Dutch courage

David Chaloner walked away from a prestigious position at Conran & Partners to pursue a career as a consultant – and with his involvement in projects in the Netherlands he hasn’t looked back. Trish Lorenz looks at how he is enjoying the challenge of overc

One of the most established commercial interior designers working today, David Chaloner has a client list as long as your arm and has worked at the highest level with design consultancies such as the Conran Design Group and Conran & Partners. Yet 18 months ago he gave up the high status job titles and went out on his own, picking and choosing the projects and groups he works with. It’s not an unusual move; plenty of designers choose to go freelance, though rarely perhaps at the point in their career where prestige, creative licence and big pay packets are theirs for the taking.

Chaloner says the decision came easily at the end of a series of projects at Conran & Partners. ‘There were a couple of projects I wanted to follow up that didn’t fit with [the consultancy’s] plans, so I went off to do those,’ he says.

Those projects included a raft of work in Holland – for the Dutch Post office, Schiphol Airport (on which he works with Claessens Erdmann Architects) and a children’s museum in Amsterdam – along with shopping centres in France and Germany. Today Chaloner spends the vast majority of his time abroad, particularly in the Dutch capital and other parts of northern Europe, and he relishes the challenge of working in other countries. He enjoys the stimulation of working with a wide variety of people, he says, and ‘feeds off different cities and landscapes’.

‘I like the multiculturalism of it,’ he adds. ‘Just because the Dutch speak English doesn’t mean they are the same as us; there are lots of cultural differences.’

For a start, he says, working life is very different in Holland. There’s a culture of ‘decision-making on a very diplomatic, democratic level’, he says, which sometimes means decisions take much longer to be made. Work-life balance is a bigger issue too – many people work four days a week, everyone takes a full lunch hour away from their desks and there is less socialising with work colleagues.

‘People do work late, but it’s not the norm and one thing I miss is going out for a drink after work. It does exist but it’s not as prevalent as in the UK,’ says Chaloner. And, he adds, cultural differences are not ‘just about business and the nature of doing business’.

‘You need to learn about a country and its people and how the days function,’ he says. He cites Amsterdam as an example, where the very high levels of bicycle use (in contrast to the UK’s car-based culture) influences the way people shop. Cyclists can’t carry as much on their bikes, so the Dutch avoid the weekly supermarket run in favour of more regular shopping trips to local stores – a trend that has clearly had an impact on store design.

More fundamentally, Chaloner believes cultural understanding goes beyond day-to-day life. It’s only by understanding a culture’s broader historical influences, he says, that it’s possible to design effectively for an overseas audience. In Holland, for instance, Chaloner believes the country’s long-running battle with the sea influences designers at every level.

‘The country has a complex relationship between land and sea and this influences designers’ attitudes to materials, land mass and the value of space,’ he says. ‘It changes how they work and the structure of their living spaces; it’s deeply seated within the culture.’

He finds it influences his own work too. ‘I’ve taken a conscious decision to think very clearly about what the Dutch landscape means,’ he says. ‘It’s a flat country with lots of low-lying, often invisible water, which results in hidden reflections between land and sky. It’s changed my ideas about light and shade. I think it’s very important to have shade as well as light in retail environments and I’m much more conscious of that here than in the UK.’

Cultural differences aside, Chaloner has found that working alone also means he’s running projects differently. Perhaps because of his level of experience, Chaloner has found that acting as a sole consultant has given him access to the highest echelons of client management. ‘I have found that it’s easier to slip in at chief executive and board level when you’re not carrying a bigger team,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m considered a consultant and the degree to which consultants are acknowledged is slightly more serious than design. It’s often a problem with design that it tends to find itself talking at a procurement or management level.’

But, on the flip side, it also means that there’s no longer a big team to rely on. ‘I have to come up with ideas and opinions backed up by knowledge and information, so I’ve found I have to be very well-versed in what I’m talking about,’ he says.

That’s not to say that working independently means working alone. On several of his projects he’s working on a fee basis with other groups. Chaloner has also hooked up with past clients, colleagues and friends from different design disciplines to deliver his projects. ‘Part of the whole process is about having fun, and I like working with friends. It’s not nepotism, it’s just a good way to work,’ he says.

Looking ahead, he sees his role developing into that of a mentor. ‘I’m hoping I can get involved with lots of different projects, that I can make use of my experiences and share them and help other people,’ he says.

Going it alone at any stage of your career is a big step. But it seems that it suits Chaloner’s style of working and his approach to design.


David Chaloner

David Chaloner was creative director at Conran Design Group until December 2004. He then joined Conran & Partners as retail design director. Here he worked with the group on a series of projects, including retail design for Gap in the US and the development of the global retail format for sports brand Umbro. In January 2006, he struck out on his own.

Chaloner’s interests lie beyond interior design. He is currently working on a ‘multi-media’ project in the UK, is a published poet, has been involved in writing for plays and enjoys painting. Often known as Ronnie (as in Wood) to friends, he’s famed for his rock ’n’ roll approach to life.

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