David Collins: A Tribute

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The great London architect, interior designer and man about town David Collins died yesterday, of skin cancer, at the age of 57. Esquire’s editor, Alex Bilmes, interviewed Collins in 2009. We publish an edited version of that article here, in tribute to one of the most stylish and wittiest men we were lucky enough to have known.

“What I try to be is creative and innovative,” says David Collins. “And I think that’s the reason I’ve had longevity in my career. I keep changing and adapting and reinterpreting things. I try to be challenging. I don’t design things that everyone likes. Some people love it, some people hate it. That doesn’t worry me too much.”

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It’s a blustery, slate grey morning in southwest London, but inside the headquarters of London’s most high-profile – and forthright - interior designer all is bright and light and ordered. Collins is sitting at a square table in the centre of a large, high-ceilinged, skylit room. Everything is white and just right: a statement lamp here, an interesting armchair there, two black lacquered folding screens positioned symmetrically at the end of the room – very David Collins, that – and a tall vase filled with orchids. For the ears, an iPod playing the smooth soul of Angie Stone. For the nose, a burning Diptyque candle scented with Feuille de Lavende. For the eyes, walls decorated with architectural plans for international projects in the offing. For the tongue, a tall glass of Evian. The man himself is wearing a trademark blue sweater, blue slacks and blue shoes, his straw blond hair swept across his forehead.

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Collins, an Irishman, speaks precisely and trenchantly about his work. He moves and talks fast and with the minimum of fuss. From an interviewer’s point of view, he is appealingly no-nonsense. “Everyone thinks they could do my job, of course,” he says at one point, arching an eyebrow. “I meet people all the time who say, ‘My wife’s got a good eye.’” He rolls both his own. “It’s getting it built, not designing it. Anyone can design something. It’s having the know-how.”

Later, when I reel off a list of his most famous London designs, the rooms for which he is rightly feted – destination restaurants The Wolseley, J Sheekey and Nobu Berkeley, the Blue Bar at the Berkeley, Claridge’s Bar, the Connaught Bar – Collins bristles slightly.

“Certain really badly informed people call me ‘ubiquitous’,” he says. “But then they really struggle to name all the things I’ve done. It just so happens that certain things like J Sheekey or the Wolseley have been very successful. Lots of people have done many more things than I ever did. They just haven’t lasted very long.

“The brand David Collins Studio is very nebulous but quite important to me,” he says, “and I’ve thought a lot about it because I have to define it. It’s based on designing, not on mass production. It’s bespoke. It’s creative. It’s not a pastiche or a copy. And we like to do better. Better than we did last time and better than anyone else. We deliver our projects on time and on budget. That’s what being better is all about.”

Collins began his career working on small residential interior jobs. He made his name in restaurants, on the High Street with Café Rouge, The Dome and Chez Gerard, then in more upmarket surroundings like those already mentioned. He has designed shops for Amanda Wakeley and David Morris, among others. He has worked with famous private clients – Madonna and Tom Ford, both close friends – and increasingly he works internationally, designing hotels in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and working in South America, Africa and the Far East. He has offices in New York and Buenos Aires, in addition to the London HQ.

I ask him how I ought to describe him: architect, designer, entrepreneur? “Visionary,” he says, grandly. He’s joking. Sort of.

“I’m an architect,” he says. “When people ask me to decorate a dining room, I’m not really interested. It’s not my key skill. There’s lots of other people who are welcome to that sort of thing. I like working with a bigger picture.” His points out that his heroes – architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe - all designed furniture as well as buildings. 

He talks me through the thinking behind the Connaught Bar, to illustrate his methods. Before Collins got to work it was the American Bar and, as far as he was concerned, “looked like an old pub.”

Collins targeted his new bar at “the emerging so-called stylishness of Mount Street, where you’ve got the Lanvin shop opening, the Balenciaga shop opening, Marc Jacobs opening. I wanted something that was fashionable but anti-fashion. There’s nothing fashionable about the design of the Connaught Bar. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s the sum of the parts of the old Connaught Hotel put together in a different way.”

Nevertheless, a lot of thought went into it. Collins describes himself to me as “lyrical”, “literal” and “analytical”. This is exemplified by his work on the Connaught Bar. He thought about the hotel’s namesake, Connacht, the province in the west of his native Ireland. “It’s a place of flat fields and stone walls,” he says. “I was quite inspired by some of the painters from the west of Ireland, like Paul Henry.  I was inspired by the textures that you might find in Connacht itself.”

And if visitors to the bar fail to pick up on these references? “It doesn’t really matter,” he says. “Everybody subliminally will pick up on them if that’s their thing. And if it’s not their thing they will go to another bar. There are plenty of bars.

“What I like about it and what I like about it is that it’s unique. There doesn’t have to be twenty of them. There just has to be one. One really good one. And if they say to me, ‘We’re building a Connaught in Shanghai and we want you to do the bar,’ it’d be a different Connaught Bar. I’d be informed and influenced by the local geography. You have to keep changing. That’s what it boils down to.”

And with that, he’s gone, leaving me to the orchids, the iPod, the candle, the tall glass of water, each thing perfectly selected, each in its proper place.

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