 3-D collage. Another wall is entirely gray, with doors whose handles are hard to find. Crawford says that someone recently tried to exit through the refrigerator, a mistake I nearly make too. Somehow that minimalist trick of hiding everything from the fridge to the front door doesn’t fit her style, not in a space like this one. One window ledge is full of glassware: beakers, vases, candlesticks, and carafes. There’s even a wine bottle that doubles as a bust; it’s bearded and looks like Karl Marx or a nineteenth-century Russian novelist, though the bottle also seems like an apt metaphor for her: revolutionary theory in a palatable form, maybe a nice Bordeaux.

She talks about how the Jensen collection fits the Danish value of hygge. The word doesn’t have an English counterpart. The closest you could get would be a compound noun, something like “home-family-warmth-comfort-and-the-private-sphere.” “That whole notion of hygge”—pronounced “hu-gah” or even “hew-ga”—“is something I’m fascinated by,” says Crawford. She looks at the wall of books searching for a word. “My mother was Danish, and the sense of being together against the elements and making those small things matter is integral to daily life for the Danish.” In creating the Jensen collection, she explains, “We thought about little things, like where you shed the things that matter so you can find them the next morning. I liked the idea that these rituals could add meaning and shape to ordinary actions.” In a video for Vogue Living, she talked about the bowls and the sound the lids make, and how one’s finger fits in their handles. Both elements are simple enough to seem unnoticeable. Crawford masters the fine details that might not look life changing, but are comforting. They are hygge.

When the bowls and vases were released this spring, Georg Jensen decided that Crawford’s “ordinary” is extraordinary. The company included one of her signature items in its Masterpiece collection and will make it available in hand-hammered sterling silver. It is the first piece that Jensen has chosen as a masterpiece in over 15 years—and the first by a woman. Just as hygge connects Crawford to her mother, so too does the object Jensen chose: the Mama vase.

The emotional, comforting aspects of Crawford’s work can seem at odds with other parts of her career. She is head of the Man and Well-Being department at the Design Academy Eindhoven, a school renowned for conceptual work. She sets topics for her students, ones like mortality, money, food, or water, and their resulting projects, like Massoud Hassani’s dandelion-looking minesweeper, have won awards and been collected by SFMOMA. She’s curated exhibits examining the water crisis, and she was the initial creative director of Swarovski’s Crystal Palace project, picking designers like Hella Jongerius and the Campana Brothers. During her tenure with Swarovski, Studio Job used the chandelier as an essay on war, and Vincent van Duysen created a fixture that, as Crawford puts it, “deconstructed into a torrent.” As a designer, she is not radical or conceptual—though she will sometimes call chairs “a product for control,” talking about them as Foucault might about prisons. (“The chair flourished,” she explains, “because of schools and boardrooms, and obviously its legacy is Louis XIV, who didn’t give people enough chairs.”) Before we met, Crawford e-mailed from Stockholm, comparing hotels to prisons, isolating and rule-bound: “It’s just that the key is on the other side of the door.”

This is what she set out to avoid with Ett Hem, creating instead a place where guests wouldn’t be locked away, but encouraged to gather. Even the process of designing the hotel was largely social. “Ilse spent hours,” says Jeannette Mix, the hotel’s owner. “There were dinners and lunches. I took her to places that mean a lot to me. There was getting to know me and my kids—and more eating together.” Mix discovered Crawford after eating in a restaurant the designer had created for the chef Mathias Dahlgren at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel.

Crawford describes her process at Ett Hem as a kind of empathetic reverse engineering, a bit like method acting, where she considered everything from the guest’s point of view. “I work to be in the mind of the person using the hotel, to see everything from the perspective of the guest’s moods and needs,” she says. “In shaping rooms, we think of them as a series of specific places for different feelings and try to see or hear a space to really create what people feel in it.”

The kitchen is meant to be a place where people hang out at all hours. “Like the way,” she says, “you end up in the kitchen at a party at 2 a.m.” Getting the room to feel that welcoming wasn’t easy. Yes, the bench and table get people to want to sit, but the kitchen came with health concerns that conflicted with Crawford’s vision. She wanted a fridge that guests could use, so the space would feel like their own, but Swedish regulations forbade them from sharing one with the staff. “We needed two,” she explains, “but it had to look normal.” Snacks are left out for guests. Crawford says, “It’s not the warm Coke you find on a plane, but nuts and dried fruit, water and cakes and wine. It’s supposed to feel like home, or”—she corrects herself—“how you’d feel, not necessarily in your own home, but your ideal one. To achieve that, it’s the very small things that matter.”

Crawford recently returned from what she calls her “final fix” at Ett Hem. Mix describes the process as “rearranging rooms, moving chairs, taking things out, and bringing in sheepskins, making it more tactile.” It included creating a 100-page manual on everything from toilet-paper placement to how to serve breakfast. Crawford’s goal is to make something that engenders sociability, but to achieve that, she considers every detail—even the personnel. Over lunch in her studio, she says, “I remember one project where the owner got the wrong staff, and they started doing the heel clicking.
It’s depressing seeing something unravel so fast because it’s run inappropriately. There was another project where we imagined a more sociable space, and it just turned into a normal restaurant.”

“There’s a Dutch word that doesn’t really exist in English that means ‘environmental awareness’: an awareness of the people who are here, of where I am, and of the people around me” says Anne Mieke Eggenkamp, director of the Design Academy Eindhoven. “This is what Ilse does. She creates situations and environments for people.” MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli, says, “Ilse’s approach isn’t about how a space looks, but how you feel when you’re in it. The radical part of her work is the humanity that’s at the core of it.”

At a lacquered red table in the back of her studio, Crawford takes a bite of her avocado-and-toast sandwich, and says, “If you look at the big cultural shifts, there was the printing press, and the industrial era, and now there’s the communications era. All the spaces we have are really for that industrial era. They’re about control. They’re about faster, cheaper, newer, more. They’re about the individual and what you can get out of them.” She pauses, focusing on a view of Renzo Piano’s Shard rising sharp and jagged over London Bridge. “The spaces that work now let us connect one-on-one. The town square is a more interesting paradigm. You create a frame and let people get on with it. Design, whether it’s a building or object, should be something that brings people together.”

Crawford grew up outside London in a rambling home “with very little furniture.” “It was big and derelict and wide-open for fantasy, with table tennis in one room and space hoppers in another,” she says. “You were completely free. There was the overgrown, tangled garden, and it sounds more romantic than it was, but it wasn’t a you-go-up-to-your-bedroom kind of place at all.” Her mother was a musician and her father an economist for London’s Sunday Times. Their home had an open-door policy. “There was always food and room on the bench,” she says. “I came to see that buildings could be vessels for hospitality.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, and perhaps it was, at least until Crawford was 11 years old. She was accepted to a state grammar school that was too far for commuting, so she moved into a bed and breakfast. She’ll say school “saved” her, but she was lonely. Then her mother fell ill and Crawford wasn’t just pulled between home and hotel, but also to the hospital as her mother died of cancer. When Crawford talks of hotels as prisons, you get the sense that she knows of what she speaks, and when she describes how they should be—a place along the lines of Ett Hem, whose name literally means “the home”—they sound like versions of her childhood home. She was never able to study architecture because she had to stay near home to help out with her younger siblings. Now her past, that longing for home and architecture, seems an indelible part of her work.

Her biggest project yet is in Tbilisi, where she tore her ligament. There, she is working not on a small structure or restaurant, but on three buildings occupying a city-block-long site. The studio is currently creating a master plan: looking at the infrastructure and the buildings’ intended uses, searching for ways they can build community. Craw-ford and three other designers discuss the project around the red-gloss table. More cookies are brought, plus nuts and raisins. Plans are unfurled and laptops turned around to display project images. The project is situated near the university and along a busy road, and it’s freighted with national goals. The owner, Temur Ugulava, is in the process of opening a thousand hotel rooms across the country of Georgia, and he wants this to be a calling card, to get expats to return, to entice people from Azerbaijan to come and gamble, and to house the country’s burgeoning fashion and film industries.

Crawford flips through photos of the site. Once a printing plant, the building has abandoned presses and blown-out windows, and stray posters of puppies and pinups are stuck to the walls—which are Soviet institutional green, something that would play well in London, but not in Georgia, not yet. “It’s too early to start being ironic about the past,” she explains.

One building will house a hotel, another a conference center, and the third a food hall and a proposed basement casino. But the element that most interests Crawford is the food hall. It will connect the project with the community, drawing people in so the buildings aren’t isolated. Food will allow it to be a hub, a sort of Brooklyn Flea for Tbilisi. The team reviews everything from the entrance (as far from the casino as possible), to the “chicken huts” (shacks you rent for the night, for eating chicken and drinking Georgian wine). The group debates whether to have one retailer curate the space or to have individual stalls. Everyone opts for stalls—they’re less likely to go wrong, more likely to spark new businesses and create community. A single retailer might fail, or not bolster the project, or pick the wrong foods.

After the meeting, Crawford talks about how design is not just sensual—an adjective you might expect her to use; she’s written a book called Sensual Home—but emotional. “People see it only as a commodity, though,” she says, “whether it’s an object or a space. But design produces feelings, whether it’s a poorly designed doc-tor’s office or these buildings in Tbilisi.” Crawford is fond of saying “Design should be smelled, heard, and felt.” She means that you cannot divorce it from the human component, from how people experience it. She speaks again about Tbilisi and says, “This project is about representing Georgia to the rest of the world and building confidence.” For Crawford, the food hall is key: “Georgians love their food. It’s the last thing to be sacrificed if money is tight. It’s got all that identity bound up with it. It can serve as a gift; it can be for visitors,” she says. “In every village and town across the world, it fills the black hole. I’m sure about that.”

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