How to design for challenging spaces

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From the inside of a cigar-shaped plane to Winston Churchill’s wartime bunker, designers tell us about the trickiest spaces they’ve had to work with.

David Dalziel, group creative director, Dalziel and Pow
David Dalziel, group creative director, Dalziel and Pow

“We’ve been designing stores for 30 years, but started our business designing pubs and clubs in the early 1980s. Long before Bermondsey was cool, we designed a club in the railway arches behind London Bridge. The space was so wet we had to erect a waterproof copper lining and drainage system to cope with the constant flow of water from the brick arch. The club was busy, but as with many of these ventures, short-lived. No doubt someone has come along, sorted out the issues and created something a little more comfortable by now.”


Dinah Casson
Dinah Casson, co-founder, Casson Mann

“When we first saw the space for the new Churchill Museum, our hearts sank. HOK  had just ‘restored’ this low-ceilinged basement, leaving a grid of huge brick piers, a bright yellow parquet floor and a forest of steel columns and overhead beams, all painted a non-negotiable bright red. The steelwork had been added in 1940 when the floor above had been filled with 23cm of concrete, creating a bombproof bunker for Churchill’s Cabinet. It was hard to imagine anything going in there, let alone a modern museum – but two years later, the steelwork was all grey, the yellow pine was hardly visible and our new museum was installed, either disguising or embracing everything else.” 


Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean
Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean

“Converting a series of office buildings into a new media gallery was one of our first projects, as well as our longest running and most enduring. Over seven years developing this amazing project, we have designed and amended several versions of the brief, produced detailed drawings, addressed changes in function and site, and exercised a lot of free will. Yet none of these challenges were as arduous as having to start from scratch when we received a photo of our site in India where the front six metres of the building had been sawn off to make way for the city metro!”


Paul Lee, senior designer, Mather & Co
Paul Lee, senior designer, Mather & Co

“For restoration project York Minster Revealed, we had the challenge of working in the Undercroft basement areas of the Cathedral. As the project progressed, we soon found out that designing in this kind of space was not going to be easy – the temperature and humidity were difficult to control and the space was also prone to flooding! We worked with the architect and project team to make critical changes to the design so that it could withstand the conditions, including adding durable materials, top specification cases to create mini climates and raised platforms. Now priceless objects from the York Minster’s collections are on display.”


Sebastian Conran, founder, Sebastian Conran Associates © Photography by Manvir Rai for Junction Eleven Studios
Sebastian Conran, founder, Sebastian Conran Associates
© Photography by Manvir Rai for Junction Eleven Studios

“The most challenging space I recall collaborating on was the last interior refit of the Concorde plane for British Airways. The inside space has been likened to a cigar tube, but was in fact much wider than most private aircrafts. The focus was on creating a seamless experience that felt unique, exclusive and luxurious but not excessive in any way. This was achieved by using modern classic furniture in the lounge, and the best in light-weight materials on board – although titanium cutlery was deemed too light – alongside exquisite-but-smallish portions of expensive food and wine, all reflecting the ethos of the plane.”


Ab Rogers
Ab Rogers, founder, Ab Rogers Design

“We’ve worked in many challenging spaces over the years. Designing the ‘From the House to the City’ exhibition for the IFC, amongst Hong Kong’s busiest commercial centres, was one of the most adventurous. Though a significant cultural exhibition, the installation needed to bend to the commerical schedule of the mall – working from 10pm to 6am over three nights (the show installation had a normal workload of three weeks). The space was explored both vertically and horizontally. Situated in a central circulation point in the mall, the installation had to stop people in their tracks and make them look up from their mobile phones. We used 86 models, 24 films, 38 banners, and a collection of pink sofas to create a five storey vertical oasis within the retail environment. The exhibition lured in 20,000 inadvertent visitors each day, leading shoppers and office workers to experience a cultural conversion.”

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