Soho House and Beaverbrook interior designer Susie Atkinson talks to Effect about the art of creating rooms that make you feel relaxed
Interior designer Susie Atkinson is considering what informs her characterful, pattern-rich style. “I think I have a weird fear of feeling cold,” she says, after some thought. “I’m always thinking, how can I make this room feel more welcoming, more warm? I like rooms that make you want to take off your shoes, have a cocktail and feel relaxed. I don’t like formality; people let their hair down and have a good time if things aren’t too stiff and starchy.”
It’s an approach that explains her success as one of the UK’s leading hotel designers: high-profile projects have included Babington House and Soho House Berlin for the Soho House group, and the country-house hotels Beaverbrook in Surrey, and Lime Wood in Hampshire, where she is gradually redesigning all of the bedroom suites.
The brief here was for an informal, welcoming and homely interior, with a contemporary undertone, so Atkinson’s focus was to give each room its own identity, rather than taking what she calls the “copy and paste” route. The result is that the hotel has the feel of a true country house, with all of its idiosyncrasies: some rooms are comfortably rustic, with sisal floors and tongue-and-groove walls; others are subtly glamorous, with scenic wallpaper, velvet upholstery and free-standing bathtubs. The architecture is always front of mind, however: “Lime Wood is very classical in its proportions, so it would be weird if the interiors were really crazy and out-there,” she says.
I like rooms that make you want to take off your shoes, have a cocktail and feel relaxed.Susie Atkinson
Atkinson’s ability to respect the shell of a building, and yet introduce unexpected touches to its interiors, characterises her style: at Soho House Berlin, for example, which occupies an austere building of concrete, glass and steel that was previously the Stasi headquarters, she brought in armchairs upholstered in a glazed floral chintz. “For me, it was all about how we could bring in some warmth and jolly it up,” she says. “The building needed drama, but not in a severe way. It was quite a risk, as when I visited Berlin to work on the project I don’t think I saw a single floral fabric anywhere in the city, but those fabrics were what everyone was interested in when it opened.”
Her flair for a floral no doubt has its roots partly in her training: after early careers as both a chef and a PA in London’s financial sector, she retrained at the Inchbald School of Design and landed a job with the decorator Chester Jones, formerly of the legendary British decorating firm Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. It was here that she learned some of the key tenets of classic British design, and her skill ever since has been in giving those decorating codes her own spin, so that her work is the perfect fit for an English country hotel, but also for a wide variety of residential projects, from townhouses in London to a property in the Netherlands and a contemporary clifftop home on a Greek island.
In each, that focus on a warm, welcoming ambience that is so important to her is the recurring theme. “It’s a combination of textures,” she says of how she puts such an interior together. “If you’re got a building with a lot of glass and steel and stone, for example, then I’ll want to warm that up with soft-textured wool fabrics to counterbalance it. It’s all about the balance of colour and tone and texture, and of course lighting.”
She is a fan of an upholstered wall – “It’s amazing how a fabric-lined wall can instantly change the atmosphere of a room, as well as giving a wonderful acoustic, and it’s more hardwearing than people think” – and always has conviviality and cohesion in mind, whether she is working on a hotel or a home. “I think of the flow of people through a space, and the flow of one room onto another, and plan the layout and furniture placement accordingly.”
When it comes to decorating trends, she is always on the lookout for fresh inspiration and interesting makers, but is not led by fashion; she was doing bobbin mirrors, for example, long before they appeared all over Instagram. Again, it all comes down to how a colour or pattern will make a room feel to someone in it, and comfort is paramount. “Although it’s very fashionable to use dark-coloured paints, and they can make a north-facing room feel cosy, for me, a south-facing room painted a dark colour will never feel comfortable,” she points out. Her own palette tends to be softer, with greens, yellows, pale blues and plaster pinks among her go-to colours, albeit with touches of richness, too. “I go through phases, weeks, where I’m passionate about one colour or another,” she says. “I’m very into reds at the moment; I think that’s something we’re going to see coming through a lot.”
Her flair for mixing colour and pattern is evident in every room she has designed – but that’s not to say she takes the “more is more” approach. “I like spaces that don’t feel over-cluttered,” she says. “I think people tend to put too many things into a space. I like things to sit in their own space so they can be appreciated for what they are and not all jammed in together.”
It’s amazing how a fabric-lined wall can instantly change the atmosphere of a room, as well as giving a wonderful acoustic.Susie Atkinson
This combination of combining different colours, textures and styles, but with restraint, has also informed her collection of products, available through her website, which has been developed over the past few years. “We love doing the products, because we’re often designing pieces for hotel projects that we can’t find elsewhere, so we’ve ended up making them ourselves; it’s been really good fun.”
Her collection now includes everything from sofas, chairs, desks and tables, to accessories such as mirrors, lamps and candles, and a growing range of fabrics, wallpapers and borders. Each has its own distinctive twist – a chequerboard motif, perhaps, a stud detail on a chair, or a bright, high-gloss lamp base.
Playful touches such as these help to bring her rooms to life, bringing character and atmosphere: an element so hard to define, and so hard to achieve without such an expert eye. In the end, this is what drives her. “I really would find it difficult to design a room without having physically been in it,” she says. “So much of a room’s success is down to how it feels.” Studio Atkinson
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