Interior designer Marta Nowicka has overcome personal tragedy, rebuilt her career and become a property developer. Pamela Buxton talks to her about reinhabiting spaces, ideal projects and car-park aesthetics
‘It’s time to get the business cards printed,’ says Marta Nowicka, signalling her formal return to the design world after several years away.
Back in the early 2000s, Nowicka Stern, the interiors consultancy she co-founded with Oded Stern-Meira, was a familiar name, responsible for a string of fresh and funky offices and restaurants. Most memorably, at the height of the dotcom surge, she came up with award-winning offices for Another.com, which featured swings instead of chairs at reception, and a staff breakout area in the form of a real lawn.
But then tragedy struck when her husband died shortly before the birth of their son. Needing time to cope with her loss and concentrate on the baby, she sold her half of Nowicka Stern. Five years later she’s back, firing on all cylinders as Nowicka & Co, having landed the job of creating new London premises for Framestore, the visual effects and computer animation agency whose credits include Batman: The Dark Knight and The Golden Compass.
So far, the company is small – just Nowicka and designer Sarah Phillips – but she’s excited at the prospect of what might happen if and when the company grows, as long as she can balance it with family life.
‘I love being in the unknown,’ she says. ‘My approach is very fluid in life. I take it as it comes and if it happens, I’ll embrace it.’
While she’s excited about being back in the fray, she’s been anything but idle in the interim. As well as bringing up her son and teaching interior architecture at London Metropolitan University, her new situation fuelled her entrepreneurial streak. Looking for something that would make money, while making the most of her architectural knowledge, she turned property developer and has been energetically pursuing development opportunities.
Her first completed project is now fully let – the conversion of listed offices that were once the Labour Party’s campaign headquarters in Charles Square in London’s Hoxton into five generously proportioned flats. More than 40 other developers had been to view the site, but all had thought it unviable to convert because of its listed status. Doggedly submitting four planning proposals before gaining the permission to go ahead, Nowicka eventually made it happen. She’s now got the development bug. Work has already started on her next project off London’s Old Street, and she’s constantly on the lookout for new sites. ‘I really enjoy it – it’s such a kick. I really want to develop my developing,’ she says.
Nowicka has also been working on projects with artists and art dealers. Well-connected in London’s contemporary art scene, it seemed a natural step, with her first completing studios for Gillian Wearing and Michael Landy in north London, and then premises for art dealer and gallery owner Karsten Schubert, in the former studio of design consultancy Hosker Moore Kent Melia in London’s Golden Square. Here, she installed a new mezzanine and inner ‘wrapping’ to create the large display walls which contrast with the ornate Victorian decoration. Next up is a gallery for art dealer Archeus in a Foster & Partners-designed penthouse in Battersea, south London.
She’s enthusiastic about the Framestore project, a conversion of a former basement car park and ground floor office in central London. She had previously worked on the company’s Soho premises with Nowicka Stern, and was pleased when it tracked her down for its new offices. Due to be completed this year, the 930m2 project includes four cinema suites, as well as special effects studios, and will have what Nowicka calls a ‘car park aesthetic’, in reference to its previous use, with blocks of glazed illuminated walls.
This relationship between former and new uses is one that informs her approach to design, which is concerned with ‘reinhabiting’ and ‘recycling’ space. ‘It’s very much about exposing and being true to the building, and keeping a real rigour with materials. It’s the plan that generates the scheme for me,’ she says.
Her ideal project would be to get hold of a 1960s tower block and convert it to mixed use, combining retail with residential and offices. Another dream project would be to design a hotel. ‘It would be quite small and very seductive. Hotels are a bit like offices with a bed – it’d be great to design a really sensual one,’ she enthuses.
Nowicka admits she’s not good at doing nothing and it is this drive and energy that has stood her in good stead in difficult times. But, finally, she’s doing herself a favour, having earmarked the penthouse apartment in her latest development, complete with three roof terraces and basement swimming pool, for herself and her son. After such a rocky ride, there are few who would begrudge her that.