Many of you will have noticed – and may even have utilised – our fantastic logo that adorned the front cover of our November issue. When we say utilised, we should explain that the logo was a QR scanner that linked to our Editor’s Twitter account so that readers could vote for the Mixology North People’s Award.
Said logo was designed and developed by FKA architecture + Interiors – a firm that, although boasting impressive global presence for 25 years, has only recently set roots here in the UK.
We’re keen to find out more about this exciting development – particularly as we know the chief protagonists pretty well; Earle Arney spent a decade and a half leading Woods Bagot globally (much of it from London), while Simon Jackson was a mainstay with Gensler’s London office for even longer – and is, of course, a regular face on our own Mixology awards judging panels.
Earle and Simon guide us through to the new FKA London boardroom in south London’s Great Suffolk Street, where we all put our game faces on and get interviewer/interviewee mode. So gents, tell us about your hopes and aspirations for FKA London. ‘We’re serious – really serious,’ Earle snarls with complete mock seriousness. ‘To be honest, the key thing here is collaboration and connectivity between architecture and interiors. There are some great architectural firms and some great interiors firms out there, but part of what really excites Simon and I is being able to interweave these two disciplines. Our belief is that design should start with the user and their experience of the environment. We are passionate about creating places that bring people together whether it be a family or a group of friends or a community, or even colleagues or clients.
‘There is a significant shift in how professional services firms operate right now – whether Law Firms, Accounting or Design & Engineering firms. Certainly the global financial crisis in 2008 has been a big factor in triggering a series of transformational changes to industry. In particular, we’ve noticed that there is a polarization of Professional Services Firms into either vast global empires or highly focused niche firms providing specialist services; often with an elevated level of service not otherwise possible. The conversation that Simon and I began with was about this phenomena and how this incredibly radical change will soon present itself to the interior design and architectural professions. Shift happens – it is derived from clients demanding specialists and clients demanding continuous connectivity with the most senior people in firms.
‘What we said is, given our backgrounds, and recognising that there is a shift in terms of client demands for more directorial engagement, where do we want to play? In our previous roles, we weren’t always able to deliver on the promise of deep directorial engagement with either clients or design, and so this became the groundwork for structuring a firm that is for this next generation. We are taking lessons from the past, but are firmly focused on innovating for the future.
‘Our generation has two notable advantages to leverage over the past- we have an incredibly talented, educated and globally mobile talent pool; concurrent with a technological explosion that is enabling diverse ways of communicating, socializing and engaging with one other. It is no longer acceptable to simply service clients in the old school way. Clients want global access to their core service team – they want those people to be thoughtful, professional and dynamic. They want Thought Leadership, energy and they want it when they want it.
‘The whole idea that, as an architect, you can design a building singularly from the outside-in is simply rubbish. Similarly, the idea that you can design an interior solely from the inside-out is also reductionist. By example, new media tenants are demanding developments that differ greatly from the past institutional, speculative buildings and our knowledge of these new tenant needs together with our innovative approach to base building design has proven to be compelling to developers and end-users alike. This is also the case with our residential projects – we are pushing on open doors – there is a thirst out there for a new integrated approach.
‘Our focus then was to say ‘Let’s be the best in the world at what we do and let’s be real about what we can legitimately offer. Let’s make sure we do that from both an internal and an also an external focus. So this then became this whole offering of interiors/architecture across workplace, residential, and hotel sectors. We also happen to have a linage of beautiful Art Galleries but we target these opportunistically. Regardless, our galleries are a core part of our DNA and inform our approach to integrating art, architecture and space.’
Why residential, hotels and workplace in particular? ‘Part of this whole mix is a reflection of how we now live. There is currently a huge merging of what you do at home, what you do when staying abroad and what you do at work – and certainly there’s greater mobility about how we work not just where we work. When you wake up in the morning and switch your smart phone or tablet on, you’re already working, and if you’re commuting you’re typically already working. So in residential and hotel design we make sure that there is the backbone and the connectivity for all the necessary IT components to be seamless. Similarly, the workplace is already undergoing huge transformations in other regions outside the UK – morphing to include an approach to design that incorporates activities previously only provided in the home or hotel. Work was once ‘just work’ and the menu of activities through a typical day were much simpler. Today the activities of work are much more complex so one size does not fit all. Our deep expertise across both the residential/hotel and workplace sectors enables us to affect a transfer of ideas so we can create spaces that not only celebrate the ‘Art of Living’ but deliver highly efficient and effective environments that deliver an ‘Art of Work’.
‘As the global economy comes back to life we also have to recognise that the biggest thing that faces most of our workplace clients – whether they are financial services, professional services, media or telecoms – is securing and retaining talent and making sure that the great people they do have are highly engaged. The idea that everyone works from the same desk and everyone arrives at the same time flies in the face of the technology and societal advances that we are now witnessing. In regions outside the UK we are creating radically different environments that provide a range of work settings based on the activities that may be required at any one time of the day. The whole idea that you design a building based on how many desks you can fit in is crazy. The desk as the sole unit of space making is dead. It’s now about people per building not desks per building. Agility and effectiveness is what our clients demand, as is a rich menu of choices of how their most value resource – their people – work.’
Simon also recognises that this move in professional services is incredibly important. ‘Large design and engineering firms are really now set up to support their global client base – they’re going where the client is and becoming bigger, bigger, bigger but dare I say not necessarily better, better, better! A lot of their projects, of course, take global standards and roll them out across the globe. Occasionally you’ll get a local stalwart who doesn’t want this corporate ‘cookie cutter’ approach – but generally we’re talking consistency of design and consistency of the quality and finish.
A lot of big architectural firms are very hierarchical – some of the best talent and some of the most creative ideas are coming from young people who left university three or four years ago. In a lot of cases, what these talented young folk actually end up doing in a large firm is detail work and illustrations of other people’s design intent. The makeup of our design firm is very different. What we’ve done here is looked at having a bit of grey hair around who are really involved in projects and are very hands-on, but we’re also there with the prime intent of nurturing the young talent we have and giving their creative juices the opportunity to flourish. We’ve created a talent nexus essentially, where I’m learning more from the younger guys now than I ever thought I would – and I think that’s the way it should be.
‘We want to create sculptural and innovative design. There’s very little that’s truly different about a lot of what we see out there – and the way we are looking to stand apart from the rest is through our involvement in the early part of the project, underpinned by the research element of our work. We are fascinated by efficient buildings – how to rationalize space to maximise the area, and yet make it beautiful by imbuing it with art. Our ambition is to design sculptures that are a delight to be lived in, worked in and enjoyed – a highly functional art form. We are told that we provide our clients with a highly intellectual and thought provoking new approach.
Simon, ever the great supporter, uses the aforementioned Mix logo project as an example of the FKA thought process. ‘We ask ourselves how can we twist something? What can we do that is different and unexpected? And how will what we do affect our client’s business in a positive manner; will our solution to a problem make a real difference to our client’s business strategy? Can we add some additional value through our intellectual service that embellishes the expected great design response of our core service? We look at other industries for inspiration; it might be a workplace project but we’ll look at the retail industry, we’ll look at what is going on in educational establishments and manufacturing industries. There are lessons to be learnt from all sectors that can improve and enhance the others. We are cataloguing these lessons so we can create the homes, hotels and workplaces of the future. It is an evolutionary process and requires us to look outside of industry peer group to other influential industries that are thinking differently.
One trend that we believe will continue globally is the increase in tall towers, but we want the guest experience through a vertical village to be focused on building communities. We understand the verticality of structures and the stacking of uses to create a mini-city within a building – breathing life into a rising monument..
‘As a firm we are dynamic, agile, responsive – we can flex very quickly. We will bring specialists in to bring even more expertise such as IT strategists, brand experts and behavioural scientists when it is appropriate.’
‘The idea that you need a company of 1,000 people to work effectively in a global market is very much an old model,’ Earle continues. ‘If you look at our office now, all in addition to our London projects, we’re delivering a US$1 billion architecture project, together with two transformational workplace interior projects, jointly being 600,000 sq ft with a budget over US$ 100 million. These three projects alone are all in different cities and the closest is an eight-hour plane journey away. While the time to arrive on site at our London projects results in less jet lag, this is the new normal for the sharp end of Architecture and Interiors. Biggest isn’t best; we believe that exceptional service and global expertise is what counts.
‘We still hear people asking ‘How can you do projects like that with 40 people?’ It’s really easy – you harness the talent, you harness the skills and you have great local partners and a knowledge base of like-minded people. For us it’s about where we can add the value in terms of innovative design – we don’t have to do every phase of every project, be they in London or eight hours away, just those elements of the project where we can really add value and really make a difference. And that phrase ‘making a difference’ is something that resonated with Simon and I in terms of how we create this business to do exactly that. We’re incredibly fortunate that our talented young people have put their trust in us – and what they want and what our clients want is authenticity in the environments we create together.’
So we probably don’t need to ask our hosts how the new venture is getting along! We think we might hear quite a lot more from FKA in the not too distant future.