The founders of Softroom, joint Best of Show winner in the Design Week Awards, first made their names in the style press. Clare Dowdy talks to them about submerged hotels, airport lounges and ‘proper’ architecture

It all started at the Cardiff Opera House. Christopher Bagot and Oliver Salway teamed up with a couple of other Bartlett School of Architecture final-year students and entered the design competition for the new house in 1993. All of a sudden, they found themselves in the last eight, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rem Koolhaas and, of course, the eventual winner – Zaha Hadid.

To work on the next phase, they needed an office, and although they didn’t win, ‘we got a taste for working for ourselves’, says Salway.

The quartet dispersed, but Salway and Bagot joined forces a year later and Softroom was born. But despite its architectural background and beginnings, Softroom has always had more strings to its bow.

The duo started out – like many a fledgling architect – on small domestic interiors projects, and they combined those with computer visualisation for other people. That got their name known, and their big break was a series of articles for Wallpaper magazine. Its first few issues included a regular feature called Dreampad, and Salway and Bagot created about half a dozen of these schemes, filling many pages each time.

That’s not to say Softroom wasn’t doing architecture: it was a small but perfectly formed creation that really put it on the map. Its 1999 shelter for walkers in Kielder Forest was not only very photogenic – and hence very publishable – ‘but it was public arts and regional, so it cemented good will towards us. And that got us on shortlists as the interesting young people’, says Salway.

Then Selfridges came along with a couple of tasty interiors projects: a (now-defunct) private dining room on the second floor, a men’s department and Spirit.

But Softroom’s rise received a sudden boost when Virgin Atlantic showed an interest. Not only did Softoom pull off the upper class cabin interior with Pearson Lloyd, but it then got a second job. At 2320m2, the £1m business class lounge at London Heathrow airport is the biggest project the group has completed.

‘That might have left us purely in the commercial sector,’ says Salway, ‘But on the same day we got the lounge, we won two Victoria & Albert Museum projects. They were a very nice counterbalance to Virgin Atlantic because the agenda is cultural rather than commercial.’

Interestingly, Softroom was the only consultancy on the V&A shortlist for both the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art and the Education Centre, meaning that in one competition it was up against exhibition designers, and in the other, against architects.

‘It’s amazing how compartmentalised design is,’ says Salway, adding that he and Bagot have deliberately tried not to limit themselves. ‘We’ve achieved that by showing an interest in all these sectors, it’s not just variety for variety’s sake,’ Bagot adds.

Nowadays, the duo like to divide their time between arts-based work – including a forthcoming Tate Britain exhibition; commercial work – they expect to get the go-ahead on a Europe- wide retail project in February; and new build. Along with Kielder, Softroom has also completed an apartment block in Southwark called Wireworks, and perhaps most excitingly it has recently won a whole new country house hotel, Croston Hall in Lancashire.

In terms of scale, Croston Hall is Softroom’s biggest project, and it is now preparing the planning application. Its scheme proposes that much of the accommodation is semi-submerged into earth structures. If all goes to plan, the hotel will go on site in 2008, and both architects say they would like to be involved right down to the smallest detail.

So, while the pair are happy with a variety of interiors projects, they hate to lose sight of ‘proper’ architecture schemes for too long. And that’s how the hotel came along, explains Bagot, ‘We were desperate for daylight and pitched for a lot of new build last year.’

All this activity happens out of a fifth-floor Oxford Street office in London, complete with its own roof terrace. And with all this work on, the ten-strong Softroom is entering an expansion phase. ‘It may well be that we need to become a bit more structured internally,’ says Bagot, one idea is to ‘look at allegiances with other firms so that we can work on bigger projects without scaling up ourselves’. Clearly, Softroom’s founders are now ready to move their 12-year-old business up a gear.

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