London Calling

It’s a fast-paced world – and that inevitably results in change. Today, we move at a speed that would leave our grandparents feeling dizzy. Jobs are no longer for life, products are more disposable and we don’t think twice about jumping onto a plane and heading off to new, exciting places for work and leisure alike. Gran would be scratching her head!

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Fortunately, despite all this change, one thing remains absolutely constant; the cream will always rise to the top. A perfect example of this is the London office of global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will. If you’ve been on a desert island for the last few years, Perkins+Will London is the artist formerly known as Pringle Brandon.

The firm developed an enviable reputation as one of the leading workplace design firms under the leadership of founders Jack Pringle and Chris Brandon. Whilst that reputation remains absolute (just ask any supplier in London which design firms they’d like to be in front of), change has inevitably, well, changed things.

New ownership, new name, new leadership, new office…and yet a seamless flow of innovative, impressive projects continue to flow out of the studio. Now that is most definitely worth talking about.

Steven Charlton is some six months into his role as Managing Director of the 150-person London office – and we’re fortunate enough to be able to steal an hour of his time at the firm’s spectacular Aldgate studio.
Steven took the role having spent the last seven years as Managing Director of Perkins+Will’s Dubai office in the United Arab Emirates. ‘It’s gone quickly,’ Steven says of the past six months. ‘It’s been great. I think it was a good time to come back to London – around the Christmas period – because there are a lot of parties and events to go to, you get to meet up with everybody and get to know some of the network. But London has changed massively; the people have changed, the city has changed, the vibe is different…

‘It’s been 10 years since I was here and when I left I was a mid-level designer – so to come back as Jack Pringle’s replacement was, well, unexpected. I didn’t think that was in my pipeline at the time!

‘I spent 10 years in total in Dubai. I moved over there havin spent two years with HLW in London. When I got over there it was such a strange new environment. Stuff that you were doing in London was completely alien to them. For the first six months I wondered what I was doing out there. The speed of delivery is just crazy – it’s twice as quick as here. When I got back to London I wondered why everything was so slow!

‘I loved Dubai though. I wasn’t really looking to come back – but when Jack suggested it I thought, ‘Why not?’’

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Steven’s promotion to MD in London certainly wasn’t handed to him on a plate. Although he clearly enjoyed his decade in the Emirates, it didn’t come without a great deal of hard work – particularly when it came to establishing Pringle Brandon (which shortly became Perkins+Will) out there. ‘I basically started off working out of my living room – and grew the office to be one of the main players in Dubai,’ he recalls. ‘We won a lot of the big contracts – if there was a big job, we wanted to do it. We did all sorts – we worked on the airport, 50-storey towers, hospitals, big commercial offices…

‘We initially set up the office in Dubai to focus on commercial interiors – because that was what Pringle Brandon was known for here in London. A lot of the real estate teams are based here in London or New York. So it was an easier sell to say to people, ‘This is what we did for you in London, can we do the same for you in Dubai?’ The first response you normally get is, ‘How big is your office? What work have you done in Dubai? How many staff have you got?’ So it does take a bit of time to get established. You’ve really got to wait a few years before you get to that point.

We focused on working with a lot of our global clients – and the thing is that the scale of those jobs in Dubai tends to be a lot smaller than it is in London, so we were able to cope. You still have to go through the same process to win the job though.’

Steven helped grow the team from two to in excess of 100 in those seven years – an achievement that led to the subsequent return to London. ‘London is such an international city and, in terms of change, this city will feel it first,’ Steven considers. ‘You are right at the forefront here. There are fantastic opportunities and some amazing challenges here.

‘Within this context, we are in an interesting position as a design studio. The London office that has a mix of two cultures – the legacy of Pringle Brandon and the global influence of Perkins+Will. Although Perkins+Will is well known in the US, the name isn’t as recognised here in the UK; and many people here still think of us as a corporate interiors practice from the Pringle Brandon days, when actually half of our office is architecture and masterplanning.

‘Every Perkins+Will office around the world is sightly different, but a common thread across the company is designing with a humanistic approach. Our architecture is about how humans interact with a space. It’s about how we work, how we live – it’s about the experience.

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‘Often, buildings look amazing – but they don’t necessarily work that well. They aren’t about the end user – they are about making a statement and about making a silhouette on the skyline.

‘If you’re truly designing for people, you need to approach design differently – contextually; you need to think about how people live, how they interact with their community, what their local culture is – it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s true on a global scale and on a local scale. Even in London, someone in the East End has completely different needs and culture from someone in the West End.’

We said at the start of this article that change is inevitable. It is, however, reassuring to hear that some important constants do remain – such as Perkins+Will’s continued commitment towards designing for people rather than egos. Steven tells us that he’s still getting to know the team in London – but is excited by what he has seen and heard. We ask whether he felt pressure at the prospect of taking over from the great Jack Pringle? ‘Strangely, no,’ he smiles. ‘I thought I would, but it actually felt quite natural. I think because I know the company – it’s not as though it’s a new company to me. The biggest stress was moving into what now felt like a new city to me. I didn’t know many people. A lot of my friends have now moved out of London and my wife has never lived in the UK. I didn’t even know where to find a good dentist or get my hair cut!

‘It was tough coming into the London office and not knowing many people. In Dubai, of course, I knew everyone because I was there from day one. Leading the Dubai office wasn’t a stressful job though. It was quite clear what I had to do – or what I felt I had to do.’

So what does Steven have to do in London? What are the big challenges facing him and the team? ‘We want to be Number One,’ he immediately replies. ‘To do that, we have to focus on being the best – if we do that then we’ll grow and we’ll gain market share. I think London is like a pie – you get a bigger slice or a smaller slice every year, depending on who’s the best or who’s out there winning the best work.

‘I need to focus on our people. I want the best people and I want people to feel supported, I want them to feel that they can make mistakes, they can be ambitious, they can take risks – and we’ll be there for them. We’re not going to tell anyone off for doing that. I want people to feel like they are in an environment where they can thrive and push the boundaries of good design.’