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WEAVING THE RED THREAD

Staffan Tollgard Design Group

16th Mar 2016

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Born out of a shared passion for design, the Staffan Tollgard Design Group is run and managed by Inchbald-educated, husband-and-wife team, Staffan and Monique Tollgard. 

Staffan was born and bred in Stockholm where his passions for storytelling and design were apparent from the start. From the age of 11 he led the family in design terms, advising on wallpapers, furniture and fashion, though intent on making movies when he grew up. In the late 90s he came to London to pursue a career in film-making. Along the way he married a London-bred, South African-born actress, Monique and they refurbished their first home together. A short sabbatical from the film world to study Architectural Interior Design at the Inchbald led to a life-changing decision to run an interior design company together. Eleven years later Staffan is best known as an interior and product designer, regularly featuring on lists of top interior designers. The couple’s Cleveland Square home is now for sale through Domus Nova so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out more about them as designers and their stunning home.

Staffan Tollgard is a formidable name on the London design stage. What was your route into design?
Although a baptism by fire, I am very grateful to the Inchbald for helping me translate a passion for design into a tangible and very focused education. I emerged with a strong insight into how to create functional and livable spaces, and the foundations of the language of design that an Inchbald education gives you.

How does your background in film translate into or influence your work now?
Both Monique and I came from the world of film. That’s how we told stories. Now we tell our clients’ stories. They have chosen to live in a particular place, in a particular kind of architecture and in a very personal way. They have probably travelled and brought back important memories of times and places with them. We want to bring these together to tell a simplified, single story that binds environment, architecture, function and character. It’s important to tell one story; to choose from the many clues and influences the single, important strand that can run through a design. We’ve evolved a short hand for this, the ‘red thread’.

Tell us more about the notion of the distinctive ‘red thread’ and its role in developing a theme for your projects?
Interestingly I thought it was just a Northern European idea, but the red thread of fate binds lovers together in Eastern mythology too. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs scattered through a piece of creative work that constantly reminds you what’s important or relevant about a particular piece of work. It’s very helpful in editing a design. There are so many great ideas and suppliers to choose from, but once you have distilled the red thread from the clues your client and the architecture have given you, you can hold each new idea against the red thread and then either let it go or draw it in. It ensures that at the end of a project it feels coherent and distinct from any other. It is telling a different story. For Cleveland Square the ‘red thread’ was seeing that the house acted as a gallery space. Each piece was then weighed against this notion. Could it stand up as a distinctive piece of art or sculpture? If not, it didn’t belong in this design.

Is there another facet to this?
The ‘red thread’ is also about collections. A design is a cluster of decisions, artefacts and materials that are important to our client. I have recently read a beautiful book by Edmund de Waal who uses a collection of Japanese ceramic figures as the starting point for a journey through European history. I was so inspired by this quote –

“How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten?”

The pieces that our clients want to weave a story around are so important.

Do you have a signature, style or element you always try to incorporate into your projects?
We really try to let our client’s personality come through in our private work. While we have to have a vision and insight into how to help people live the best way possible in their homes, we can’t overwhelm them with it. Their life must shine through. That’s why the interiors in our portfolio look quite dramatically different from each other. They answer the distinct questions posed by the architecture, by the environment, by the clients and their budget.

In the first instance we are very much led by function and our experience of how people really use their homes. Once we have established function, and really interrogated whether our clients will live in the spaces we create (as opposed to how they want to believe they will) we can start to layer the interiors on top of this structure. Tactile, true materials are a good starting point, and we always try to inject as much colour as we can into our interiors.

Functional sculpture is the next layer for me. I have an absolute passion for furniture design, and when I come across pieces that are as beautiful as they are functional I add them to my collection. I am lucky enough to have been able to open Design Store in Pimlico where we curate a collection of contemporary furniture, lighting and accessories from around the world. When we look for furniture pieces for our clients this notion of functional sculpture is the next part of the journey.

Picking up on Cleveland Square. How did you arrive at the ‘red thread’ for your own home?
When we initially found the apartment we were completely dazzled by the volumes of the ground floor. The architectural white box that was created when it was refurbished gave us the blankest canvas we have ever had. We were able to take inspiration from the gallery space and bring our take on colourful, functional sculpture to it. All the pieces we chose for the house had the requisite weight and character: each piece had to be able to stand up and be counted. It allowed us to be quite brave and have several star pieces, something that doesn’t always work when you put a scheme together.

What do you love about this property?
The sense of living in something architecturally quite unique. We can appreciate just what a beautiful, well-proportioned series of spaces can do for the soul. The high ceilings, our own front door, the vestibule, the flexibility of the open-plan reception rooms and the ability to truly make a mark on it using huge pieces of art and really large pieces of furniture. The engagement with the community around the square is also fantastic – there are always families and friends in the garden and around the square. The home itself is a beautiful example of how contemporary architecture can complement and enhance period buildings. Within the wider context of the square and the local area, it was a wonderful place to be a young couple, and then to raise a young family.

This is a property that has really grown with you as a couple and a family. How has the home’s story evolved?
We originally saw the apartment as a place to entertain and to make the most out of London life. It gradually changed into a home for a young family with the arrival of two young boys. Although the ‘red thread’ hasn’t changed, the way the house functions has. That has been one of the real advantages of the open-plan ground floor spaces and the location of the kitchen at the back of the apartment. We were able to create three spaces out of the two front rooms. The old dining room easily morphed into a casual TV / study / play area, tucked away from the entertaining space by the front windows. A round dining table bridges the spaces and allows us to have six people for casual suppers every now and again. To make sure that other people see the flexibility, we have now returned it to a home for entertaining.

There’s been a change in the styling of your own home perhaps as a reflection of shifts in the wider landscape of design. What do you see happening in design and interiors at the moment?
We are really enjoying the focus on craftsmanship that is apparent throughout the design world at the moment. The notion of adding value through time and experience, rather than simply through a layer of glitz or gloss is absolutely central to our design ethos. We are working with suppliers, artists and craftsmen in Holland, Italy, Denmark and America, as well as the UK, who are going back to older traditions of how to make things that really endure; updating them in design terms but staying very true to the craft traditions. In the recession it felt like the move to hand-made was because it was cheaper, but now it feels different. The stories behind individual pieces and the time they take to make increase their value as objects to collect and cherish.

Is there a movement or trend that is surprising you at the moment?
Just when you thought that the Scandi design trend will surely calm down a bit it goes forward with more steam than ever. New brands are popping up as well as old ones reinventing themselves. It’s fantastic to see. &Tradition, Gubi and Menu are three Danish brands that are currently going from strength to strength. I just thought it wasn’t going to continue its strong march. In hindsight, maybe not so surprising as the products are really beautiful as well as decently priced.

What should we keep our eye on?
The further development in the ‘workshop-made’ furniture collections. They have been going strong in America and there are great examples of it in Europe now as well. This is high-end furniture but the money is invested in the materials used and the labour it takes to make the piece. This is the contrast to some of the high-end brand furniture where you are paying a lot of money for the label which doesn’t necessarily transfer into the quality. We’re very excited about a workshop called KBH in Copenhagen at the moment. They have made beautiful bespoke pieces for a long time and have now transferred that experience to create a small collection of solid wood and solid metal pieces for the market.

What role does digital, and social media, play in what you do?
It plays a part in all businesses today, whatever you do, but varies in degree of importance. Also, what you use it for varies greatly depending on what your company does. For us I feel that it works well in spreading awareness of what we do both with regards to our projects and also with regards to new brands and products that we have brought to the Design Store. If you have a nice product chances are that it will reach far on social media and reach an audience that you otherwise wouldn’t.

So many designers have moved on from projects to products. We see on your website that you are already curating a collection of your ‘favourite things’. What is next for Staffan Tollgard?
I have become completely taken with product design. The first opportunity was given to me by Contardi, a lighting supplier in Italy that produces very beautiful, grown up yet contemporary lighting pieces. The Belle was my first light and it allowed me to encapsulate the notion of functional sculpture that has guided my work in interiors for the last decade. Belle doesn’t look like a light, and that was absolutely my intention. Lights need to be beautiful when on or off, and the way that Contardi have captured the essence of this shape, using ceramic and a beautifully natural palette has been wonderful to see.

JAB Anstoetz then offered me the amazing opportunity to design a collection of rugs for them. ‘Red Thread’ was the name for a series of rugs that allowed me to explore the truth behind surfaces, and how materials age and change over time. I was unbelievably pleased to hear that the collection was really well received in Japan as a lot of my inspiration comes from this culture and its fascination with the natural world and the truth of materials. One of the rugs won Best of the Best in Cologne in 2015, which was a very proud moment for me and Keisha Hulsey, the designer that worked on the rugs with me.

Next will be another collection of lights for Contardi and the development of my own collection of furniture. It’s a big step, so we’ll call it a five-year plan just to be on the safe side …

Sounds like you have a few different and exciting paths to travel. How does Staffan Tollgard want to be seen in the world of design?
As a passionate, thoughtful design company able to tell many different stories with the same quality and clarity of thought.

Do you have any thoughts on what would be a dream project for Staffan Tollgard?
Monique and I are both very taken with the Californian dream. We travelled between LA and San Diego over Christmas a couple of years ago and were lucky enough to work on a beautiful house near the sea shortly afterwards. We would love to get more involved with a really modern new build overlooking the ocean. My wife is from South Africa, so the same dream would work in Cape Town too …

What are your key influences? And how do you get inspired?
Japan and Sweden have played important roles in my thinking as a designer. Even though they are on opposite sides of the world their obsession with nature and with bringing the outside world in, through materials and also views, has certainly influenced how I think. The Swedish way of thinking about function, and the very hands-on connection with how things work, with doing things yourself, makes me a very particular designer. Form is very important to me, but without function first you don’t have the foundations for a design argument.

I try and get out of the office a lot. More than my colleagues would probably like, to be honest. I spend a lot of time at different museums and galleries – I’m a member of the V&A as well as Tate Britain, and when I’m thinking about product design I tend to wander around the galleries seeing how different cultures and times have answered similar questions. What has endured? What lessons can I learn from the past and hopefully add to a design culture or argument today that will endure?

Design is pivotal to both of your worlds. What are your other passions and pasttimes?
Our children – we have two boys. Travel. Skiing. Films and TV. We are big fans of roller coasters too and spend as much time doing exciting things with our two boys as possible. We had an incredible ski guide called Leo who really did grab life by the lapels and shake it, so inspiringly so that our first son is called Leo. His favourite saying was ‘Why not?’ so as a family we have adopted this motto. I am also a proud Arsenal supporter.

Where is your favourite place in London and why?
The V&A is a big favourite of mine. Also the Sir John Soane Museum. It’s the perfect example of where obsessive collecting can get you when done with great taste and the ultimate enquiring mind. I also really love The Wolseley. Nothing bad can happen when you’re having breakfast there.

Is there somewhere in the Capital that you think we should all see?
When Monique worked in TV she was fortunate enough to work just opposite Borough Market. The cobbled streets lead down to the water through a maze of market stalls, restaurants and coffee shops; the houses seem to lean in towards each other so much that they might touch one day. London’s history thrums through that area, even as the skyline changes – seemingly daily. Southwark Cathedral nestles under newly bristling glass towers, solidly biding its time. What will endure? “What is remembered and what is forgotten?”

Staffan Tollgard Design Group: www.tollgard.co.uk

Twitter: @StaffanTollgard
Instagram: @staffantollgard