As Ilse Crawford received the London Design Medal in September 2021, London Design Festival director Ben Evans pointed out that there was no better time to celebrate the British designer’s pioneering approach to wellbeing in a design context than the present, when the world craves connection, intimacy and nurturing. The jury citation mentioned interiors projects such as the 2017 Refettorio Felix at St Cuthbert’s community hall as examples of desiging with empathy and prioritising wellbeing.

Ilse Crawford: ‘Giving people a better reality’

Refettorio Felix at St Cuthbert’s community hall, 2017. The project was a collaboration with Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation founded by chef Massimo Bottura to fight food waste (all meals are made using supermarket leftovers) and support social inclusion. 

A recurring phrase that Crawford uses to describe her interior design work is ‘giving people a better reality’. This is perfectly reflected in her current work for The Embassies, a Swiss company reshaping the idea of the retirement home with a disruptive concept that combines good design and intelligent living.

‘One of the things that’s very, very clear is that being lonely is one of the chief reasons that people decline,’ she observes. With that in mind, the project reprogrammes buildings near urban centres to build homes that offer a dignified, respectful point of view on ageing. The key, Crawford notes, ‘is to create communities that you would actually want to be in, that happen, by default, to work as a support system’.

Studioilse’s restoration of Aino and Alvar Aalto’s iconic Ravintola Savoy restaurant from 1937, in collaboration with Artek, 2020. ’Our approach took its cue from the original interior, peeling back the layers and introducing only subtle aspects to reinforce the original spirit,’ reads a statement from the studio describing the project. ’The Aaltos believed that one of the main missions of modern architecture was to “refine materials in a more humane direction”. And so do we. So-called ‘soft’ values are vital in a hard world.’
Anna Freud Centre, a space for child mental health research, training and treatment, 2019. ’Our goal was to de-institutionalise the institution and design somewhere that feels warm, calm, solid, safe and reassuring in difficult times,’ says the studio. ’Our design supports and enables basic and complex human needs simultaneously.’

The homes aim to become places for culture and purposeful engagement, based on independence, freedom, kindness and dignity (elements often lacking in old-age living structures). Equipped with greenery, workspaces and opportunities for learning, as well as street-facing elements that connect them with the local community, the locations are set to debut in the next few years. Particular care is placed on the aesthetic codes of the project: ‘[The spaces] need to be universal: great for younger people, great for older people. We’re not looking for an older person’s aesthetic, whatever that is. Because one of the things that is so strange is the typecasting of that age, as if we’re not all hurtling towards the same destination,’ she observes.

Judging the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022

As one of the judges for the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022, Crawford believes the point of an award is ‘to draw attention to the design that can be inspirational for the future. It’s about recognition for projects that might lead the way. And the time we’re in is probably less about awarding the past and more about looking at the outliers for the future.’

She found Designer of the Year nominees Objects of Common Interest particularly deserving by this metric. ‘They have what’s needed for the future: to start looking at design not as a noun, but as a verb, and [as] more integrated into our world, less attention seeking,’ she says.

Holographic tables by Objects of Common Interest for Etage Projects
Slak education campus by Kéré Architecture, winner of Best Public Building in the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022
Top: Holographic tables by Objects of Common Interest, Crawford’s pick for the Designer of the Year category in the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022. Produced for their solo exhibition ’Future Archaeology’ at Copenhagen’s Etage Projects (22 October – 4 December 2021). Photography: Stefanos Tsakiris. Above: Slak education campus by Kéré Architecture, selected by Crawford as Best Public Building. Photography: Kéré Architecture 

She also admired Francis Kéré’s Slak education campus in Kenya. ‘The archetypal intelligence of that building was pretty great,’ she comments. ‘He has come up with a design that makes education attractive, that makes sustainable building attractive, and viable. A brilliant public building that uses traditional knowledge as well as the insights of termites to make a building for education where it is needed.’ §