Growing up in Scotland, surrounded by Glasgow’s vibrant culture and architecture, Iain Watson, CEO of David Collins Studio, found his passion early on. A chance meeting with David Collins changed his life forever. He started working alongside the designer over the summer.
Since that pivotal moment more than three decades ago, Watson has remained an integral part of the studio’s evolution. Together, they carved a niche in the hospitality industry, crafting iconic spaces, including chef Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire in Chelsea, Claridge’s Bar at the Claridge’s hotel in London, and the Blue Bar in London’s Berkeley Hotel. The firm is also one of a handful of firms behind the highly anticipated Fontainebleau Las Vegas, opening this month.
After Collins’ death in 2013, Watson took the reins of the company, where he has ushered the studio into a new era while continuing to honor Collins’ legacy.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Iain Watson of David Collins Studio. Hi Iain, thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?
Iain Watson: Hi, Stacy. I’m very well and delighted to meet you and thanks for the invitation.
SSR: Yeah, it’s going to be fun. Alright, so on this podcast, we always start at the beginning. So where did you grow up?
IW: I grew up in the west coast of Scotland, in the city of Glasgow for the most part of my life. I did have an interesting five years during that time in the Outer Hebrides in Lewis, which was quite a change from city life. The life in Lewis was actually back connected to nature, growing our own food, traditional craft there, such as weaving Harris Tweed, the very famous Harris Tweet, for example, my grandfather pedaled the loom making the tweed every day from the wool that we had from our sheep. So it really was an interesting chapter of my life, but I returned to city life in Glasgow for myself, secondary education.
SSR: Do you think that time in the more rural area sparked your creativity or your love for craft and design or was there other influences that might, looking back now, lead you to where you are today.
IW: Yes. Well, Glasgow itself was a very kind of vibrant city. A lot of culture in it from theaters to the architecture and museums. I mean, I always had a passion for architecture. I did think I would study architecture in Glasgow, but in fact, I actually came to London and studied business studies and economics. As luck would have it, of course, I then made my way into the world of interior design. But Glasgow, yeah, it was inspiring. There’s a famous architect there, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the 20th century hero, doing incredible work as an architect, interior design. He designed everything, product design, tableware, linens, so really exacting detail. That was always an inspiration. And yeah, I mean, Glasgow always had a lot of interesting independent bars and restaurants. I always loved fashion. I liked graphic design, and it was the 80s, so it was the designer decade when everything was being designed.
SSR: Yeah, amazing. And so did you say you ended up going to school for architecture?
IW: No, I thought I might, but in the end I moved to London and studied business studies.
SSR: Okay. So how did you end up going back into interior design or you studied business studies, and then how did you get into this?
IW: Yeah, how did I get back into it? Yeah, it was a chance meeting, David Collins. I started working with him in the summer for about three months, and then I never left. So one of those stories. So David, we met, we were both wearing a designer jacket by Dries van Noten, the same jacket. So we got talking kind of like, where did you get that jacket? And yeah, we met again and we started working together. He’d started working on retail projects, some restaurant projects with amazing chefs and designing residential projects as well. But when I joined, within a couple of years, you’ll be set up a bigger studio, more along the lines of what we have today with a team and a dedicated studio.
SSR: Got it. And so when you all set up this more elaborate studio, was there a plan or was it more organic? What did you want to create? What was kind of the hope in those early days?
IW: I think we enjoyed working across the three different sectors. We had a bigger contract come in on the cafe, bar, and restaurant side. So we realized we had to have a step change in the business to become a team of 15 to 20 people on CAD in the early 90s. And I think we realized the opportunity was to have a bigger team, then you attract bigger projects. So certainly allowed us to build the infrastructure of our studio rather than it being more of a team of two to five people working together.
SSR: And you joined with him in what, this is the late ’80s, right?
IW: Yes, it was 1988. This is my 35th year.
SSR: Oh, congratulations. That’s a big milestone. What were those early days like working with David, growing the team? Looking back, was there something you wish you knew then that you know now? Or is ignorance bliss?
IW: I think it was very organic, the growth. I would say in the early days it was very hands-on. So I mean, you were the business, every function of the business at any one time from recruitment, HR, to design to client management, finance. So it was great because you really saw how it all fits together very well. So I think it was a great opportunity, obviously as the business grew, allowed the company to become more structured with bigger teams and more dedicated resources across each function of the business. I think, what do I think? We were always quite cautious about growth.
There were kind of stepping stones in the business, going from five people in one room to a team of 20. Then we sort of charted international work, which was very exciting. The international work we had in the states was residential projects. So the next chapter and step change in the business was commercial work in America. We were lucky enough to have a project in Bergdorf Goodman, famous department store designing a hair salon on top of Bergdorf Goodman. So that suddenly opened up the studio’s profile in the US and after that, many other clients followed. Big clients like Blackstone Investments, working on hotels, Limited brands, working with different Victoria’s Secret and other brands. And then over the next 20 years after that, business expanded in Asia with a sort of trophy project in Thailand, opened up Asia for us, and then after that in the Middle East. So I’ve kind of mapped these expansions of the business over the years, which has been amazing to see.
SSR: And you said that Glasgow going back, had great restaurants and hospitality. Did you always have a love then for hospitality, and was that something you really wanted to expand the company into more?
IW: Yeah, I think the hospitality side was always important. It is really profile building with people like Pierre Koffmann, the Michelin Star chef that we designed his first restaurant. I enjoyed the kind of cafe culture of Scotland at the time. I remember watching a TV show in Scotland with Pierre Kaufman, David’s first client by coincidence, and another emerging chef called Marco Pierre White. Then a year later I was designing Marco Pierre White’s first restaurant, and it was my first project. So seemed to be something that I was interested in, and these things were all happening around us in terms of interesting operators and chefs coming to us for bars and restaurants and later on hotels.
SSR: Got it. And why do you think you and David worked so well together? What was it about what he knew and what you knew that made the partnership so great that you are 35 years later still running the firm?
IW: Yes, I mean, I think we each had our focus mine the business. David’s a creative. I think we just really respected each other’s opinion and input. So David might help me if I’m stuck on a deal with a new client and I’d be like, “Gosh, what should we do next?” And he might come with some kind of inspiration or he would easily tap me for ideas on a project or an idea when there’s a decision to make on a certain, I don’t know, finish or chair, we’d have a look at things together. But there was a kind of natural… Well, it’s a very seamless dialogue between us and I think it’s all respect very much for what each other was doing.
SSR: And he died unfortunately in 2013. How did that change the company, you, leadership? It’s hard when somebody so great dies so unexpectedly and at an early age.
IW: Yes. So I mean at that time, people, clients, and partners gave three month grace period whilst we had to implement a succession plan that we had thankfully had. Myself and all the team worked very hard to deliver that. I think we realized the message really was about delivering the next project because people would judge you on your next project. So it was about delivering more great work and continuing. And then as the years evolved, it’s new generation DCS projects and teams. So yeah, that’s a 10 year transition that I think has been very successful. We did look at promoting the business with tribute to David himself. So a sort of industry tribute. Shortly after he passed away, we launched the ABCDCS book with Assouline. So I think that was important really to cement the studio’s thinking and DNA in a book and celebrate it. And that was launched in the UK and also with an event in New York, which was important for the business. And we also had a DCS 30 event as well. So that was our 30th anniversary.
And team wise, team wise, we’ve got an incredible team that’s continued with us for many years. Simon Rollings, our chief creative officer’s, been with us 25 years as well as other senior members of the team. We did about 10 years ago, I think structure the business in more of a tiered manner. So there was an enhanced executive team so we could help empower and strengthen the business from that so that we could take the business forward confidently.
SSR: And what is your studio like today?
IW: I think we retain the DNA and pillars of David’s legacy. We continue working globally, which is very exciting. We pride ourselves on projects having a sense of place, so obviously working in new locations with new clients gives us plenty of inspiration. I think we’re currently working in 10 countries, which is great. We’ve got new stories to tell with our approach, the hallmarks of the studio and how we design. And also for us, an important part of what we’re doing now is getting sustainability accreditation. So we’re about to be awarded our Butterfly Mark from Positive Luxury and yeah.
SSR: That’s great. What is that for those that don’t know?
IW: So this is an industry accreditation that looks at the business across ESG. So governance, people, environmental policies, so that we’re working in a sustainable way. I think once we get the accreditation, that’s the start. There’s still more work to do as these things are ongoing, but we’re excited to get that awards quite soon and there’s a lot of energy behind it from the team
SSR: Yeah, no, that’s great. And speaking of sustainability, is that something you tried to push into most of your projects and is that something you’re seeing more of a want from ownership these days?
IW: I think probably the biggest demands came about 12 years ago from a Mandarin flagship in Doha where we had to work to the international LEED Certification. So the brief, the client brief was to work to a platinum standard. So at that time we had to work hard to deliver that. We delivered to a gold standard, which was obviously still excellent. Since then, it is becoming more regular in terms of the client brief, but it’s not necessarily consistent depending on the regions or the types of clients. But obviously we as a studio within our own… We’ll have our own internal standards as well because obviously some clients might not want to follow a formal certification, but we would want to have a baseline within the studio.
SSR: And looking back, so maybe there’s two part, what do you think was your big break before David’s passing and then what do you think has really defined the studio since then coming into its own without him? So what are the projects you think before that gave you guys your big break, and then after what do you think is really helping to define where are the company’s going?
IW: Yes. I think with David, it probably was, I think entering America, the U.S. market really loved the European sensibility of our design. America’s a great place to work with great resources, great partners, consultants, and great clients. So projects like the London hotels in New York and LA I think were instrumental in this profile building of the studio as well as work with people at Limited Brands. So again, America, I think after that something like the Cunard ship is a whole new chapter in the studio’s career because we’ve worked across hospitality, retail, and residential. The ship, whilst it has hospitality is the main focus of what we’re doing there, obviously there’s a whole new technical challenge, but one that I think the studio really stepped up and got really excited by. So I think that will be a landmark project for us next year.
SSR: And so how are you trying to redefine luxury for ships with that project? Because I know it’s pretty interesting in pushing the envelope a bit.
IW: Yes, I remember I took actually the first call from Adam Tihany who’s overall creative director for the whole ship. He explained, he’d worked on other brands where he’d had a group of designers, and in this case we’re talking about three different design studios to collaborate under his overall vision, which it was a new process for us, but one that we could see was very exciting. In a way, a lack of knowledge of the maritime industry was why they came to us because we’d come with a fresh approach. And I think also it was a challenge for the team. It was of course a great opportunity with the amazing history of Cunard.
The team visited the Cunard archives early on, so that was certainly great inspiration in terms of the history. And many years later, probably four years later, our designs for the new ship are actually part of the archives. So we’ve gone into the Cunard brand history with the new designs of the ship, and I think the history was there, but we had to make sure it was forward looking, our design and contemporary in experience, whether it’s operations or the offer, but whilst giving a nod to the past.
SSR: Yeah, very cool. And how are you all seeing… I mean, you play in a lot of the luxury spaces in hospitality. How are you seeing luxury overall change and evolve and what do you think guests are looking for today in a upscale luxury property?
IW: I think people travel a lot. I think if they see things that are too similar on their travels, if it’s a sort of cut and paste bar or restaurant or retail store, I think people are looking for places with more individuality, hopefully a sense of place. And I think people are looking for the classic things, great service, great food offer, great lighting.
SSR: No, no, it’s good. I mean, I think it’s just interesting to see how travelers have changed in the last five years and what they’re looking for, especially coming out of everything we’ve come out of and the access that they have to anything based on thanks to social media and just being more connected in this world.
IW: Yes, certainly our experience has has always spanned from the early days from a customer shopping in a fashion store, someone staying in a hotel, someone having a drink in a bar to someone staying in a home or a residence that we designed. So we feel we kind of understand the whole customer lifestyle because we’re at different touch points of their life. We are seeing probably more overlap between disciplines. Whilst you have experts in any one sector that I’ve mentioned, a retail store will have a hospitality element, maybe a bar and private space for entertaining clients. A retail store may have some residential elements like breakout areas and lounges to kind of break up the pace. So there’s a kind of slight overlap between the different disciplines, which is interesting because we’re kind of across most of them.
SSR: And all the spaces have to serve multiple functions and have that flexibility to entertain and engage guests in different ways as they move through a space.
IW: Yes. Or maybe, yeah, they might be hosting talks or different experiences that they have for brands like entertaining, educating them. Yeah, so as you said, it has to be quite adaptable.
SSR: And is there a part of the process that you love the most from your role at the company?
IW: Well, once the deal is signed, obviously it’s great to strategize which of the team members are best for the project and get that started. The creative process is exciting to watch. I think for me, once the concept’s delivered the next stage, when you start getting into prototyping and mock up, so a mock up can be anything from, could be a piece of furniture or a beautiful lamp that we’ve designed. It might be a special finish or it may be some artwork we are commissioning. So when you start seeing those elements coming through and really the design coming off paper, I think that to me is really exciting. So we always have beautiful and interesting things coming into the studio for people to see. And of course they check and adjust things, but that’s part of the process, all that refinement and getting everything looking exactly right. But I think that’s an exciting part for me.
SSR: Yeah. Has there been one project, and I know it’s hard to pick just one because they all have their challenges, but is there one project that was the most challenging for you or your studio or that you all took the greatest lesson from?
IW: I mean, I think a challenge on all of a lot of projects is educating people on timescales and the process. Because I think people want some incredible design at the end, but there’s quite a structured and logical process to do that. But everyone seems to be in a hurry. So often it’s educating clients or project managers on timelines. I think when we’ve had to scale up and deliver a 550 bedroom motel in New York, 230 bedroom motel in LA, a 250 bedroom motel in Doha, we then had project offices. So that means we’ve had to either have a team or a resource space locally. So that in a way was something we hadn’t done until we’d done those whole projects. So we had to find a solution for that. That means people are on the ground, local to the clients and giving a higher service level. So of course it’s great for the clients and also with these very big projects, you’ve got a much closer involvement with the implementation, so you can really monitor it. But I think it was a challenge. But yeah, it’s something we’ve done several times now in different regions, so we know how to do that.
SSR: Yeah. Is there one project that is still on your bucket list that you would like to do?
IW: I am fascinated by wellness and travel and how that all works, but in a very sort of integrated way. So you’ve got an incredible space, like a resort with nutrition, wellbeing. I like yoga and things like that. And I think when that all comes together, I find that very exciting to spend time doing those kinds of trips. So we have done some spas and other similar parts of hotels, but I think to do a wellness resort would be, I think, incredible. I’d be first through the door when it opens to make a booking.
I was inspired, actually, I went to Vana, which is a wellness resort in India. It’s in hills of the Himalayas. It’s incredibly modern architecture. It has a sense of place in terms of the design. It had a mixture of Ayurvedic treatments and Ayurvedic food. So that was a really wonderful 10 days I spent there. And I really thought that was the sort of strength. It was very holistic and everything was seamless in terms of the people, the environment, the whole offer. It worked so well. And I think, yeah, that would be the dream really, something like that.
SSR: Yeah. And you are you trying to, as a practice trying to infuse more wellness throughout your projects in a more holistic way?
IW: Yes. So I mean, wellness is not about having… A spa could be part of it, or some other wellness spaces. It’s a much bigger discussion, look at things in terms of quality of the air, the light, what paint you’re using, materiality. So it’s much more integrated, the wellness approach. So I think some clients are more interested in that. So we’re looking at that. We also have the team studying wellness accreditation. There’s actually training we’re getting for the team. So I think that’s part of the mix with sustainability where your clients are getting more prescriptive. That’s part of the brief where it’s integrated.
SSR: For sure. And so you mentioned you just went to India. Is there a couple travel places on your bucket list or places you want to travel on your bucket list, I should say.
IW: Where would I like to go? I’d like to go to Mexico. That all sounded fascinating with the history, the food and the culture. So Mexico is probably next on my bucket list, maybe January if I’m lucky. Where else? I’ve been to Bhutan, so the other side of the Himalayas from India. And that was quite a long time ago, so I’d quite like to go back. Friends just come back from there and she was reminding me how incredible it was. So I thought maybe it’s time to plan a return visit.
SSR: That sounds amazing. And how do you stay inspired? Where do you find inspiration? I mean, I know it’s kind of a lofty question, but what do you do outside of work to keep the inspiration going?
IW: Yeah, I would certainly keep abreast of new openings or interesting things to see. It could be something that we might design part of our work or other inspiration. I’m certainly at plenty of galleries, a member of the V&A, which I love, which is always inspiring. So yeah, exhibitions, galleries, auctions, just kind of a mix of those things. And with traveling as well, I think in the last year we’ve probably traveled a bit less so we’ve been spending more time in the UK. So I’ve been exploring a lot of country house hotels, which was something… There’s been, I think an emergence of new generation of these country house hotels. So that’s been interesting to see. And again, it probably would feed in to the work we are doing with some of our countryside projects.
SSR: And what do you think guests are looking for those? Or how are you approaching those maybe in a different way than others?
IW: I mean, really, it depends on the offer if the country has hotels. Some are much more food and beverage focused. Some hotels are more about activities, like different activities. Spas might be part of that. We’ve worked in quite a few historic buildings in the countryside, so that obviously takes a different approach to working in a contemporary building. So understanding the architecture, respecting the architecture, understanding how we can evolve the space to work as a, it might be converting a house to a hotel. It might be a hotel that was purpose built, but obviously updating that with a new design. So certainly the historic building part of the work is something we enjoy.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. Is there one thing that people might not know about you?
IW: I used to beaver away myself in my very early career, just making odd bits of furniture and lighting, just small scale things for myself. I did sell, I think one or two pieces, but one of the lamps I made, a surreal lamp was given to Jasper Conran, obviously he’s the the son of Terence Conran who set up the Design Museum. And then I’ve been tipped off that my bag was actually in the Design Museum, my lamp. So that was claim to fame.
SSR: Very cool. Do you still tinker at all, or not enough time?
IW: Not making with my own hands, but certainly buying interesting pieces. Yeah, vintage pieces. Some contemporary, yeah.
SSR: Were your parents creative?
IW: My father had a manufacturing business in Glasgow, so they made luggage and school bags and golf bags. So I always spent a lot of time in the factory. I liked seeing processes and things being made from design to implementation, kind of seeing that process. So I think, I guess I must’ve been absorbing some of that when I then was exposed to a design process where you design and implement something. So maybe in some way that was a help in my later career.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. Did you have a mentor throughout your career or growing up that helped you along the way?
IW: I think it really had to be David himself, David Collins. Yeah. I mean, he was always amusing and inspiring.
SSR: What did you learn from him?
IW: He had such diverse interests in terms of creativity. I mean, obviously he understood architecture, having trained as an architect, but you looking at Korean films for inspiration, going to flea markets and putting together different periods of furniture, that was always great to see him, how he valued certain pieces. The inspiration was kind of far and wide. So yeah, I think having that breadth of knowledge was inspiring.
SSR: And you said it was a chance meeting with him, right? Where were you all?
IW: We were out at an event in London.
SSR: Okay. Interesting. You never know, one meeting changed your world.
IW: I know. It really was. And I would also say, yeah, with David, he was always about refinement. So it’s finding that exact shade of often blue, he loved blue, but 10 shades of blue, and just finding that exact nuance or a subtle technique and just getting the metal work finished just so, so he was always about refinement where someone would be like, “Oh, that looks great.” And he’d be like, “Maybe it just needs an extra hand finish on something to give it that little artisan touch.” So I think that was always fascinating to see that constant refinement.
SSR: Now it’s been 10 years, but how have you tried to maintain what he helped build, but also evolve the company into that next chapter? So that must be a fine line, what David Collins means, but also how to continue to move it forward or evolve it, I guess.
IW: Yes. I mean, obviously it’s a legacy brand with an incredible archive. I think it’s important we reference our archive, but not only that, obviously you’re adding new materials, new research, new inspiration. So I think it’s a kind of blend. And I think people join the studio and look at different parts of our work in different ways. It’s kind of through their lens so they can bring things forward and make it evolve, make it their own. I guess it’s a bit like Saint Laurent might have the tuxedo jacket, but every designer from Saint Laurent to the current designer at Saint Laurent has a take on that. It’s kind of either it’s the time or the materiality or a certain proportion they would make it their own.
SSR: Yeah. And you said you had a succession plan, and I know a lot of people in the industry are trying to figure out what that is. Is there any kind of lessons learned from that that you could share because I know a lot of people are trying to figure out how to pass that torch, hopefully not around a death, but is there something that you could… From a business point of view?
IW: I think it’s about, we talked about communication and the events we did and it was all of those things. I think it’s really just choosing the right team members to go forward and focus on delivering. I think there’s only so many times you can say, we’re continuing, the continuity message, but really people judge you by your next project. But I think you have to have the right mix of people in a succession plan to take the business forward. I guess a mix of creative and business, I would say, be good.
SSR: For sure, left and right brain working.
IW: That’s right.
SSR: And what do you love about your role as CEO? What’s the best thing you love about your job and also, what’s the most challenging thing about your job?
IW: I think most challenging is getting the projects in, and then when they actually happen, it’s often a different story just because of these are historic buildings or bigger architectural projects. So that’s a kind of challenge. I think working with great… We collaborate with great artists or makers, and then often bringing scale to what they do. So we may work with a US crafts person, but we can use their design. And it might be in 50 Alexander McQueen stores around the world. And so for me, with their original design, we’ve managed to scale it and celebrate their craft, something like that. I think those stories are really rewarding
SSR: For sure. You mentioned that trip, that wellness trip, but is there another experience, a hospitality experience that really changed you or inspired you along the way?
IW: I think we’ve spent a lot of time looking at cafe culture in places like Paris and Vienna. So I think those research trips, when you go and look at some of those historic places are always valuable. And there’s another building in Prague that we always reference. So yeah, I think those trips are always fascinating. But things like the, you’re in Vienna, a lot of the coffee houses we’re inspired by. Spent a lot of time in Paris in a lot of the classic and contemporary cafes and things like that when we were doing Brasseries, which is a big part of our business are those kind of offers.
SSR: I mean, you guys do a ton of restaurants. I mean, is there something you’re seeing in that space that you’re paying attention to? Just how people use cafes and brasseries, like you said?
IW: Yes. I mean, it’s a mix. Some of our projects are more like a cafe, so they might open for breakfast through to dinner. I mean, these spaces that we design are very successful. Something like The Wolseley restaurant is 20 years old, and often people try to replicate that magic. I think with those spaces, they’re a bit more approachable now. You can go any time, different times of the day for different events or even working maybe. I mean, on the more formal restaurant side, I think it’s about the level of service and theater. We’ve done things like table side trollies, where the food is prepared in front of you, table side cocktails being made in front of you at your table. So I guess people are looking for that engagement and theater in the restaurant space on a more elevated food offer.
SSR: More about the experience and the night.
IW: Yeah and the personal interaction. If someone’s making the cocktail, they’ll explain more if they’re literally making it there for you. And you can ask questions and learn and no doubt talk about it and try the same at home.
SSR: Yeah, exactly. Is there something that’s a huge pet peeve when you travel or when you’re at a restaurant since you see it all so much and design it all?
IW: I think if technology is obtrusive, it should be intuitive, discreet, and just in the background, I think if technology is pushed too much to the forefront and it’s gimmicky or these things date as well, so it’s not a good idea. So that, I think is always a mistake in typically hotels I think maybe more than restaurants.
SSR: Especially since they’re planned so far out, they’re almost behind before they get-
IW: That’s true. Yes. They plan to open in three years, but it takes five. And then as you said, the technology is on version three by then.
SSR: Yeah, exactly. Well, I hate to end the conversation, but watching the time, we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?
IW: I think we always say to invest in design and quality of materials in hospitality. The bars and restaurants we designed, the average lifespan is 18 years. So I think that really demonstrates timeless design by the studio and also projects that really stand the test of time with great success.
SSR: Which is easier said than done. So congratulations on 35 years.
IW: Thank you, Stacy. Yes.
SSR: Can’t wait to see what you all do next, but thanks for taking the time.