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Interior Designer, Ana Engelhorn of Ana Engelhorn Interior Design reveals how her interest in interior design evolved into a professional career after starting her journey with a background in business administration and hospitality. Now running her own design practice, she shares her thoughts on the challenges the industry faces when it comes to perception – and Pinterest!

Can you describe your current job?

I run an interior design studio in London, working on residential and commercial projects across the UK and Europe. Taking a ‘perfectly imperfect’ approach, we celebrate imperfections found in natural building materials, antiques or pieces of furniture, mixing old with new pieces to create a fresh, timeless look. We also love introducing art and colour into our clients’ interiors.

What is your background and how did you get into interior design?

I grew up in Switzerland but with a Spanish mother and German father, I was influenced by many different cultures. My parents bought distinctive properties and turned them into hotels and restaurants, so I always surrounded by beautiful, unique interiors. Watching these transformations unfold, I valued, above everything else, the authenticity that came through. My father has always been very traditional style-wise. If something was originally designed or made to be in a certain style, he wanted it to remain that. Therefore, if previous owners had modernised a building, he restored it, returning it to its origins. One of the hotels they bought and redid had no heating, so in winter the pipes have to be drained (so they didn’t freeze) and the hotel closed – he really took ‘original features’ to the extreme!

I knew I wanted to run a business but wasn’t sure what, so I initially studied Business Administration and worked in hospitality. However, I was buying and refurbishing and redecorating houses on the side, even gaining critical acclaim in the industry for some of the work I did. Therefore, when I became pregnant with my second child, it felt like the right time to go back to school to become an interior designer and turn my passion into my profession.

Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of living room interior with pink sofa
Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of dining room interior with fireplace

Describe an average day in your job role..

My days constantly change depending on the projects I have on and the people I am working with. Interior design involves a lot of admin, but if you run your own business, there is even more. With a background in business administration, however, I actually enjoy looking after all aspects of the business, ensuring that what I am doing benefits the whole.

Which elements of your profession do you enjoy the most and/or find the most rewarding?

I love the process of discovery I go through with clients. It starts from the moment we meet, form impressions, create a rapport and go through their brief. For me, it’s important to make a real connection with clients and to be honest and open – keeping open lines of communication. I then go away and create an interior design that brings their vision to life. I live for that magic moment where I’ve presented my design to the client and (if all goes to plan!) I can see that I have understood what they want. That amazing feeling I get when they love how I’ve designed their space is what makes my job so rewarding!

Is there anything new you are excited to be working on?

I have a full house renovation planned in Chiswick. It is very exciting as it is my first full house project in the UK (the others have been mostly in Spain). The CDM, Fire and Environmental steps you have to take here are much more involved than where I’ve worked before, and it’s a great learning experience for me. I’ve realised I don’t always need to be the expert. It’s led me to work with some very talented people who have enriched my knowledge in a way I had never imagined.

Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of bedroom interior

What do you find the most challenging aspects of your job?

The most challenging aspect for me has been to make myself known in the UK, getting the word of mouth recommendations rolling here. Even though I work as an interior designer internationally, I am interested in having clients close to home too – my dream project would be a period building in London. I sometimes find it hard to go out and actively draw a specific client towards me, instead of waiting for them to find me.

What do you wish you knew before working in the field?

I believe we are who we are because of our experiences, so I hesitate whenever I’m asked what I wish I had known. It probably would have been ideal to study interior design at the innocent age of 19 at University, doing the full 4 years and then have the opportunity to cut my teeth at an interior design studio before launching my own. However, that would have meant I wouldn’t have studied Business Administration or worked in hospitality; running a restaurant and working at a hotel, and I wouldn’t want to have missed that. I think it has shaped what I’m doing now in a positive way.

What would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?

Choose what you want to do and stick to it, regardless of what other people think. It’s best to pave your own way and make your own mistakes rather than listening to others and regretting lost time because of it.

What has been your favourite project to work on?

A 16th century farmhouse in Spain. It was a project where we reused everything we could, bringing the house back to its origins. All new materials that were brought in were natural building materials. The project took two years in total – it was slow going, but an enriching and satisfying project.

Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of antique chair
Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of fireplace

What do you think is the biggest problem the interior design industry faces?

On one hand, the industry needs to combat the old-fashioned view that interior design is the domain of the ‘bored housewife’ and can essentially be done well by anyone who takes an interest in it. It needs to educate the general public about the knowledge and skill that goes into designing an interior space professionally. And especially, in the internet age, to get across the point that professionals can improve (and save time and money!) on what people can find and source through Pinterest, Instagram or other online platforms, and that they can help when it comes to the project management side as well.

On the other hand, the industry itself needs to open up to best support and encourage new interior designers and really help them to be successful. It’s worth remembering that interior design is also an art. You have to be organised, you have to know how to do industry-specific admin and be familiar with certain concepts and ways of working, but you also have to have intuition and imagination, to be able to envision how pieces will fit, what colours might go together and how a space can be transformed. You have to see, for example, how two potentially opposing objects could put together and, finally, you have to have taste. All of the more intangible qualities to do with artistic vision can’t be taught – you either have it or you don’t. This artistic side should be respected.

There is no lack of potential clients out there – the challenge is to find and convince them that their interior can really be improved by a professional interior designer!

Interior designer, Ana Engelhorn project image of bedroom interior

Which people do you admire the most in the industry and why?

I admire people who have not only been interior designers but have also created a business, employed others and grown from their small beginning. I also admire interior designers who share their knowledge, wanting to help others start up on their own. One such person is Katherine Pooley. She has been in interior design for 30 years, has grown a large business and now, on top of her business, gives talks and helps designers pave their way.

If you were inspired by Ana’s story, click here to learn more about the role of an interior designer.

Want to feature on the SBID blog? Email [email protected] for further information.

SBID interviewed Mark Robinson, the Managing Director of Alexander Joseph about his journey into the field of product design. We uncover how his brand of luxury lighting solutions came to life; how he got there and what he does to stay abreast of current industry challenges, whilst running a business!

Can you describe your current job?

As Managing Director of Alexander Joseph Lighting, my job is to develop the design ethic and culture in a way that establishes our young luxury brand. A significant part of this role is to ensure our designs are relevant to today’s interiors market by fostering collaborations with interior designers, artists, sculptors, and product designers to grow our range of cordless lighting products. I also take responsibility for the quality of the pieces we make and sell.

What is your background and how did you get into interior design?

My background represents the antithesis of the normal road to working within the sector! I’ve spent most of my adult life inventing first-to-market technologies and products across many sectors. After discovering I couldn’t buy decorative cordless lamps, I decided to make my own, this journey brought me into contact with interior and product designers who exhibited a passion and enthusiasm I’d never really been exposed to. After a little research I realised the sector was likely to be the ideal place to launch products.

Alexander Joseph luxury lighting in an interior bathroom setting

Describe an average day in your job role..

My natural inclination to be organised helps to moderate the ever-changing pressures associated with working on dozens of projects at the same time. In addition to curating and developing our permanent range, I also attend daily design meetings for commission pieces we are making for clients. Each project must be taken from a sketch to a CAD model to CGI, before it is made by hand in our workshops. Marketing, customer, planning and staff meetings take up the rest of the day. I generally leave administrative and financial matters until everyone else has left for the evening, I find it easier to concentrate then.

Is there anything new you are excited to be working on?

We are currently working on the launch of our first ever floor lamp and we have some marvellous collaborations to announce…

What do you find the most challenging aspects of your job?

Everything we do must deliver the highest quality. So, keeping abreast of live projects and progress is time consuming and a constant challenge. Motivating myself to keep on top of admin would be a close second.

Alexander Joseph luxury lighting in an interior living room setting
Alexander Joseph luxury lighting in an interior bedroom setting

What do you wish you knew before working in the field?

Pretty much everything I’ve learned over the last 12 months!

Which elements of your profession do you enjoy the most and/or find the most rewarding?

The most rewarding component of my job is creating finished pieces from scratch, I love problem solving so the more complex or challenging the design the more I tend to enjoy it.

What would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?

I think it would be; decide what you want to do, then do it. Don’t procrastinate, it saps self confidence and tends to be an expensive lesson in futility. Spending time to-ing and fro-ing over decisions costs money – at the end of the day you are paying your rent, wages and other overheads whilst you introspectively analyse what you are doing.

Alexander Joseph

What has been your favourite project to work on?

Producing a lamp for a charity auction. It was a 1 metre tall table lamp in the charity’s colours, finished in sterling silver. It took over 100 hours to complete.

What do you think is the biggest problem the interior design industry faces?

Engagement with other sectors and industries. As a creating sector it is clearly design led, but this can be at the expense of all else. Other sectors tend to spend more time looking at how they can borrow or adapt techniques in other markets, before it is critical to do so. This enables them to ‘design in’ what they are adapting. Rather than incur the cost associated with adopting something at project delivery stage.

Which people do you admire the most in the industry and why?

I think this would have to be anyone who has spent more than 20 years as an interior designer. Being able to remain passionate and inspired over such a long time period is truly admirable.

Want to share your story on the SBID blog? Email [email protected] to find out more.

This week SBID interviewed Charu Gandhi, Founder and Director of the award-winning luxury interior design studio, Elicyon. Charu talks about her feelings of disconnect between architectural training and architecture in practice; particularly, how this influenced her decision to pursue a successful career in interior design. From just a childhood vision to become an Architect, Charu now shares her professional insight into the industry with concerns for the issue of waste within the interior design profession as a whole.

Can you describe your current job?

I am the Founder and Director of interior design studio, Elicyon. Based from our studio in Kensington Village, I lead an expert team of 21, working across ultra-luxury developments and private homes in the UK and around the world.

What is your background and how did you get into interior design?

I originally trained as an architect at the Architectural Association in London, which led to seven years of formal training. I went on to work at Allies & Morrison Architects in 2006, working with luxury residential clients, as well as contributing to large-scale projects like the Doha National Library and the London Olympics Masterplan.

Whilst the allure of architecture was certainly all-consuming during my training, in practice the vocation didn’t really give me the satisfaction I had expected. I was critical of the fact that everything had to be post-rationalised. Everything had to have a gravity to it, which I feel interior design doesn’t overly do. It doesn’t complicate. In architecture, you can’t say something is beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, it’s too blasé and surface-level and architecture tends to think more intellectually than that.

At that point, I thought I would leave design and become an investor. I was planning on going to business school, and I got into a school in France, but at the same time a friend of mine who worked at Candy & Candy had rediscovered her love for design and convinced me to apply. There, I worked on the private commissions team on projects in India and Africa, as well as residences in the prestigious One Hyde Park development in London. A connection at One Hyde Park was the catalyst for my decision to start my own interior design business, when I was offered a refurbishment project in the development.

Describe an average day in your job role..

Every working day is completely different, which I love but which can also be challenging in terms of time and diary management. During a ‘normal’ day, I catch up with the team to discuss ongoing or upcoming projects; I will then usually have one or more meetings with our suppliers in our new studio, going through their latest products and discussing how they could work for a project. Clients also love coming into our new studio as we have a very impressive sample library where they can take the time to look through all of our exquisite stone samples, carpet, furnishing fabrics and wall coverings. I will sometimes have a dinner or after-work function, but I do try not to go to more than two evening work events each week so that I can spend quality time with my family in the evenings.

Which elements of your profession do you enjoy the most and/or find the most rewarding?

Our work is all about storytelling and taking the client on a journey. We want them to fall in love with design, with the craft, to have a sense of self-actualisation – when this is achieved on a project, it is hugely rewarding.

I also greatly enjoy working with our esteemed and trusted suppliers. The craftsmen and artisans that we work with – some of the world’s leading glass makers, crystal makers and innovative producers of plaster work, finishes and furniture – are my single biggest inspiration. Understanding how something is put together, the process it undertakes, the precision of the craftsmanship, lights a creative fire for me.

Interior Designer Charu Gandhi
Interior Designer Charu Gandhi

Is there anything new you are excited to be working on?

I am really looking forward to completing our first hospitality project – a boutique hotel in Sri Lanka – as well as completing our stunning penthouse project in Dubai later this year. We are also excited to be working on our second project in China – an incredible residential development.

In London, we are working on a number of very exciting projects including a lateral duplex apartment in Knightsbridge for a private client. Here, we are reinstating period features whilst creating a contemporary family home. Another private client project in Knightsbridge on Ennismore Gardens also involves working in a period environment – the two apartments we are designing are both set within a listed building. One is a duplex apartment with a beautiful feature staircase and the other is a large lateral apartment with expansive windows and stunning ceiling heights of 4 meters.

We are also working in the super prime Clarges development in Mayfair – our design for one of the apartments within the building celebrated the Art Deco theme of the wider scheme but adds a modern twist and focuses heavily on artwork with prints, photography and sculptural works dotting the property.

Whatever comes our way, we’ll continue our adventure with design, beauty, craft and innovation that enables us to take clients on an incredible journey of exploration and enjoyment. As we remain a boutique studio, it’s a pleasure to work with our select few discerning clients who are ready to go on the adventure with us.

What do you find the most challenging aspects of your job?

I always say that our biggest challenge is the next one. We are always striving to learn, grow and push the boundaries so that both our skills as designers and our projects are in an ever-evolving state.

I am constantly developing as a designer, a studio lead and businesswoman, and am very self-critical with both myself and the team on any lessons learnt. We are always questioning how we could do something more special, more groundbreaking with each project.

What do you wish you knew before working in the field?

I had already trained as an architect when I made the very conscious decision to move into the interior design industry, so I felt quite well-informed about the filed at that stage. However, before going into architecture, I was definitely unaware of how much the work of an architect is influenced by governmental legislation, policies and funding, as well as a myriad of conflicting stakeholders. Luckily, during my training I studied at the Architectural Association in London which fostered much more of a creative, idealist and visionary concept of architecture, which I rediscovered when I moved into interior design. I knew then that maintaining a strong sense of idealism was important in my career.

What would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?

I would have told myself that resilience and developing ‘scar tissue’ from enduring a few knocks along the way comes with time. I would have allowed myself to be a paranoid optimist sooner – which is what I am now. It means I am really particular about the design and execution work in the studio. I would have been brave enough to surround myself from the start with a team of people who are better than me. This can seem very scary at first, but it’s one of the most important things I’ve learnt in running a studio. When I come to self-reflect, I often refer to a line from a poem by Maya Angelou:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

What has been your favourite project to work on?

All of our projects are significant to me, each for a different reason. We recently completed a three bedroom apartment in One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, London – our seventh project there. The building holds a special meaning for me as it’s where Elicyon began – we did our first ever project there in 2014. I enjoy making each apartment we work on at One Hyde Park unique, even though the spatial environment and layouts are similar.

Having grown up in India and retaining strong roots, working in my home country had been a long-cherished ambition that I achieved through working on a new, luxury residential development in Mumbai. It was wonderful to combine my knowledge of the city, culture and way of living to the project with a strong influence from my design studies, which are European in origin. The project’s vision represents a moment in my personal design journey; a confluence of east and west, celebrating both without detracting from either.

What do you think is the biggest problem the interior design industry faces?

An article in the FT back in 2018 reinforced my view that we need to lend some common standards in our pricing models for the sake of clients. The article was titled ‘how to see through the smoke and mirrors of architects’ and designers’ fees’ and it very succinctly described what we often see; a lack of transparency, clarity and consistency which leaves our client base feeling baffled, unsure and in the worst case, cheated.

A shared sense of self belief so that we price our fees better and also pay our staff better. I hate hearing of a young designer who has invested into their education only to be told they have to work for free to get a foothold into the industry – that has to stop.

I also think we need to address the issue of waste within interior design. So often, designers sulk when a client wants to reuse or re-purpose an existing piece of furniture or a fitting, but I think this presents an excellent opportunity to restore and respect older, used pieces, rather than just throwing them away and starting afresh. It can take a lot more time and effort to do this, but it is hugely important. For example, when taking out an existing kitchen or bathroom, we try to salvage as much as possible to use in the new design or ask the owner if we can auction or donate the parts so that they are reused. I’ve never had a client say no to this when asked. When we build, we also build to last – longevity is a key part of our design process.

Which people do you admire the most in the industry and why?

When I was a child in India, my parents decided to build us a new home and worked with architect Sujata Kohli. I would watch Sujata walking around onsite, instructing construction teams and implementing her vision and I was very enamoured by her. For me, she combined a scientific, analytical mind with creativity and this became my goal for my future career.

Sujata is still my mentor and someone I greatly admire. She encouraged me to attend the Architectural Association in London, which was the beginning of my training and career, so she has played a big part in my life.

If you were inspired by Charu’s story and want to learn more about the role of an interior designer, click here.

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