In 2000, the partnership split on a sour note, although Russell is generous with praise for the ‘incredibly talented’ Adjaye, who has since built up a highly successful practice.
The second phase in his career has been five years in charge of his own practice. Here, he took on his first retail project, designing a series of boutiques for McQueen. He produced an ethereal interior, with display systems suspended to give the impression that they are floating. ‘Sometimes you do your best work when you come to something with no experience, because you have no preconceptions,’ he says.
These interiors embody two key themes running through his work – flush detailing and a limited materiality. ‘You can create a very complex space with very limited materials. There’s no need for 50 different materials bouncing off each other,’ he says.
For his retail concept for herbalist Culpeper, he used just a handful of materials – Douglas fir, plaster, brick and slate. For Howell’s Wigmore Street store in London he used dark brown plywood to accentuate the low floor-to-ceiling height at the front of the store and create more of a contrast when the space opens up further back. Russell enjoys learning as he goes along – designing the Hats & Handbags exhibition at Kensington Palace taught him all about museum-standard lighting levels – and he likes the challenge of a tricky brief, whether it is real or self-imposed.
For a housing competition in London’s Bermondsey, Russell set himself the task of cladding one facade of the high-rise block in photovoltaic panels to power the building. He is also interested in doing speculative schemes for promising sites, as he did with his social housing project for a site near Spitalfields Market with a photovoltaic roof. Neither was built, but he enjoyed the challenge. A current residential project for a 9m x 50m building-locked site with no views out is also the sort he relishes.
Russell sees himself as a ‘laid-back perfectionist’ who is always on the lookout for ‘accidents and experiments’. Joining Pentagram should enable him to translate his love of a challenge and his proven design skills on to a bigger and more international playing field.
William Russell’s career
Training: Degree in architecture at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne followed by an MA at the Royal College of Art
Practice: Adjaye & Russell 1994-2000. Projects include his own house in the East End of London, houses for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili, Soba Noodle Bar, The Social.
William Russell Architecture & Design 2000-end of March 2005. Projects include retail design for Alexander McQueen, Margaret Howell and Culpeper, plus various domestic interiors and exhibitions, including Hats and Handbags at Kensington Palace.
Pentagram (from April 2005)