As regular readers will be aware, we always devote a section of our January issue over to notable industry anniversaries. Every now and again, however, there is a milestone that cannot wait until the new year. This month, tp bennett’s interiors division will be leaving its (not so) troublesome teens and hitting the 20 mark.
Why can’t this wait until January? Well, not only is this the largest interior design team in the UK, it is also, by some distance, the most successful design firm in the history of the Mixology awards.
Founded in 1921, by Sir Thomas Bennett, tp bennett has grown into a 300-strong team with UK offices in London and Manchester and with affiliates across 27 countries.
The firm’s broad range of experience working with developers and end-users gives it a special understanding of both client and occupier needs, and with 300 staff across architecture, interiors and planning, with specialist disciplines in strategy, sustainability, research and graphics, it is one of the UK’s leading architecture practices. It is also one of the most diverse, with talent brought in from all over the world and a design democracy ethos to nurture that talent.
The firm can now boast the largest interiors team in the UK, with four Principal Directors at the helm. Since the division’s inception, Julian Sharpe, Mark Davies and, earlier this year, Leigh Dimelow, have been promoted to the board to drive the interiors division alongside its architecture counterpart. Between them, the interiors division spans the sectors, including office, residential and hospitality, both in the UK and overseas.
Its expansion overseas is notable too, with an increasing volume of work in Europe – particularly Germany, Switzerland and France. In fact, it now has 45 affiliates worldwide, the latest being San Francisco.
We wanted to mark the 20th anniversary by taking both a look back and a look forward with the man who created the interiors team at tp bennett – Principal Director Richard Beastall.
Richard joined tp bennett as an architect in 1985, initially focusing on a number of speculative office schemes and headquarters projects, most notably Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading, NatWest’s City and West End offices and Britannic Assurance’s new headquarters on the outskirts of Birmingham. He recalls that this was an exciting and challenging time for both the practice and for the industry in general.
‘We saw a lot of the American firms start to make their mark over here – Gensler came over, and then practices like MCM were also doing some great work,’ Richard recalls. ‘We were working on the Microsoft campus and we did the original concept design for the masterplan for 500,000 sq ft, we designed the first three buildings, we proposed to do the fit-out – and then they brought in another team to do the space planning. It wasn’t a good moment. I thought, ‘How can they do this? It’s our concept!’ This really got me thinking – we clearly weren’t getting the message across that we can do the whole thing. So, I went to my Senior Partner at the time and said, ‘I really think we need to be a little more focused on doing the fit-out side of things – we can see all these American firms, who are coming over and doing everything’.
He said, ‘Great. What should we do about it?’ – and I said, ‘I think we need to set up a distinctive new division’.
‘He sent me off to write a business plan. I remember I went to Balham Library. I sat there and wrote this plan, went through it step-by-step, thinking that this was all quite straightforward. I suggested we set up this new company called Bennett Interior Design and we take the top floor of our building, which was empty, and create a whole new image for this new firm. The offices were really tired, and I wanted to completely refurbish the floor – make it really special. I identified the Senior Partner as a Chairman of the division and positioned myself as Managing Director, with a goal of bringing in 15 or so more people.’
Richard had become a Partner in the firm in 1995 and, just a couple of years later, having recognised the need for a more specialised approach for occupiers, he established the interiors division of tp bennett.
That division has grown considerably over the years, with Richard leading his team in the delivery of many high profile award-winning projects for clients, including IPC Media, Guardian News & Media, MSN, Macfarlanes, PwC, Goldman Sachs, Rio Tinto, Swiss Re, Morgan Stanley, Lovells, Accenture and Oxfam.
We ask Richard about that very first project as an interiors division. ‘The first was Goldman Sachs – I think we did 1.4 million sq ft for Goldman Sachs within a year. It was really a case of right place, right time. We were young, full of energy, new ideas, wanted to question the norm – and we seemed to win just about every pitch at the time! The majority of British firms tended to be architectural firms and didn’t really concentrate on fit-out – they saw it as a bit second class.
‘I wanted to change that completely. We had to make sure the people who came to work for us felt there was a real career structure, that there was a clear direction and that it was new and fresh – but also that it was a part of a much bigger concept. At the same time, we wanted it to be really different from the other firms. We wanted it to be more fun! We wanted to understand what worked – but to be design driven first. That has always come first. Reputation and client experience is really important to us.’
The tp bennett team earned plenty of plaudits with its fresh, energetic, client-centric approach. ‘A big part of the business plan was to be all those things – to create something new and dynamic. It was fantastic really. We had the best of both worlds with the security of the Group. People just bought into it. That’s still a vital part of our ethos. Of course, we’re now an established business – but we still continue to be young, fresh and dynamic and to question the norm. Over the years we have attracted the brightest and best of the industry and we now have four interior Principals, with Julian, Mark and Leigh all driving the strong future of our fantastic team. We have strong leadership across the whole practice, but we also know how to have fun – I think that’s absolutely key to our success.’
Richard has brought us, very neatly, to the current day. How different is the market today? ‘I think the market is changing dramatically – I’ve never seen such a rate of change,’ he says. ‘15 years ago all these programmes came on the TV about how to refurbish your homes – well, I think the same has recently happened in offices. All boards now want to know what the latest concepts are in office design. We always used to be appointed by the FM team or maybe the Property Director – it would be very rare to pitch to a board. Now, working with the board is the norm. Most of our clients are the CEOs, CFOs – they want to meet their designers who are going to help them transform their working environment, help them transform the lives of their employees, they’re interested in productivity, attracting the best staff, their brand…they want to know that we can make a difference for them. They used to think of property as a necessary evil but now they see property as something of an enabler. The most expensive thing they have are their people and their talent – and they want to know how they can make a difference to their offices to attract the best talent, keep the best talent and to keep them motivated.
‘The competition in all sectors is greater than it has ever been – and that brings pressures. If you look at the banks, maybe 30-40% of a bank is now IT staff, so they’re having to compete with the likes of Google for people!
‘We’re currently doing some of our most innovative work for banks – because they’re having to reinvent themselves and so it’s a really exciting time for interiors. We need to be on top of that rate of change and design development. We’ve got a client at the moment, who we first started working with three or four years ago. It was a pre-let so it does take a long time to deliver and, three years ago, we designed a new space for them. They came back to us and asked us whether, if we were designing it today, we would do the same thing. We said, ‘Yes’ – but today’s workplaces are always evolving.
‘The modifications and the concept of the building were still relevant but, in the subsequent years, philosophies such as the wellbeing agenda have really taken off, trends on how people live and work have changed and it’s on furniture and fittings that these changes have the biggest impact. So, we modified these to move the environment forward – and they’ve accepted everything we’ve proposed. It just goes to show how quick the rate of change is within today’s workplaces.
‘As an example, workplace wellbeing is a massive focus for us, which is why we have a dedicated team that’s exploring the concept – and this includes developing spaces that occupiers can modify themselves, depending on how they want to work. We have a nice mantra that we put into all our pitches now: ‘Why shouldn’t people leave the office feeling better than when they arrived?’ It would be great if people did – and why shouldn’t that be possible?’
Why indeed. We’re certainly leaving Richard happier than when we arrived at the firm’s One America Street home – mainly because we know we’ve got another great feature for the magazine.
Happy birthday tp bennett. Here’s to the next 20 years.