Goddard Littlefair

February 1, 2023

Launched in 2012, London and Porto-based luxury interior design studio Goddard Littlefair celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Sitting down with darc editor Sarah Cullen, Founders Martin Goddard and Jo Littlefair discuss the studio’s successes, personal inspirations and advice for budding designers.

Goddard Littlefair has worked on numerous standout projects over the last decade, with some particular highlights including Mondrian Shoreditch in London, Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, Mandarin Oriental Vienna in Austria, and Villa Copenhagen in Denmark.

“Where did 10 years go?” says Littlefair. “I guess starting any business, you don’t know what the future holds but you have ambitions and hopes. I think we’ve been incredibly lucky, but we’ve also worked really hard, and we’ve been a part of some amazing designs. We couldn’t have imagined what projects were going to come through our door, but they have given us opportunities and helped with our profile. You really can’t anticipate things like that.”

Goddard adds: “I think when you initially set up, you think it should work. We’ve both got a lot of experience in the industry, and we’ve worked for many years for other people. You make a lot of contacts throughout your career, and you think “ok it should work”. It’s really rewarding when connections turn around and say, “yeah ok, we’re really happy to work with you”. A few people that backed us, in the beginning, have continued backing us all the way through, and that has been really rewarding. It’s been so nice to work with the same groups, clients, and operators for many years, and that’s a testament to really good relations – and we’re just nice people,” Goddard laughs.

Setting the scene for us, the pair describe their initial conversations that resulted in the opening of the studio. “Martin contacted me on LinkedIn. We originally met and worked together in 2005 and then went our separate ways. I set up a business on my own and then had two children. Martin had gone to Canada and studied landscape design before returning to London.

Then basically, opportunities arose… Martin reached out, we started talking and hosting meetings all in restaurants and pubs, as we didn’t have an office; it was very much just on the hoof in London. I encouraged you, you encouraged me, and we just figured out it really worked, and so we thought “let’s just do this”. It all felt very natural.

“The partnership between myself and Martin is a bond that was ignited by a mutual understanding. We discovered we both spoke the same design language and that kind of connection is a very powerful one. We are both drawn naturally to different materiality, styles and colours and when you are able to learn from one another and combine the two things together, then the original idea blossoms into more than you ever envisaged in the first instance.”

“It was very much an organic progression from what we were doing,” agrees Goddard. “We would roll up to do client presentations in a taxi with a bag full of fabrics, samples, and a few sketches, and it ended up being a bit of a double act – waving our hands together at the end of the table in front of clients and they seemed to like it! As Jo’s said, it all felt very natural. And from that, we started building some really great people around us. Then, we got our first little office in Barbican, London; a tiny space in a loft above another design practice, but it was really sweet. It was our little space (only about seven of us could cram in there), but it was ours and it was all very exciting. We were both a bit like “Woah, ok what are we actually doing?”. Then we started landing some substantial jobs. You walk into a meeting when it’s the kick-off of a big project with lots of consultants, and you’re sitting there saying [shyly] “hello”. It was such a nice feeling. There was lots of hard work there but a natural progression.”

Despite their mutual love of and approach to design, the two designers had very different journeys and influences in their early lives before finding their feet in the industry.

“I was brought up in a council flat in East London,” explains Goddard. “There was not much design influence around me there. My grandfather was a cabinet maker, but that’s the only design-related part of my family. I found my own path through art. Through the process of going to an Art Foundation college [Middlesex], I gradually gravitated towards design, and interior design more specifically. So, I followed that track and went down the interiors and interior architecture route.”

In contrast, Littlefair was raised surrounded by the countryside. “I grew up on a farm surrounded by nature and very influenced by colour and the environment. I think I have some artists in my ancestry but nothing in my immediate family. My mother and grandmother were both very creative in terms of things they made that were useful, from cookery to creating garments and knitting. They were always working on things and reading. I was always into anything that was three-dimensional and tactile. That’s how I got into art; it was a hobby as well as something that I studied at school. I was completely driven by my own desire to do it. There were also a lot of family antiques in the farmhouse, which still make me feel at home even to this day.”

Goddard adds: “But I also think we both had a passion for travelling, exploring new things, and going to new places, and I think that is our reference library; our travelling experiences and seeing new places, architecture and cultures, etc. I think that’s where we’ve drawn a lot of our influences from, from our younger life and onwards even now. We love to soak up new places, which all filters down into our design work.”

“Travel has been a lifelong passion; Martin and I are both inquisitive and enchanted by different parts of the world,” says Littlefair. “Hotels are the window that tend to frame a lot of our experiences of destinations. For us, it’s extremely important to ensure that hotels enhance and elevate an experience by both meeting the needs of weary travellers and allowing them an avenue into the heart of the place. We are lucky enough to work across several sectors of interior design, but hotel design gives an element of escapism and scale that is addictive.”

As a destination that left a strong impression, Littlefair references France as a standout for her. “Paris was the first European city I went to, and I just couldn’t believe it – it was mind-blowing. It might be a bit of an obvious choice, but it’s a pretty special place.

“My parents took me to Versaille as well, which is quite random to take a teenage girl to (and my brother who was really not interested), but for me, the impression really lingered. The proportions, scale, grandeur, craftsmanship, the sense of patina, all those things were hugely impactful.”

For Goddard, it’s a little harder to narrow down: “London gives me a lot of inspiration, but I know it’s a bit of a boring answer. I love wandering around its streets, seeing things, looking up at the architecture, streetscapes, and the contrasts. There’s a lovely street where our new office is, it’s a very narrow Victorian street with old warehouses. When you look up at these Victorian buildings, there’s a modern office block and behind that is the Barbican Centre, all in one shot. It’s such a nice melting pot of how all the architecture goes together. I think it’s amazing, but any city in Europe has something special. There’s some beautiful architecture in Budapest, as well as in our favourite city Porto where our other office is, which is a cultural mishmash of Portugal and its lovely architecture. There isn’t a particular one for me, they all leave a mark on you.”

Since the studio’s infancy with a team of seven, the pair have now expanded their office in both numbers and locations. Littlefair elaborates: “It’s been quite organic and in response to the work that has come our way. You grow person by person, certainly in the very early stages. It’s a response to fulfilling that need at that time, and we’re now at a point where we have around 60 people here in London, which I have moments of “[gasp] really?!”. But I think that’s a really good number for us to be able to know each of those people, understand their skill sets and build relationships. That’s something Martin and I really like to do. We’re fundamentally designers, not just managing directors; we want to be involved with the clients, with the project managers, and the teams, and we like to know what’s going on, what the issues and challenges are, and so on. To be able to work with our team and ensure we put the right people on the right project is really vital.”

“And, we’ve got about 20 people in Porto now, which has grown in the last three years,” adds Goddard. “I think we’ve brought people in where we’ve seen we need skillsets. We’ve brought people in with great food and beverage experience because we wanted to make sure we were strong in that area. We have Epicurean, which is a little sub-brand of ours, which we use on those types of projects. We also wanted to bring in people that specialise in spas. I’m very passionate about spa design and wanted a team that has that knowledge, touch, and understanding to put that together.

“We also wanted some architectural capability as it’s particularly important for refurbishments and conversions of old buildings; sometimes you need a bit more of an interior sensibility on those structures, so architecturally it’s so good to have that asset in the team as well.

“Jo’s also a textiles designer, so I wanted more from that industry to come into our world and bring new ideas. We also have a chap from fine art; he has a lovely eye for detail. He did a lot of research into fine art but has fallen in love with interiors, and again he comes at it from a different angle.

“But we also want to bring in people with the right personality as well, someone we enjoy working with, and we want people to stay with us,” says Goddard. “We’ve had a couple of people that have joined us without a huge amount of experience, but we’ve really liked them so have invited them to stay and seen how it worked out, which has all turned out very positively.”

When asked about whether they would consider adding a lighting specialist to the team, Goddard references the highly skilled work of the lighting designers they collaborate with on projects. “If you look at our work, we do a lot with decorative lighting, because we love layering light; it’s not all just architectural. It’s all different levels of light from floor lamps to table lamps to wall lights, to chandeliers, which all create those layers of warm light. We also use a lot of bespoke lighting, which is sometimes sculptural, to create real moments for people to react to; they can be really important elements in a project.

“Lighting design can of course add that element of drama. We have a selection of designers we work closely with as consultants who are all much better at their speciality with knowledge of the technicalities and specifications etc. We collaborate closely to design a detailed brief that explains as much as possible about how we want a wall to be lit, for example, or where we need a pool of light or a focus on an important surface, or a moment we need to capture. The lighting designers are also much more skilled at putting the architectural layer on top of the decorative one.”

“I think [the importance and appreciation of the role of lighting and a lighting designer] has definitely increased over the years! It’s a really key ingredient that I think a lot of owners, investors, developers, and project managers all respect. As designers, we obviously knew the value very early on; if you get the ambience and atmosphere right, you can make a success of a space. Getting people to understand the importance of that as an investment piece as well has changed over the years; everyone now stresses that lighting is super important. So, for us it’s tabled very early on in our processes. We really think of the scenes we’re creating with lighting from a very early stage.”

Goddard expands on the importance of being aware of how lighting changes throughout the day as well, particularly referencing the flexibility of a hospitality space. “It’s not just a bar in the corner and the restaurant in another room, nowadays these spaces have broken down a lot more. That ambience that you would get in an F&B space now comes out into a lobby and other spaces. Environmentally, lighting designs are also key. We do a lot of work in resorts where we have to do dark sky lighting because of the effects on BREAM, etc. So, the value of good lighting, design, environment, energy saving, and all that other fun stuff that needs to happen, is very much front and centre.”

The topic then turned to discuss cyclical sustainable design and designing for longevity. “I just think design sensibly with respect for your things that can age, and age gracefully, and questioning whether you need to throw everything out every time you do a refurbishment. That can be interpreted as a sustainable way of treating design, but it’s something that we’ve just always considered. It’s just putting your sensible head on,” explains Littlefair.

“For the last 30 years, there has been a change in the amount that we need to be talking about sustainability, and from our perspective, we’ve always had it quite high on our list anyway, it’s just something that we’re personally very interested in. I think one of the things in design that is underestimated is the way that we approach it in terms of a sustainable and pragmatic way to what is already in existence, allowing space for things with patina, and appreciating how things age. Do they gel with the architecture already in the location and how much do you have to change for the sake of change? How much can be retained but improved? How do you design around things to make it all fit, or can you reuse and repurpose materiality, which has been been in place for a very long time? It goes hand in hand as well with cost savings. And cost savings have never been something that’s out of fashion; it’s always in fashion. In terms of a trend, it actually sits alongside sustainability quite naturally. We’ve always been driven to design cautiously, and carefully when we can but obviously if it needs to be a bigger bolder statement, we have to do that for the good of the project.”

Goddard elaborated more specifically on lighting, reflecting on the evolution of product availability over the last 30 years. Referencing fluorescence in particular, Goddard remembers the introduction of dimmable functions and colour temperature variations. These then developed into low-voltage and more energy-efficient versions before the later introduction of LEDs. It was at this point that a lot of designers became “very excited” with the possibilities available to “use these very small light sources”. “For us, it opened things up by allowing us to put lights into joinery, for example,” he says. “And when talking about lighting design, I think since the introduction of LED, it has gone leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in terms of the opportunities, and things we can now do with the lighting effects, such as wall washing. I think yes, environmentally, it is important, but I think the design opportunities given to us as the technology evolves is also actually amazing.”

Picking up on the sustainable and conscious design points, Littlefair notes that these are areas where classification in the interior design industry could be improved. “I feel that in terms of this sustainability angle, we’re often asked for a lot of thought leadership on this, which is great, but I think from our perspective, it’s understanding how to quantify what we put into projects. For example, how do we quantify in terms of the location of a manufacturer of an item to put into a project, and what does that give you in terms of co2 emissions? What is the reality of that product being recyclable? Do you get a certain point score from that sort of element of the product? Does every product that you put into a project have a score that then leads you to an ultimate qualification for the product? How well has the project done in being sustainable overall? At the minute, it’s very open; we try the best we can. And that is absolutely something we’re doing on a daily basis. But what is the long term? We’ve got rug tests for fabric, variability and durability, we’ve got fire standards, we’ve got soil and stain treatment, repellences, and things like that, but what else? What can we do on sustainability therefore to give it a score, that is easy to understand for designers internationally so that we know that we can design with some assurance?”

Goddard interjects: “We’re now seeing some finances linked to sustainability credentials too, so the developers are starting to need to demonstrate they are walking the walk as well as talking to talk about sustainability. Clients also need this information so they can go back to their investors and claim “yes, we are absolutely ticking these boxes”.

“I think the sort of system that Jo is describing would be an amazing way to report back, because it’s very difficult at the moment on traditional terms, for example with BREEAM and similar organisations, with regards to their tick boxes. They are fine but they’re not always location-specific, but are always product specific. With regards to how we qualify/judge the sustainability status of a project, at the moment we have broad brush measures but we could be more granular.

“We need to link it not only to sustainability but also our duty of care to things like modern slavery – where the product is being made, and how people are being treated. All of this stuff is really important to talk about as it could be part of this scoring system as well.”

Littlefair reinforces her point that the system needs to be in “an international language,” and “something that we can all understand and not complicate”. “We need to work together on this. We have talked to organisations about what can be done in the future. At the moment it’s all a bit of big-picture thinking.”

“And I think that pushes suppliers to make sure they’re compliant,” adds Goddard.

Another area within the industry the pair believe could use some development in is education. “Suppliers need to get into universities,” explains Goddard. “We never had a supplier come into my university to talk to us. Very rarely you might get taken out to a furniture show.

“But education from the industry back into education is really important. I think any course that gives you a year out in the industry is gold dust. That is my advice. Anyone looking at doing a degree in interior design, or any design, have a year out in the industry. I think you learn tonnes and then you come back to your last year very well connected.

“I think we need to encourage suppliers and manufacturers to establish connections with universities. So that part of the coursework is actually literal and it’s reciprocal. Chances are, a student who has suddenly been exposed to a timber floor manufacturer, for example, will specify a timber floor in their first project. I think you could also double up on those sustainability credentials and get that into that conversation.

“Education just needs to focus on what the end product is. It’s not killing creativity, but understanding how commercial environments work, and how you need to produce things. I was lucky to do a year out in my degree in my third year, and I came into my fourth year with so many more tools to use in my project work, not just changing my creativity, but how I presented it, what went on to the page, and how I thought, but also producing it in a speed that matches commercially.”

Bringing the discussion back to the studio’s success, the pair remark on some of their most notable projects, including respected wellness residential projects such as Southbank Place and the Chelsea Barracks Spa, and in hotels such as Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet and Corinthia Palace Malta.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the conversations around wellness change from talking about it as being an added bonus, time and budget permitting, and confined to a designated area of an overall space, to now being an element that should be integrated into every part of an interior as much as possible,” says Littlefair. “As designers of interior spaces, no longer simply confined to the spa, we need to articulate a response that delivers on an aesthetic level and beyond, creating an environment to alter moods and assist rejuvenation.

“Getting the commission to work on Gleneagles in 2015 and working with Ennismore was amazing,” she continues. “The property is incredible; the resorts are incredible. I was really able to put the heart back into that property.

“All of the principal projects that we worked on with Starwood Capital were part of those defining moments, in our early years when the business transformed. And then you’ve got people working with the likes of Hilton, Corinthia, Berkeley Homes, Canary Wharf… And now we’ve got to the final third of our decade, working with Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental, and really being able to breathe some life into them and go on a journey, and learning about craftsmanship in a different country. Every project is a learning curve; it still is, and always will be. You’ve got to be open to that at all points. And so, we look forward to the future. We’ve done a lot with this decade, and we’re still on that journey; who knows what the future holds?”

Looking at what’s next for the studio and what the teams are working on, Littlefair was quick to not say anything for fear of jinxing it! Goddard on the other hand is eager to broaden the studio’s geographical reach further to the States, Middle East and Europe. “The more we can do in Europe, the better,” he remarks. “I’d also like a landmark project in London. I’d like to do a real standout. We’ve got some lovely projects in the city already, but I mean a real standout property would be amazing to do as it always ticks the box for us.”

To finish off, in addition to Goddard’s advice on taking a year in the industry to experience the commercial world during your training and education, the final pieces of advice from the pair include being humble and finding your specialism. “I did textile design; I had no idea that there was a whole career you could do in interior design,” explains Littlefair. “I was way behind Martin in that respect. I thought interior design was for the exclusive echelons of the uber-rich, and it is to a degree, but when you go into hospitality design, there’s a whole world where you can get really involved and actually make interiors for everybody to share, which is really lovely. That’s why we love hospitality design – the theatre of it. I suffered from a lack of experience and understanding of what jobs there were out there, and I think jobs are constantly being created and there are different roles that we hear about all the time. It’s not as straightforward as it used to be. Within interiors there are specialisms. So just go for what you really enjoy, do what you really love doing, practice and hone it, and do as much of it as you can to soak it all up.”

Goddard concludes with one of the pieces of advice he received when first starting out, “be humble”.

“Appreciate the people around you who have got more experience, more talent. They’re doing their job because they’ve worked hard to do it. It’s not going to be given to you on a plate, you have to learn. As a designer you need to get the experience, you need to follow a project all the way through from start to finish. You need to hone your skills and communication with clients and with your colleagues. There’s so much to learn and you have to grow as a person; it takes time. Hospitality projects may take two years, three years, or five years depending on the size of the new build or refurbishment. You need to have the patience to learn and be open to learning from the people around you. And if you’re lucky to have really good people you work with and they take you under their wing, appreciate that. Appreciate that they’re taking time out from themselves to teach you. Get your head down, work hard, and learn.”

“And be a nice person!” exclaims Littlefair.