Ten years ago Carlos Virgile and Nigel Stone were household names in design. The interiors duo had shifted from Fitch, then a publicly quoted company headed by Rodney Fitch, to Imagination, the events supergroup that was then broadening its design offer to architecture, graphics and what was to become brand experience. A host of fashionable new central London restaurants bore their mark. The success of Soho eateries Braganza (now Six Degrees), the Red Fort and Soho Soho was echoed on the other side of Oxford Street in Charlotte Street’s stylish Indian restaurant Jamdani (now closed). Their output reflected the 1980s lifestyle of boom-time London.
Restaurant work has continued over the years, not least through the ChÃ©z Gerard chain, with its celebrated steak and pommes frites, but we don’t hear much of Virgile and Stone these days. Yet a glance through the group’s lavish new book, detailing its ten-year-life, reveals a wealth of high-profile international work for clients as varied as Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe, Andersen Consulting and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Much of the work is for restaurants or in the retail sector – Heal’s, Space NK, Yves Saint Laurent and Stephen Bull, for example. But there are also hotel and office projects, exhibitions and even product design, branding and identity work. And the work has more to offer than sheer spread and volume. It is a cut above the rest, full of ideas and intelligence, at a time when most interiors projects lack spark.
The consultancy, while still operating as a profit centre within Imagination, is independent in terms of getting work. So how have Virgile and Stone managed to expand their team to some 50 people, to include architects and graphic designers among others, and build such a varied portfolio outside the glare of publicity?
“Opportunities have just presented themselves to us,” says Stone. The work has been, and continues to be international, particularly, for example, in The Netherlands, France and Germany. “We didn’t establish it as a target. It just happened naturally,” he says.
“We have clarity about where we’re going, but have never responded to some marketing strategy,” adds Virgile. However, he points out that the consultancy’s development reflects how design has changed, particularly over the past five years, and the way that clients use it. The retail sector, which was the starting point for Virgile and Stone through the company’s long-standing relationship with Dutch department store group De Bijenkorf, has, for example, seen a strong movement away from pure interiors and towards branding. But there is more to Virgile and Stone’s success.
“We started to have a reputation for creating new ideas,” says Virgile. “We’ve therefore managed to break through into areas we haven’t handled before.”
Examples include work for Arthur Andersen, where the consultancy has, for instance, created a truck which opens out to become a graduate recruitment centre that can be taken on to university campuses. It has also worked on the interiors for Andersen Consulting’s aborted London headquarters building by Foster and Partners, on Volkswagen’s Autostadt mega-complex in Wolfsburg, Germany, and on a massive retail project at Schiphol airport, where it collaborated with overall architect Benthem Crouwel.
Many of the projects have come through word of mouth. The 16-year-old relationship with De Bijenkorf led to work with a Dutch developer, for example. More curiously, a Belgian food and beverage consultant turned up one day at the consultancy’s London office with “a suitcase full of jobs”, ranging from a shopping centre in Rotterdam to the Autostadt project and a nightclub in Korea.
Schiphol came via the shopfitter who worked on De Bijenkorf, while the Benthem Crouwel connection has led to the Villa Arena furniture mall in Amsterdam for Ing Vastgoed, due to open next year. And then there is the Saudi Arabian princess who liked the consultancy’s work at a hotel in India so much that she wants to export the concept to Jeddah.
“It depends on the chemistry between people,” says Virgile. “Design is getting more and more like that. We seem to have created a niche that not many are tapping into – an architectural approach to interiors.”
A key strength of the consultancy is the bond between Virgile, an Argentinian-born architect, and Stone, who he employed at Fitch. The decision to quit Fitch was a logical progression. “We were quite independent in Fitch,” says Virgile. “But we wanted to push things further. It felt right to have fewer of the restrictions imposed by a big company structure. We needed to move on to develop a different approach to the work.”
The intention on leaving Fitch was to set up on their own and the duo had been looking at premises and had evolved a business plan. But then came a chance meeting with Imagination boss Gary Withers. It was the first of many opportunities that have helped to shape the consultancy’s progress.
“There was an immediate understanding with Withers,” says Virgile. “He acted through intuition. He knew we had something to offer. You can’t compare Imagination to an ordinary design consultancy – Ron Herron [the late architect] was there at the time, so some things were attractive to us and we could contribute retail interiors to Imagination.”
But the link with Imagination is only really at the top level, with Withers and Imagination finance director Richard Adams sitting on the Virgile and Stone board.
“Sometimes we wish for more involvement with Imagination’s work, but we have to go and ask for it,” says Stone, wistfully. “We can call in Imagination’s expertise – for example, its production people have been involved in our exhibition projects and we have used its lighting designers.” But that is where it ends.
As for the future, we can expect more of the same from Virgile and Stone in terms of quality, while the scope continues to broaden. The international spread is also set to escalate with offices now in New York, through Imagination, and one in Hong Kong in the offing.
“But we’re thinking of something where we don’t have a client,” says Stone. “Something we set up and create.”
That something would most obviously be in retail, given the breadth of experience there, but it will be interesting to see how far any Virgile and Stone venture goes towards “brand expression”, drawing it closer towards Imagination’s heart, and if the duo can pull it off as quietly as they have assembled the rest of their portfolio.