Simon Mills | 15 Jan 2019

Farewell, David Collins, a creative force and a great friend

David Collins, the interior designer and architect, was internationally renowned for the interiors of some of the world’s most famous hotels, restaurants, bars and boutiques. He was a good friend of Wallpaper*, contributing to several visionary projects.

Born in Dublin in 1955, in 1985 he founded his self-titled practice where he lived by (and frequently quoted) Mies van der Rohe: ‘God is in the details.’ He died following a brief illness, on 17 July 2013.

Today, the studio that still carries his name is as busy as ever. The designer was adamant it should continue to thrive after his death, entrusting it to design director Lewis Taylor, creative director Simon Rawlings, founding member and CEO Iain Watson, and communications director David Kendall.

Here, his friend Simon Mills bids farewell to a friend and a creative force...

Mixing ubiquity with exclusivity, being prolific and original, requires vision, skill, a lightness of touch, but somehow, even though he worked for everyone – Claridge’s, the Berkeley, the Wolseley, Brasserie Zédel, Bob Bob Ricard and the Delaunay in London, Larusmiani and Promemoria in Milan and Alexander McQueen around the world, the Delaire Graff Estate in South Africa and many, many more – David Collins was never predictable or homogeneous, instead creating a look that was reliably glamorous but also unintimidating and comfortingly familiar.

David Collins’ unrivalled output helped shape everything from London’s hotel and restaurant revolution, to sophisticated private homes and impeccable retail spaces

The Collins aesthetic was jet-set deco; olde Hollywood meets nouveau fashionista; big on silver leaf, brass, mirrors, plump upholstery, cosy banquettery and lighting designed to flatter customers and encourage flirting. Anyone entering a Collins interior felt correctly wowed and dazzled but also immediately at home – he had the knack of making recently opened venues seem exciting and new and, simultaneously, already part of the social establishment. Older buildings always got a turbo-charged revitalisation from the Collins effect. It is no exaggeration to say that the restaurant and hotel revolution in London of the last two decades would not have been the same without him.

David loved fashion – he spent most of his money either at Prada or Lanvin, usually on pieces in navy blue. He loved music, art, eating out, a good party and a laugh, and I think this gave him an edge over the competition. His wit, generosity, open mind and an ability to softly charm pretty much everyone he met, meant that he was influenced by more than just trade fairs, showrooms and magazines.

He was friends with the likes of fashion editor Hamish Bowles, jewellery designer Solange Azagury-Partridge, photographer Mario Testino and Madonna – or ‘M’, as he called her, even getting a song-writing credit on her Ray Of Light album. (Two days after David’s death, Madonna arrived in the UK for his funeral, walking through Heathrow airport dressed entirely in black – how he would have loved that!) He was always first on everyone’s guest list when a party was being organised.

Wallpaper* worked with David on a number of projects: he contributed to our Handmade exhibition at Salone del Mobile in 2012, and we were planning another collaboration. David had seen a feature we published in September 2010, themed around architect Peter Marino’s penchant for black leather, and wanted to go one better – with a ten-page story that would be a kind of self-portrait in objects, interiors and fashion, all in his beloved navy blue.

Completed in 2008, The Connaught Bar – at The Connaught hotel in London – comprises three rooms featuring hand-dyed degrade leathers, metal studded black leather tables, and silver leaf mirror artwork created by the studio

But to many of us here, he was much more of a friend than a work associate. In a world that can often seem overly po-faced and egotistical, David was immensely talented yet touchingly vulnerable, self-deprecating and utterly hilarious. If you encountered him socially, you could be guaranteed to be screaming helplessly within seconds. Either because he’d poked fun at himself, or you... or made some wildly, mercilessly disparaging remark about a third party. He could be outrageously indiscreet.

‘I’m going with M,’ David said. ‘Ooh, I’d love to meet Madonna,’ I said hopefully. ‘Will you be sure to introduce me?’

My best memories of David will always be the South Kensington breakfasts we’d have at a series of poncey patisseries on Old Brompton Road (David enjoyed a gourmet biscuit with his coffee). The form was always the same. Whether I arrived first or second, David would look the other way, refusing to make eye contact and then have a conversation with an imagined third party, or someone made up on the end of the (dead) phone, totally ignoring me, before feigning histrionic surprise at my presence… and then encouraging my dog to hop into his lap. Dog would usually be fed biscuit.

One time, I bumped into David at one of our favoured caffs, telling him that I was meeting a mutual friend (a well-known restaurateur) in a few minutes’ time. ‘He owes me a lot of money and he isn’t returning my calls,’ said David, hatching a plan. So, he sat in a chair next to me covering his head and body, in classic spy-movie style, with an open copy of the broadsheet FT. When the non-payer arrived and sat down, David, showing immaculate timing, pulled down the paper, revealing himself at close quarters, and said, poker-faced, ‘Hello. May I have my £20,000 now, please?’

Alexander McQueen’s womenswear flagship store on Bond Street in London re-opened in 2013 after a complete refresh by David Collins Studio

Over coffee another morning, we discovered that we would both be attending the same Diane von Furstenberg party at Claridge’s that evening. ‘I’m going with M,’ David said, proudly. ‘Ooh, I’d love to meet Madonna,’ I said hopefully. ‘Will you be sure to introduce me?’

That night, I stood as David walked into Claridge’s art deco ballroom with the world’s most famous pop star hanging off his arm. I was in the doorway as he passed and, rather clumsily, shouted out his name, waiting, like a sappy fan boy, for my stellar moment. David clocked me, grinned, tossed his blonde hair in a dramatic flounce and walked on, giggling to himself. Being deemed worthy to be on the business end of a David Collins flouncing was much better than meeting Madonna, anyway.

Goodbye, David. Wallpaper* and I and my dog will miss you.


Key David Collins Studio projects

Here, we take a look at the studio’s projects past and present, as it carves out a bright future from the legacy left by Collins...

Claridge’s Bar in Mayfair is another one of Collins’ art deco masterworks

The Blue Bar at the Berkeley features original Lutyens panelling boldly re-imagined with eponymous blue lacquer

The restaurant and hotel revolution in London of the last two decades certainly would not have been the same without Collins. Bob Bob Ricard in Soho scooped ‘Best Booths’ in the 2009 Wallpaper* Design Awards

Launched in 2013 at Salone del Mobile, David Collins’ first furniture line took Italian brand in a decidedly pared-back direction. The collection was initially based upon a study of the Wolseley bar chair, and was expanded in 2015 with further additions

Opened in August 2005, Nobu’s Berkeley Street outpost was inspired by the natural silhouettes of Japanese forests and the curved lines and patterns cast by the branches within them, creating an organic aesthetic

The Wolseley, London's own homegrown version of an European grand café, exudes Old World decadence

© TI Media Limited. Wallpaper* is part of TI Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.