Aug 10, 2022

Episode 93

Tina Norden

Tina Norden Conrad and Partners Headshot


Since graduating from the University of Westminster, Tina Norden has built her career at the esteemed London- and Hong Kong-based Conran and Partners, first joining the interior design and architecture firm in 1997 and becoming a partner in 2016. A quote from founder Terence Conran, which Norden often cites: “Good design improves people’s lives,” a lens that guides her and her team in their work for visionary spaces, including Park Hyatt Auckland and the Peninsula Hong Kong.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Tina. Tina, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Tina Norden: Very good, thank you very much. We are just coming into summer in London, if there is such a thing.

SSR: Hopefully, fingers crossed. So, we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

TN: I actually was born and raised in Hamburg in Germany, so I’m actually German, still, very much. And I moved over here when I was 19, so straight after school.

SSR: Oh, nice. Were you always creatively minded growing up or have a love for design at an early age?

TN: I think in short, yes. It’s actually quite a funny story because my father was a landscape architect. So from when I was really tiny, he always took me to sites and helped me measure up and all of that kind of stuff. But I really do not have a green thumb at all. Don’t give me a garden. Don’t give me a window box. So I thought maybe doing the buildings would be a better choice for me. That’s slightly facetious, but that’s kind of in broad terms, what happened.

SSR: That’s amazing. And was your mom creative as well?

TN: She is in a very different way. She’s actually a hairdresser by training, but when I was growing up, she was forever making things. She did pottery, she did puppet making, she did everything. So she clearly has a real kind of creative drive doing all sorts of things and doing all sorts of creative enterprises.

SSR: Amazing. Did you travel much as a family? Any early memories of cool places that you visited?

TN: Yeah, we always did. The beauty of growing up in Europe is that it’s very easy to get to another country very quickly. We always went on a big family holiday every summer, whether it’s to Spain, Portugal, all of those places, so there was always traveling. I’ve always dreamt of the world. I think from when I was very, very young, travel was always one of those things that occupied my mind. When I was 11, I actually visited the U.S. for the first time. I went with my grandfather.

SSR: Oh, amazing.

TN: …Who used to be looked after by two ladies who then moved back to the U.S., and we went to visit them in LA and Oregon. This was age 11 and I absolutely loved it, and I’ve had a love for the U.S. ever since.

SSR: Oh, yay. So did you end up going to school for architecture or design?

TN: Yes, that’s right. My plan was actually to study in Germany, and I did a big work placement in Germany. When you study architecture, you have to actually work on site for several months in order to prepare yourself for it. And then I decided to go to London for a year as a year out, have some fun. I love the clubs in London, it was a great place to be, and I really fell in love with the city. I was then told by some friends, “Hey, why didn’t you apply for university in the UK?”, and so I did, and I got a place, which was great, and decided to stay on.

I think in the end it kind of worked out better for me in the sense that studying architecture in Germany is more engineering based, so it’s probably a little bit more technical, and in the UK, it’s very much an art-based subject, so it’s very much creative. It was an arts university, and I think that probably suited me a little bit better in the end. Yeah, so I ended up studying in the UK.

The Maximilian Hotel in Prague

SSR: So did you have to do internships every summer?

TN: I actually did do internships. It’s not something you necessarily need to do, but I decided to do, and I had a really fantastic one after my second year. I worked for a gentleman called Herbert Beckhard in New York, who was the disciple of Marcel Breuer, so very much in that kind of modernist idiom who did some beautiful houses together, and he was 70 or so at the time. Great guy. I learned so much from that. I remember going into the studio my first day, being handed a scale ruler, and just going, “What is this?” Because I did not know, as a little German English student, that you don’t work in metric, but in imperial. I had never seen anything like that before, and here I was having to actually draw with that, so that was interesting.

SSR: Little bit of a learning curve.

TN: Little bit of a learning curve, yes.

SSR: So, you graduate. What did you end up doing? What was your first job out of college?

TN: Well, funnily enough, when you study architecture, you do three years, then you do a year out working, then you do another two years, and then you go back and you do another exam, so it kind of goes on forever. It’s like becoming a doctor. My year out in between was actually at Conran and Partners.

SSR: Oh.

TN: Here I still am, two or so years later, from the year out student office junior to becoming one of the partners, eventually, a few years down the line. So, yeah, amazingly, I’m still here.

SSR: That’s amazing. What drew you there? What did you love about it that you wanted to go back?

TN: Well, the interesting thing was, for me, that it was quite a wide range of things. Now, I was quite curious about that, not just doing architecture and master planning, but actually doing interior design also. And then, I had a really good interview with the then managing director Richard Dunn, and we just got on. When you just click with someone, it just felt right. And so, I decided to take that over a number of other job offers I had, and I haven’t really looked back. I think what that meant for me is that in my year out already, I had much more of experience of working in interior design. That wasn’t really something on my radar at all before that point, and it meant that I then went on to do a master’s in architecture interiors at the Royal College of Art under Nigel Coates. My career has since moved more into interior architecture. Even though I’m a qualified architect, I work in interior design, interior architecture, and love it. It changed the kind of course of my career, really, as a result.

SSR: Right, it opened up a whole new avenue for you.

TN: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

SSR: So you’ve been there now 25 years?

TN: Yes, very quietly saying that. Absolutely. Yes. Not the youngest person in the office anymore these days, no.

SSR: Congrats. How have you seen the firm evolve since you started?

TN: Well, obviously, one big thing that has happened over the last couple of years is Terence, our founder, passed away, which obviously was a kind of big, big deal in the sense that he was the figurehead, and we came out of hospitality design. He came out of restaurant design. That’s what he was doing. He was a restaurateur who actually worked together with a master planner to set up his first Conran Roche company. Conran and Partners evolved out of that. So it’s been very interesting to see us kind of going out of doing restaurants for Terence and for his company, doing shops for the Conran shops, to actually kind of spreading our wings and working for people all across the globe, and really kind of going into hospitality design, working with a number of the big hotel operators, and doing appendant hotels and stuff like that, and then also going more into the residential market. So really, over the time that I’ve been there, a lot of that growth has really kind of happened, and it’s been very exciting to be part of.

SSR: That’s really exciting. What did you learn from Terence? He was such amazing…

TN: A lot of things, a lot of things. As with many people of that kind of standing, he was not always an easy person to work with. He’s a very hard task master, but you don’t get where he was through nothing at all. But I think it’s having two things, actually. One is that you really need to think about design for people, and that’s not just the guests that are coming in, but also the people that work in the space. If you have happy staff, you have happy guests. It’s very simple. So, thinking about the front of house, back of house, and how those two things work together, I think that’s one big thing that I’ve learned, and I think puts us in good steps with our hospitality work.

But also, just to think about the unexpected, what he was very, very good at is taking a space and just adding that extra layer to it to make it kind of unique, quirky, at work quite often, little touches like that. But looking at a finished project and kind of going, “Okay, how can we subvert this a little bit? How can we make this different and how can we kind of add a very particular touch to it that makes it unique?”, I think that’s another big takeaway, for me, that I’ve learned from him.

SSR: And does that all weave into the firm’s philosophy of process and design?

TN: Very much so. Designing things for people has always been a key driver, and Terence always said, “Good design improves people’s lives,” and I think we do really believe in that, and I think we, as designers, should believe in that. Otherwise, why are doing what we’re doing? It’s about making spaces better, making people feel better, creating spaces that people enjoy being in. That’s really one of the kind of key drivers for us, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s at an urban scale, thinking about an urban context, space making, place making, et cetera, or whether you think about it in the smallest interior space, it doesn’t really matter. It’s always kind of authentic, and it’s always thinking about, “What are we trying to achieve?” and “What are we trying to create here?” and kind of working the status rather than kind of just applying your house style.

SSR: Right. And how big is the firm now?

TN: Well, we’re about 55, 60 in the UK that’s architects and interior designers, and then we have 10 people in Hong Kong.

SSR: Okay, great. How’s the last two years? Hopefully, we’re coming out of it.

TN: Here’s hoping, yes.

SSR: Fingers crossed, because I know London was hit hard like us in New York. How has that changed you as a leader, maybe changed the firm a bit, and how you guys think about work and process?

TN: Hmm. I think one of the really, really big things was that I was always one of the ones to say that in order to do design, you have to be together, okay, as a team. Working from home and all that kind of stuff, it just doesn’t really work. Now, I still think that it’s better to be together, but I think what we have learned is that we can be a lot more flexible in how we work. We have a lot of parents in our company. We have people who’ve got all sorts of commitments and things like that. We can actually work flexibly, it’s absolutely fine. People are committed. They will do their work if we trust them to do that, and they can do that from home, they can do that from somewhere else.

We have a flexible working policy now that is staying with us so people can work from home two days a week. That thinking, that actually you don’t have to be in the studio from 9:00 to 5:30, or until 9:00 at night, or whatever it is, I think that’s one of the biggest shifts, really. The other thing is probably to do with travel. I was probably on a plane 90% of my time before lockdown, and it is not sustainable for us personally, but also, when you think about the planet, when you think about all sorts of other reasons, it probably wasn’t very sustainable. And I think we’ve realized now that yes, it’s very important to be together at key stages in a project, but do we have to have every meeting in person with 20 consultants flying in? Probably not. We can do that on a VC, and we can do that much more efficiently that way. I think those are the two big takeaways in many ways, and how amazingly flexible people can be when they have to be, which is extraordinary.

SSR: Right. You started off as basically an intern, and you’ve risen to partner. What was your career path like? And for those out there that aspire to do something similar in a big firm, what do you think was your secret to success to continue to push and move and continue to grow within one company without having to jump around.

TN: People always say to me that I should learn how to say no, but I firmly believe I shouldn’t, because I think a lot of it comes down to, “Here’s a new challenge,” “Yes, I love that. Let’s do that.” “Do you want to go to this space? Yes, I absolutely do want to do that.” So grabbing everything with both hands and taking every challenge as it comes your way, I think that can-do attitude is felt very positively by the people that you are working with, because I think, “Okay, I can ask Tina. She’ll do it, she’ll do it with gusto, and she’ll do it hopefully well.” But I think attitude is a very big part of it. When you don’t know that much yet, you can make up for it through enthusiasm and through attitude and through a kind of can do attitude.

So, I think that’s really important. I’ve always had a real thirst for learning, just kind of doing new things, exploring new stuff, that curiosity, of keeping curious, keeping an open mind, trying everything once, at least, and seeing how that goes. We see this now, the people that are most unassuming about their talent are often the ones that are strongest, really, because they don’t feel like they know everything, but they keep that kind of wanting to learn, keeping that curiosity going, and as a result of that, continuously moving forward. For me, it was working on projects, taking tasks on that other people maybe didn’t really want to do or didn’t have the drive for, and then being trusted with more and more responsibility, becoming a project architect, then working very closely with Terence on restaurants.

That was kind of my task for quite a few years, just doing all of the restaurants, and then moving from that into hotel design, hospitality design, starting to work for the bigger brands, et cetera, the bigger projects. That was kind of the progression, really. And I think being an open-minded person, happy to meet people, so much of what we do is kind of like diplomacy in many ways. We meet so many people from so many different walks of life, and bridging people, talking to people, creating a rapport with people, is so important, I think more so than ever. I don’t think people necessarily come to work with Conran and Partners, or HBA or whatever. They come to work with a specific person. It’s about personal relationships, and I think that’s getting stronger and stronger, really.

The entrance to the Onemata restaurant at Park Hyatt Auckland in New Zealand

SSR: Sorry, let me start that again. How do you instill the fact that it’s okay to ask questions to your team? Because I feel like part of the problem now is, people are afraid to be wrong or afraid to ask questions. So as a leader, how do you instill that?

TN: Hmm. I think that’s such a good point and so, so, so important. I actually, literally say it to people. It’s like, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and we have a very nice culture in the studio where we have team meetings, everybody together who’s working on a project. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the junior, or whether it’s myself or whoever, if it’s a good idea, we’ll go with it and we’ll explore it and we’ll take it further. What I always say to people is, “I’d like you to explore what I’m asking you first, but please bring anything else that comes up while you’re doing that with you, because there’s so many great ideas that come from the team that are fundamental to the project.”

There’s no such thing as a stupid question, I don’t think, and I think telling people that is very important. It’s very interesting how, particularly in the Hong Kong studio with the mindset from an Asian point of view, there’s even less of that. There’s even more worry about asking questions and questioning authority as well.

SSR: Yeah.

TN: Saying to people, “Please do challenge us. If you don’t think what we are doing is right, ask us why we are doing it, ask the right questions,” is really important. So I think it’s just saying it over and over again, to say, “Ask the questions,” there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

SSR: Yeah. Oh, for sure. In 25 years, I’m sure you’ve worked on a lot of different projects. Let’s start with one that was probably the most challenging for you where you learned the most from. Which one was it and why?

TN: I think the most challenging one was probably the first kind of big hotel project that I worked on, which was South Place Hotel in London, which was really from ground up. We worked together with an architect’s practice, Allies and Morrison, on that. I was in charge as the kind of project architect, and it was a complete learning curve. Obviously, I’d stayed in hotels before, we kind of done little bits and whatever, but never to that extent, and we literally had to do it from the ground up. There was no brand involved, so it was really kind of creating everything from the beginning with the operator, with the client or whatever. So that was a massive learning curve, but it was super exciting. I’ll never forget that. There’s a lot of lessons learned from that.

SSR: Yeah. What was it like working with Terence on a project? Like you said, you did a lot of his restaurants, so that was your main challenge. Where did he come in and out of it? How did he guide you in learning about form meets function, because I know that was very important to him.

TN: No, absolutely. For him, the key thing was always, “What is the food? What is the atmosphere?” We’re doing a French brasserie, or we’re doing a fine dining Italian restaurant. Whatever it is, he always said, “Don’t pick up the pencil until you know what the food is, until you’ve seen the menu.” Doesn’t always quite work like that, but I think what he was talking about is setting where the goal first. What are you serving? How are you serving it? So trying to think about the kind of operational aspects, he would then really let us go off and come up with ideas, come up with concepts for it. He might kind of pick something out, give us a couple of sketches and whatever, or pick out some images or whatever it is, but really give us a lot of freedom.

I think that was part of the reason why I’ve always kind of stayed with Conran, because we’ve always had a lot of creative freedom, and I think that’s very important for young designers, like myself, at that point. And then, have meetings the same way, he would kind of look at it, we’ll discuss it, talk him through it. He’ll say, “Yeah, I like this,” “Not so sure about this,” “Have you thought about this?”, or whatever it might be, and we’ll kind of work through it. He really came into his own when it came to kind of furnishings, artwork, the kind of finishing touches that was really where his great creativity lay, and where we, I think, as young designers could learn a lot. Sometimes you come in there, you’re a little bit too particular about everything, everything has to be perfect, has to be perfectly aligned, whatever. It’s roughing that up a little bit and allowing that quirkiness and that imperfection to come through, because that’s what people actually respond to. That’s what they enjoy.

SSR: Yeah. Nothing too perfect. What do you-

TN: We hate saying that, of course. Let’s do that.

SSR: I said it, you didn’t say it. Is there one project that recently opened that you’re really proud of?

TN: Funny enough, I stayed there last weekend.

SSR: Oh, nice.

TN: It’s a really lovely little boutique hotel that we did in Prague called the Hotel Maximilian, which is a family-owned business, 78 guest rooms. We did a complete refurbishment. There was a really lovely backstory. The guy who was involved in the design of the building was also a really quirky artist. So it’s a very playful, colorful project, but we worked really, really closely with the owner operator on that. There’s a really lovely working relationship, and I really cherish that, and I think it’s a really beautiful result.

SSR: Yeah. And Prague is such an interesting city.

TN: It is, yeah. Fascinating.

SSR: Yeah, with so much history that you can pull from.

TN: And color, because the hotel is actually very, very colorful, because Prague is a really colorful city. Anyone who’s ever been knows that. It’s like every color under the rainbow in pastels, and that’s the city, right?

SSR: Yeah. That’s great. Is there one project that you’re working on that you’re excited about?

TN: Well, there’s one project that I’ve been working on now for eight years, which is a long time.

SSR: Labor of love.

TN: Labor of love.

SSR: Yeah.

TN: Absolutely. Which is a Park Hyatt in Jakarta, Indonesia, so really fascinating location. It’s been actually a really great process. There’s been some amazing people we’ve worked with throughout that whole period. We’ve actually opened a Park Hyatt since, in Auckland, New Zealand, and we’re working on another one in Changsha at the moment. So this one has been kind of just a steady companion all along. Obviously COVID didn’t help and all of that kind of stuff, but it’s opening this summer, so I’m very excited about that.

SSR: Yeah. In these eight years and with the other projects that you’ve done, how do you think the idea of luxury has changed, and how are you trying to instill that in projects like these?

TN: I think it’s changed fundamentally, and that’s been a huge change over the last decade, or whatever it is. It used to be much more about the gold tabs, the beautiful marble, all of those kind of things, so probably more of a material way of showing luxury, stiff service, “Yes, sir,” “Thank you, Madam,” uniforms, all of that kind of stuff. I think it’s shifted massively to being at something much more personal, and I think when we think about luxury now, it’s kind of things like time. It’s about things that bespoke to what we’re looking for. You arrive somewhere, they’ve got just the right drink, they’ve got just the right massage. People are really relaxed and friendly, and you just feel like you’ve arrived at a home away from home.

I think the idea of luxury, fundamentally, has changed. Quality is still there, and the quality of service is still there, but the way the service is delivered is very different. I think the same applies to interiors. When you think about the advent of the Ace Hotel and all of those kind of things, those are not cheap hotels, but the aesthetics of them are very, very different to what traditionally you would think about as the high end hotel.

SSR: Right.

TN: I think it’s also become more fragmented in the sense that it’s become more personal, so everybody has different tastes. I think it’s a much bigger market. Something that you might think is the ultimate luxury for you might be something completely different for someone else, but there’s quite a lot in the market that addresses different levels of needs and different kind of things. We still have the Four Seasons, we still have the Peninsulas, and they’re still as beautiful and as kind of luxurious as they were before, but then there’s other things that are much more about barefoot luxury, which appears to a very different audience.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. I think something you said, the home away from home, somebody asked me the other day, “What’s your definition of hospitality?”, and I think it’s almost now going back to the roots of it, like somebody actually welcoming you in your home.

TN: Yeah.

The boutique and café within the Peninsula Hong Kong

SSR: How can we bring that back, especially after everything that we’ve been through? I think we are, I think there’s many places that do, but how do you continue to kind of evolve that thread?

TN: Yeah, no, absolutely. We always say it’s like a home away from home, only better, and with someone making the bed for you, which is even better.

SSR: Yeah.

TN: That’s right, exactly. I think it’s the personality, isn’t it? When we are thinking about where to go and stay, people do their research nowadays. Very few people just book a hotel. You normally want to kind of, “So, what’s this all about?”, “What’s the identity?”, “What’s the website like?”, “What’s the Instagram?”, “What do they stand for?” This becomes more and more important to people, even things like environmental credentials, whatever. People make very conscious choices about where they’re spending their money, and I think that’s where that kind of thing really comes into, that if you feel like you’re being welcomed, people know your name, or at least pretend to, it gives us the warm, fuzzy feeling that we are kind of looking for, that we feel like we’re somewhere where we are a person and not just a number in a room. It doesn’t really matter how big the hotel is. You can get that feeling, if it’s done well, in a very large hotel as well as in a very small hotel.

SSR: Right. We also talk a lot about how designers can help create that, because a lot of that is from the operation standpoint. But how can designers create that story that then transcends into what the hospitality experience is?

TN: Absolutely. I think one of the key things that we always talk about and we feel very strongly about is being particular with design. I don’t think generic design really works anymore for today. Not even office spaces, it does.

SSR: Right.

TN: I think people are looking for things that have a character and a personality, and that design storyline is so important for that. It’s probably the case that it doesn’t appeal to everybody. There will be people who go, “Actually, really not for me,” but equally there will be then people who say, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for,” and I think that is the key. Trying to appeal to everybody never really works. I think you need to kind of find your own kind of tone of voice, your own storyline, your own design, design narrative, really, to do something that is specific, and that will then appeal to the audience that you’re targeting. But I think it will then appeal also to other people that appreciate the fact that it has a unique tone of voice.

SSR: Yeah, 100%. You mentioned sustainability and wellness. Are you being asked more by your clients to make those priorities?

TN: Yes, definitely. Definitely. Without that, I don’t think any project conversation happens anymore. And it’s a very interesting one, because everybody claims to be an expert in that. I think none of us really are, apart from very, very few people. I think we’re all on a journey with that, and it changes all the time. The amount of times you think a material is right, and then something comes out that actually, it’s not really, and there’s so many new things happening all the time. But I think it’s an effort that we all need to kind of do together, and I’ve talked to many amazing people who’ve kind of talked about how they’re working through the libraries, for example, the sample libraries in the studio, to kind of purge anything that is really bad, and they shouldn’t really be using, really kind of promoting materials that are sustainable, that are recyclable, that are good for the planet and all of those kind of things.

It’s starting from the ground up really, because our team goes into our library and pulls up material samples. But if those material samples are already kind of vetted in our positive, then that’s a great starting point for young designer in particular.

They’re all very interested in it. Particularly, the younger team is incredibly interested in it. So it doesn’t mean that they do their recycling very well in the studio, but the ambition is there, for sure. The wellbeing is the other one, and I think the interesting thing with wellbeing now is that it’s not just about massages.

We all love that, and we all love the spa and whatever, but it’s wellbeing all around, and that is all the way down to the materials used in the space making you feel good, being non-toxic. By feel as obviously another big, big subject, not my favorite one. I don’t really like the whole idea of just throw a pot plant in, then that’s biophilia. It’s not, but the whole idea that it’s actually proven that if you can see greenery, it improves your wellbeing and it improves productivity, we can close our eyes to that. These things are there, and I think creating spaces that people feel good in and feel well in has to be one of the kind of key things for us as designers now.

SSR: Yeah. And I think what the pandemic did is accelerated the fact of how much buildings do affect you.

TN: Yes.

SSR: Office buildings, the hospitality, your home. So I think it was such a priority before, but now it’s even becoming more of a priority, just knowledge that we’ve taken away from the last two years.

TN: Yeah, and having had the chance to actually really think about it, because we’ve all been at home, locked in, thinking about what makes us happy and what doesn’t make us happy in our environment. There’s a reason why DIY boomed over the last two years, because we’re all going, “Actually, this really doesn’t make me feel good,” “I need to get rid of this,” “I don’t like this color,” whatever. So we’ve all kind of become our own little experts in what makes us feel good, to a lesser or a greater degree, and I think that obviously feeds into the spaces that we then seek to go to now that we are allowed out again.

SSR: Yeah, 100%. Is there a part of the process that you still love the most? Is it the beginning? Is it digging in? Is it working with the team? Is it all of the above? You seem so passionate about all of it, but is there one?

TN: In a way, it is kind of all of the above. When you first start a project, the possibilities of the opportunities are always super exciting. You’re meeting people for the first time, you’re seeing a site, which is always exciting. There’s all of that, all the possibilities that are kind of spinning around in your head, and those kind of first ideas and whatever. We’ve kind of agreed what the design direction is, and you’re actually working on turning that concept into drawings, in our case, of course, and then into reality. But the detailing phase, when actually you’re turning the big ideas into the physical design that you’re actually proposing, how are things fixed? How do they go together? What is the materiality of it? All of those kind of things I still find really exciting and really fun.

SSR: And you say you have a library. This might be a simple question, but I’m always very curious. Are you encouraging your team to go out and find the new materials, or is there one person who controls it? How are you encouraging people to find the right things and resources for your projects?

TN: We absolutely definitely want people to go out and find new stuff. We have a library here, and it’s very useful to have that. We have fabric samples, stone samples, whatever, in here, so that is a great help when you’re just kind of pulling together initial thoughts for materiality and whatever it is. But generally, the design team is really interested in materials, and they like to go out. And actually, part of the reason we moved studios over the pandemic, whole other story, but we moved into Clerkenwell in London, kind of just east of the West End, which is kind of design centric. There’s all other showrooms, et cetera, around here, and one of the things that the team absolutely loves about being here now is that they can just pop out and they can go into a showroom.

They can see what’s new, they can see what’s going on. They’re always kind of looking out particularly for new recycled materials and all of that kind of stuff. So you really encourage people to just keep coming up with new things. The challenge is always, of course, when you bring it to a client and they go, “Oh, this is a new material,” and they go, “That’s great.” What’s the track record? Does this actually last when you put this somewhere? That’s always that kind of question when you’re coming up with something completely new. Do people trust to go with it and kind of take the punt of testing it out in a project?

SSR: Yeah. No, 100%. For you as a leader, what are your biggest challenges right now, and opportunities? You’ve been in the industry for a while. What keeps you up at night, and what are you most looking forward to?

TN: One of the big thing that always keeps us up at night, we’ve got 60, 70 people that are relying on us, on their livelihoods. Making sure that they are, in work, inspired, doing great work, having a good time doing that, being really creative, but that’s obviously one of the kind of key things that keeps us up, for sure. And I guess it’s keeping the client pool growing, meeting new people, new challenges for us, as well. We’ve been doing it for a while. Having projects coming up, new clients coming up, that’s a new challenge for us as well. It keeps it fresh, and that keeps it interesting. Those are kind of the two things, the team and the clients. Those are always the main drivers for us. These are uncertain times. Someone actually said today, “Permacrisis is what we are in right now.” It’s like financial crisis, Brexit, COVID, now we’ve got the war in Ukraine. Now there’s a big recession coming. It feels like we’re just lurching from one disaster to the other.

SSR: Social injustice. Just layering in all the things that are happening now.

TN: Absolutely, absolutely.

SSR: So how do you keep the team and yourself inspired and moving forward? Obviously we all get up and go to work every day and do all the things, but how do you make sure of that? Because the other thing that I always think about is that we’ve changed from managing a team to managing individuals, because now we realize, after the last two years, that everyone has a different point of view, a different situation, a different whatever with everything going on. So, how do you keep yourself inspired, and then also keep your team inspired?

TN: Hmm. I think the key thing for us is just to keep the design process open, ever-evolving and creative for the team. And obviously, like you said, people have different interests, different priorities. It’s shifting the team such that people can get to do the things that get them excited. We always do kind of staff reviews and stuff like that to talk to people about what do they want to do, where do they want to grow, and try and make sure that we can make that happen. Some people love the upfront creatives, some people like the design work later, some people like the execution on site, or whatever. It’s to kind of try as much as we can to kind of tailor it such that people can do what gets them excited, and that obviously means that we get the best out of them because they’re enthusiastic and they’re excited about what they do.

It is definitely a much more tailored approach, absolutely. It’s not about just telling people what to do at all. It really is about making sure that we can work together as a team, and everybody can bring their strengths. I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t let my temper out on the team. I should be there for people, I should be available to people, I should be helpful to people when they need me, and if I’m having a bad day or whatever, then that shouldn’t really be reflected to them. That’s something that I need to deal with myself, or with my partners.

SSR: Yeah, exactly. Close the door.

TN: That’s right. Exactly.

SSR: You must see bunch of different projects come across your desk. Any new types of projects that you’re excited about? I hate to use the word trends, but different kind of new concepts that you all are working on or bidding on?

TN: Yeah, there’s a lot of hybrid projects coming through, of all sorts. Whether it’s a mix of hotel and residential, whether it’s a mix of kind of co-working and hospitality, or whether it’s a hotel that wants to have all sorts of kind of different functions in their lobby spaces, there’s a lot of that hybridization going on, and obviously, part of that is using spaces as much as possible. Space is expensive. People have suffered financially over the last couple of years. They want to wring every last bit out of the space and make use of it as much as possible. We’ve just done a project for a hotel in Hong Kong, which had a floor that was basically just their all-day dining restaurant, and we turned that into an all-day concept that is basically co-working cafe, restaurant, breakfast, lunch, dinner, meetings, whatever, all on one floor, which basically means that that floor is working really hard for the hotel.

It’s the EAST Hotel in Hong Kong. But it’s also working really hard for the people that use it. If you’re staying in that hotel, you can actually use that floor in different ways all the time, and it really adds to your stay. I think that kind of thing we have conversations about with so many of our clients, and we see that with so many projects, making the best out of what you have, and kind of really utilizing spaces to the best possible use for the people utilizing it.

SSR: Right. Do you ever go in your spaces and watch how people use it?

TN: Yes. It’s nerve-racking in the first few months because just after it opened and every time you go, it’s like, “Tina, can you just have a look at the toilet? It’s not working,” because it’s all of that kind of stuff that happens. But as you have a little bit more distance, it’s actually really interesting to go back in a way, because we were designing restaurants that Terence was operating. We had that from the very beginning. If a year down the line, something wasn’t quite working, we would know, we would be involved in that. So actually, lessons learned from that are really interesting. I always find that fascinating. And when you go into a space that you’ve designed a year down the line and stuff has been changed, and you kind of go, “Why is this happening?”

Sometimes it’s just a general manager coming in who said, “I want that,” whatever, but it shows you how people use the space, and that is really interesting for future projects. Clearly this didn’t really work so well, why don’t we do it like this next time we do it? So I think it’s very important to go back to spaces and kind of appraise it and review how people are using it in real life a few months, a few years down the line,

SSR: Right. It’s live research.

TN: That’s it. No, it is. Absolutely, absolutely, fundamentally. Sometimes it’s a bit heartbreaking because you go and you go, “Oh, my God. What have they done?” But I guess you need to let go. It’s our baby, but only to a certain point, and then they have to walk by themselves.

SSR: Let it go. Yeah.

TN: That’s right. Exactly.

SSR: Tell us a little bit about yourself, something that people may not know about you.

TN: Well, how deep are the waters? Who knows? My other love is actually music, in two senses. In one sense that my beloved husband is a musician, so that’s obviously part and parcel of that, but I’ve always been a massive music fan. That’s been a big part of my life from when I was very young, from the kind of ’80s pop that we all kind of loved back in the day. That’s kind of been soundtrack to my life all the way through, really, and all sorts of different types of music, from live to recorded, or whatever. We go and see a lot of festivals, we’ve been to Coachella a few times, and all of that kind of stuff. That’s a big thing in my life, and I travel.

SSR: Do you play any musical instrument?

TN: No.

SSR: Okay. 

TN: I wish I would say yes. I tried to learn some when I was a kid, but I didn’t really stick with it, and I really hate that now. My partner started playing guitar when he was six, and he’s a virtuoso now because he’s stuck with it, but I didn’t. For me, I’m more a dancer, really, than a singer or such like.

SSR: Love it. Well, my kids are taking piano now, and I used to love playing the piano, but like you, in my teens, I was just like, “Eh, I’m over it.”

TN: I know.

SSR: But now I’m like, “Maybe I should start learning with them again.”

TN: I think it’s worth doing. It’s never too late, so they tell me.

SSR: Maybe. Maybe it’s a new hobby. Travel. Anywhere on your bucket list?

TN: Well, there’s quite a lot of places that I’ve not been to in the world. One thing that is definitely high up on my list is exploring more of Asia, because whilst I’ve been traveling there quite a lot for work, I’ve not actually had much of a chance to explore it as a traveler, as a visitor. That’s definitely top of my list. Southeast Asia is a big one.

Also, exploring maybe a bit of South America. I’ve not really seen much of that. I’ve been to Mexico, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone and I absolutely adored it, so I really would like to see more of the southern part of your continent. Those are kind of top of my list, but we’ve actually really enjoyed exploring Europe again as well. I think you get very kind of blase about it and go, “Oh, let’s go to the U.S. Let’s go whatever.” But actually, Europe is amazing. There’s so many great places, and because travel wasn’t so possible over the last kind of couple of years, we still managed to get away to do some European trips. It’s great. So many amazing places to go.

SSR: Yeah. Amazing. Tell us about your style, and does that transcend to your work? How would you describe your home, for instance?

TN: My home is actually kind of quite simple, and I would say modern and modernist. We go with the white painted walls, but we have a black bathroom and we have a black kitchen, which maybe, looking at me, is not that big a surprise, but that’s our little bit of glamour there. We have a lot of books. We have a lot of CDs. You remember CDs, those old-fashioned things? We have some of those and a lot of musical instruments. There’s quite a lot of stuff, but it’s organized chaos, I should say. I did do the thing of organizing by my books by color, over lockdown, because I was so bored.

SSR: Yep.

TN: Looks quite nice, actually. It’s a bit anal, but it looks quite nice, so I’m quite enjoying that. I read something really beautiful, which I really enjoyed, which is that people that wear black lead colorful lives, and I think that describes me in a nutshell quite nicely. I do wear black all the time.

SSR: Yeah.

TN: I’m such an architect when it comes to that, so that’s definitely kind of my personal style, I should say, but I actually do really enjoy color, and I do really enjoy space and things like that. Our home is actually very bright and airy. It’s very small because we live in central London. It’s probably similar to central New York, the size versus location, et cetera. But when it comes to my own spaces, I like it clean, I like it simple. Give me a concrete floor any day. I think I like that space to breathe because we deal with so much texture and so much of that during our work time that maybe you just need a bit of a decompression at home.

SSR: Yeah. No, don’t disagree. Is there a type of project that you would love to design that you haven’t designed yet?

TN: Interestingly there’s always new typologies coming up. That’s what we were saying earlier. There’s kind of hybrid things that we probably don’t even know that they’re there yet. I honestly really love designing hotels. I think there’s something amazing about them. What I like about them in particular is that they do always change, and they do always have a different focus, and sometimes it’s more for business, sometimes it’s more for leisure. They always have a different focus, they always have a different kind of narrative. That actually makes it really different every time we do want, even though there’s things that repeat themselves, when you think about room designs and whatever. But there’s so much opportunity for exploration in hospitality design that is just ever fascinating.

SSR:So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

TN: Keep an open mind, try everything at least once, and try and stay positive.

SSR: Oh, love it. Well, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.

TN: Likewise.