Iain Watson

November 2, 2023

To mark his 35 years at David Collins Studio, darc’s editor Sarah Cullen sits down with Iain Watson, CEO, to discuss his time at the company and how it has remained a consistent name in the interior design world – producing some of the UK’s most iconic retail and hospitality venues.

Interior design practice David Collins Studio (DCS) was founded in 1985 by the late David Collins. The London-based studio, and its team of 60 interior designers and architects, works globally across hospitality,  residential and retail projects as well as maritime in the last five years, designing parts of Cunard’s latest ship Queen Anne.

Iain Watson joined Collins’ team in 1988, following a summer helping for a few months during a busy period where they worked from Collins’ living room. This successful experience evolved into Watson becoming a business partner and co-founder of the studio we know today. Sadly, Collins passed away in 2013 and it was then that Watson stepped into the role of Chief Executive Officer, supported by Simon Rawlings who heads the studio’s creative vision as Chief Creative Officer, David Goodman as Chief Operating Officer, and Design Directors Lewis Taylor and Ros Keet.

Keet leads the FF&E department, and a dedicated residential design team is led by Associate Director Siobhan Kelly. In addition to the interior designers, the studio also employs several architects, furniture and product designers, and a business team with in-house PR and marketing.

This August, Watson celebrated his 35th anniversary at David Collins Studio. darc’s editor Sarah Cullen sat down with the CEO to find out more about his career journey and how he has seen the world of design and decorative lighting evolve over the last three decades.

“I grew up in Glasgow, on the West Coast of Scotland. I moved down to London to study Business and Economics, but I’ve always had a great passion for design, art, architecture, and fashion – I’m still obsessed with fashion – and all manner of creative things,” he says. “When I was younger, I was encouraged to choose a commercial degree rather than an arts degree. But as it’s played out, I’ve ended up where I belong and love.

“Glasgow is a cultural city and famous for architect Charles Rennie Macintosh. Not only was he known for creating incredible buildings, but he also did interiors, designing everything down to the last spoon, teacup, and curtain. I was always taken by this wonderful world of detail he was creating.

“As a teenager, during my holidays I worked at my father’s factory where he made leather goods. It was interesting to see  the processes of how things are designed, built, printed, stitched together, manufactured, and distributed.”

Watson tells darc how he was also exposed to the textile industry during the late 70s and early 80s, when he lived in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with his grandparents. His grandmother made  traditional Harris tweed by hand using the original foot-pedalled techniques at home.

During his time studying in London, Watson became well versed with – as he refers to it – ‘his triangle route’, walking along Sloane Square and down to the Habitat store, where he would study everything in the shops along his route, learning prices of items off by heart and developing his love for luxury items and interiors.

“I first met David Collins by chance,” he tells us. “He was wearing the same Dries Van Noten jacket as me, and at that time you could only buy them in a specific shop in Glasgow. It was a total fluke!

“David was a trained architect, and he had worked in commercial practices, but his passion was for interior architecture. He had designed famous London restaurant La Tante Claire in 1985, as well as private homes and a men’s fashion store. These collective experiences on projects from different sectors were the foundations the studio was built on.

“That continues today, albeit now on a global scale with an incredible range of projects. We might be designing retail spaces in Harrods London and a Nobu Hotel Portman Square in Marylebone. Private homes are also part of the mix along with commercial residential developments.

“Wellness is a bit of a personal passion of mine, and I’ve seen it increase in popularity in the interiors’ world. Wellness is more than having a gym at the end of the corridor. It’s about the quality of the air, the lighting, paint hues, what the paint is made of, and materiality. It’s interesting to see this wellness brief entering projects more.”

In the early days of the studio, Watson spent a lot of time in Paris with Collins, visiting flea markets and auction houses sourcing furniture and artwork. The design process for projects would always involve research into local cultures, materials, and craftsmanship as well as higher levels of inspiration from galleries, for example, to give the project a sense of place.

“David loved all things Art Deco, 1920s, and Hollywood. Spaces that were elaborate, overscale and generally over the top like a film set.

“The studio has worked in more than 25 countries, which is inspiring in itself,” continues Watson. “You embrace all the experience you’ve gathered, find local craftsman and artisans.

“In our studio of sixty-five people, we currently have 12 different nationalities, which enriches our understanding and appreciation of cultures and continues to inspire us and our work.

“Something we feared as a repercussion of Brexit was the potential that our cultural mix in the office would gradually be eroded over time, with less international students coming to study, live and work in the UK. But we hope this isn’t the case.”

Looking a little closer at the studio’s aesthetic and approach to projects, Watson explains that they steer away from trends and instead blend a unique mix of references, whether through historic periods, techniques, or theories. “Obviously, we are inspired by the architecture of a space and its sense of place,” he explains. “Often, people refer to our interiors as timeless and I feel as a studio we demonstrate this very well. We did an assessment of the lifespan of our bar and restaurant projects, and the average is currently 18 years. The Wolseley will celebrate its 20th anniversary later this year,  one of the most successful restaurants in London, and it’s still serving 1,200 covers a day. The Connaught Bar, also in London, is 15 years old and is still winning awards for best bar in the world. I like to say that we are the antidote to ‘being on trend’ – longevity and quality are at the centre of all our designs.

“The hallmark of our projects is that they are incredibly well resolved from an operations standpoint. We always push to get great quality and integrity in our materials that age beautifully. Hospitality venues work like machines and it’s important to understand exactly how a space is used. It’s that thinking that underpins the experiences, so from the moment you cross the street and approach a building – the signage, the arrival, the lighting, the acoustics – all this needs to be curated.

“Further to this, a project’s timeless quality also relies a lot on its concept and research that goes into each. The sense of place, the customer’s journey, the type of building it’s in, the cuisine or cocktails if it’s a restaurant or bar. Everything is so detail-oriented that it is perfectly placed for where it is needed.”

An example of where theatrics can play a role in DCS’s interior design can be found at the aforementioned Wolseley in London. The client requested a sister venue to be designed using the same theme and concept. However, the location, rather than a grade II listed building, was a blank concrete box. “The perfect complement we received was guests questioning whether the building used to be an old bank. We had created this sense of familiarity using slightly aged marble – not distressed, just softened – which led people to think it was a converted historic building, when in actual fact it was pure theatre.

“Similarly at Harrods department store in London, people were amazed that they had never been to a certain section of the store before, when actually, we had transformed it from the original staff canteen into a 14,000sqft Shoe Heaven that looked like an original Harrods’ store experience. It was just a carefully curated design that felt like it had always been there, drawing heavily on the store’s archives and executing the design to the highest standard.”

It is apparent David Collins Studio prides itself on its close working relationships with clients and end-users. Taking a leaf out of Charles MacIntosh’s book, the dedication to the smallest details in the design scheme are fundamental to a project’s success.

A challenge the team comes across most frequently is ever shortening design programmes, and the short cuts that are suggested as a result of this. But, according to Watson, education is key to the client achieving their goals and them understanding the design needs to go through a process to guarantee the highest level of refinement. Especially when it comes to product design – prototypes are not to be skipped. “We choose our clients based on shared values in terms of commitment to quality, operations and budgets,” he says. 

Another challenge the team has had to overcome arose in 2010 when they were commissioned to design the new build Mandarin Oriental hotel in Doha’s Msheireb Downtown. “The hotel had numerous rooms, huge male and female spas, restaurants, and bars – it was an incredible job. But the client wanted to work to LEED platinum certification –  a very high standard. LED lights weren’t what they are now and the ones we were given were cold and unflattering that weren’t suitable for a restaurant. In the end, we delivered gold certification, which is still a high standard. It was a bit of a baptism of fire and a big challenge, but in turn we were well placed for future projects that came with LEED or BREEAM certification briefs.”

When it comes to decorative lighting in a DCS project, custom and bespoke plays a big part.

“We have some lighting manufacturers and partners that we specify fittings from, but more often than not we create fully bespoke decorative lighting and furniture for our clients as we believe this adds value to a project.”

Club Lucca in Hong Kong is a recent project that demonstrates some custom lighting the team created using alabaster. The fittings were considered at the initial stages of the concept, during the creation of mood boards with textiles, metal finishes, marble, and alabaster. The outcome was a beautiful family of lighting, with subtle differences depending on the room they were fitted.

Watson reflects on the first project he worked on with Collins, Marco Pierre White’s first restaurant, Harveys, that received three Michelin stars. The interiors followed a 1920s concept with the space realised in a white-on-white palette. “The common thread for the design of this restaurant was plaster. Everything was custom made for the space, from the wet plaster carved wall murals to the wall sconces and chandeliers. It was another challenge for me working with the fiery Pierre White, but we ended up building a continued working relationship with him, completing designs for another 20 of his restaurants.”

As well as having a strong bespoke offering, the team also collaborate with decorative lighting brands to specify off-the-shelf products as well as create pieces. Watson references their partnership with Lobmeyr, which supplied a re-issued vintage chandelier for The Bryanston Show Apartment, London, a project the studio worked on in 2022. Prior to this, they collaborated on a fixture for a villa on the Côte d’Azure in 2006. The challenging aspect of the product’s design was connecting the individual parts of glass and metal for the light fixture without any visible screws. The original design, with 13 lights, combined a nickel finish for the body with plates of dark-nickel brass and smoke-grey glass for the shades. The design went on to feature in the London Hotel in New York as well as in Collins’ own home in the UK.

“For the project in New York, the client bought six floors of an apartment building, with the top four floors made into a quadruplex apartment and the floors below made into a duplex. One of the ideas we had was to make a cubist chandelier, quite geometric, but we made it to go four floors up the building in a central staircase. That’s highly technical in terms of weight, safety, how to clean it, there’s lot to think about. So, certainly Lobmeyr’s skills and how to do that were needed.”

In addition to product design collaborations, The Studio also works closely with lighting consultants such as Lighting Design International (LDI) for projects that need the elevated technical lighting support. Simon Rawlings gives creative conceptual direction to the team at LDI – as well as other lighting consultants – to ensure certain elements are highlighted. The fresh food hall in Harrods is a prime example of the successful teamwork between DCS and LDI, where technical lighting had to be tested on site with the fresh produce to guarantee colour temperatures, for example, were correct to enhance the look of the fresh produce. “It’s an exacting process, testing and piloting. When I’ve seen some of the technical  details in most of these spaces, there are three or four layers of lighting that they must weave together. The lighting is so magical.

“It’s also fundamental to the success of hospitality environments, to aid in daily transitions from breakfast through to evening. The mood and atmosphere need to evolve throughout the day.

“We always push clients to have a lighting consultant. As I said earlier it’s about educating clients, it’s the same with lighting. They might not be aware that it’s such a specialism, and really requires that technical knowledge that we don’t have in-house. Lighting design and consultation needs to be given the importance that it deserves on a project. We’re always championing and putting forward the lighting consultants to work with us.”

One of Watson’s stand out projects in the studio’s portfolio of work is the Criterion Restaurant in London, another for Marco Pierre White, that was completed in 1995.

“The room was so intimidating because of its grandeur. We lined these beautiful Fortuny Italian, hand-painted silk lights down the side of the room, which lowered the lighting levels and made the space feel more intimate. We couldn’t fix anything to the walls, so these lights were freestanding floor lamps that added a touch of magic to the room along with sheer large, draped curtains.” 

Another of his favourite projects was for an installation at Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse in New York, where the team created The Collins Room entrance hall based on the studio’s famous Blue Bar at The Berkley Hotel in London, which was completed in 2002. The six-week installation in 2016 featured semi- custom versions of the Lutyens Cardinal Hat pendants that took inspiration from the chandelier used in the original Blue Bar scheme. The original design from the 1920s used plates of glass, which were updated to alabaster in the new installation.

Looking ahead, environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is on everyone’s minds at David Collins Studio. Circularity and repairability are avenues the studio are keen to explore, as Watson keeps an eye on other industries to see how they tackle these challenges and what might filter into the interior design world. “As the CEO from Hermes said, ‘luxury is an item that can be repaired’.

“There isn’t so much a system in place for the end of a project’s lifecycle, but more recently we have been made aware of items of David Collins Studio furniture and lighting being sold at auction to give them a second life.”

Technology is also becoming a more prominent focus for decorative lighting and something Watson isn’t convinced by. “For us, technology must be intuitive and discreet. We’ve seen complicated lighting systems, and in the residential market people might want all kinds of bells and whistles, but the reality is sometimes they’re not very easy to use and very expensive to reprogramme.”

It’s evident the experts in design longevity, luxury furniture and bespoke lighting design are quickly making a name for themselves as a British icon in the interior design world. And, if the studio continues to create projects the way they have for the last 38 years, there’s no doubt we will see their designs standing the test of time for many years to come.