In these trying financial times, a bit of prudence doesn’t go amiss. Likewise, in the current climate, if a company is hurling stacks of cash into the renovation of a five-storey Georgian townhouse in Marylebone – which will serve as the very glamorous part-time office for its five jet-setting directors – it pays to keep the cards close to the chest.
The inhabitants of this plush new space cannot be revealed because we actually don’t know who they are – it’s all very hush hush you see. What we have been able to squeeze out of the designers, fittingly called SHH Associates, is that the clients are Russian and “sort of involved in the oil business, but not for sure” – which suggests it might be best to stop asking so many questions, but of course we don’t.
“At moments we have thought – what do these people actually do,” says lead designer Brendan Heath. “I guess at the end of the day we’ve got to respect that they want to be discreet – they’re our client and so we’ve got to listen to them.”
(Lest they stick their henchmen on you.)
“Yes, at times that has been in the back of my mind,” he chuckles.
What we do know is that the anonymous client previously had two disjointed offices in London and was looking to consolidate staff in this early 19th-century building on Manchester Square. The structure’s listed status meant that there wasn’t a huge amount of architectural work involved and that the scheme would depend on finishes and big, bold pieces of furniture to bring the space to life. However, because of a working relationship based on past projects together, SHH was given a free pass, and generous budget, to design a fantasy interior of quirky decadence with a healthy dose of testosterone.
“We went for a contrast between the existing building and completely modern, at times quite bonkers, furniture and light features,” explains Heath. “There was no deferring to the fact that it was an old building – trying to put in period pieces and all of that.” The result – with its mouth-watering menagerie of top-end pieces – is a space fit for the even fussiest of (maybe) Russian oil tycoons.
To maintain the shroud of mystery throughout the process, SHH worked with a single point of contact that looks after the group’s property portfolio. “If they want some building work done or a house refurbished or a yacht bought – he is the man that gets things done for them,” says Heath, painting a picture of a company not deeply threatened by the looming recession.
“It was a really enjoyable project because we didn’t have to deal with the mundane detail of organisational structure, or how these people are going to sit and how to fit things in,” says Heath, because the room functions were fairly set by the client. “It was more of an aesthetic package than functional design. I probably sound ridiculous but we were almost going for poetry rather than boring old function – it’s more of an art-directed space.”
It’s true that functionality and the rational process of design didn’t seem to be the top priority here. Five directors and three administrative staff share the five-storey building facing the square. The remaining 20 administrative and IT staff work in the mews house out back, soon to be connected by a glazed link.
“There is such a low number of people occupying these buildings to begin with, there weren’t those sort of relationship issues to negotiate,” says Heath. For the size of the front building, there are a fair few meeting rooms – a boardroom on the ground floor (where the big deals are done) and a video conferencing room and two smaller meeting rooms on the second floor.
Warm tones – charcoal, chocolate and burgundy – run throughout the entryway and make an excellent backdrop for the whimsical floral projections by artist Hugo Dalton. SHH did try to avoid the Eighties Wall Street aesthetic of red, black and chrome – although what they did come up with are still very much “boys rooms”, says Heath.
This idea comes glaringly into focus on the first floor, which holds the five male directors’ aluminium framed desks with stitched black leather tops, mechanised secret compartments that pop up and slide back, black glass-top tables, black computers and high-backed aluminium task chairs inspired by the bodies of Porsches. “We were concerned it may be a bit too James Bond, but I think it fits here,” Heath is keen to point out.
Along these lines, the smallest meeting room on the second floor carries the feeling of a gentlemen’s club, with tan leather chesterfield cubes, black velvet curtains and dark wood-panelled walls.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one room that lets up on the high octane masculinity is the main reception room housing admin staff. Estelle desks, flower pendant lamp, Swedese coat trees – all in white – and a perspex baroque mirror set off deep lilac walls. “Each room needed a distinct personality to differentiate between who occupies them and what they’re used for,” Heath adds.
The overall impression, though, is one of quality and incredible attention to detail – the most dazzling bit being the hand-laid herringbone floors in black stained oak. Bespoke joinery and custom-made pieces of furniture conceal air-conditioning units and radiators, ensuring that unsightly realities are kept under wraps.
“This new office is their showpiece,” says Heath, who seems quite chuffed with the result. “Let’s face it, the chances of doing an office like this are so infrequent. It was a massive amount of fun.”