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Mix Roundtable: The value of craftsmanship in commercial interiors

The function and role of commercial spaces is constantly changing – massively accelerated by the pandemic. What do we expect on our return post lockdown?

Feature in partnership with Specialist Group

21/07/2021 7 min read
Specialist Group

We will all want to return to something different – to flexible, functional and beautiful spaces. We will want to be in the presence of people (again) and we will want to be surrounded by aesthetically pleasing, sustainable and expertly crafted products and spaces. And what could be more sustainable than a product that lasts longer than we do?

Together with our friends from Specialist Group, we’ve gathered a panel of the industry’s finest minds at Oktra’s fantastic new Clerkenwell home, to discuss the value of craftsmanship.

We begin by asking, somewhat bluntly, why we should particularly care about craftsmanship or beautiful, design-led products when it comes to the workplace.

Tina: Up until recently – and hopefully again soon – we probably spent more time in the office than we did at home. If you create beautiful spaces for your teams, they will invariably create more. I think we will see this return to the office – I know that our team is desperate to get back!

Kristoff: There are still things that you simply can’t do alone – creative things that are just impossible to do over a Zoom call. The way we work has completely changed. You could say that we’re not even talking about what we once thought of as a workspace any more – your job is now to be social and to move around. The role of the workplace is becoming a place to socialise. People are climbing the walls to return – but not to work on spreadsheets. They want to get back so that they can talk to one another, be creative, come up with fresh ideas, training and mentoring, creating networks…all those things that are impossible to do at home.


Tina: Reviewing samples – has anyone tried to do that from home?

Kristoff: None of this works from home. The real heart of the matter is that the office is now an events space. You are no longer a facilities manager – you are an events manager. You need to adapt, you need to start looking at sectors such as hospitality – these are the skillsets that are now needed. Who is coming into the space? How do we reconfigure the rooms?

Jeni: It is much more fluid now. People are no longer coming and sitting at a desk all day, every day.

Catherine: And we haven’t even had all the choices open up for us yet – those choices are only just beginning to open up for us now. While we’ve been working from home, we haven’t been able to be collaborative and to interact in the same way with one another – it wasn’t a particularly social or engaging way to work, and what we want to do now is to attract people to spaces and to build up those connections with clients and colleagues, which we’ve really missed – and that’s sometimes not easy to do and is difficult to replicate if you haven’t got the right space.

Ciaran: If we’re not at work, we’re at home. We’ll happily spend money on our homes – because we want to be comfortable, because we spend so much time there. So why would it be any different at work? And we have to keep changing and evolving that – we have to keep evolving how we work as things move forward. We’re not just a factory, or a shed – we continue to evolve every year. This is a space to come and enjoy your work. The lighting has to be right, the heating has to be right and the atmosphere has to be right.

Tina: I think there is an importance around why a workspace needs to be beautiful. Firstly, I think that beautiful spaces have a healing quality – people’s behaviour changes in an environment that is really looked after. Beauty and craft, to me, is related to an inherent sense of quality and something that will last. This is really relevant to our circumstances as we deal with climate change; we need to produce things responsibly and well, and there’s an importance in beautiful products that are well made and long lasting – rather then defaulting to standardised, mass produced products.

Max: I think you want to get people to be emotionally invested in the office as well. As Ciaran said a little earlier, people are emotionally invested in their homes, because these are their homes. If you generate an office that is essentially just a pile of desks, then it is not their office – it’s just a place they have to go to work. By creating a really great space, you make people feel part of it and proud of it. I think that’s really important – it’s important to get emotional investment from the people who are using the space.

Tina: We’re now hearing about companies refitting floors that used to be offices into meeting spaces – and not having all those desks. So having facilities that allow people to come together, and then allowing them to work from home on other days – and that kind of flexibility, hopefully, is here to stay.

David: The office is obviously not a home. It can be a blurring of the two. What we all do is create and craft things. Much of this is about the process – and it is possible to do this remotely but it’s far easier to do it face-to-face. The office should act as a tool to encourage that collaboration and provide people with different environments to create and assist their craft. For me, it’s great that we can create these beautiful objects and environments for people to come and visit, but at the same time they will assist our process.

Ciaran: Losing that social aspect of work has been really tough on people’s mental health. It has had a massive effect on people. I like to get out, I like to meet people, I like to socialise – I want to go to our canteen and see people and chat with our staff. Not being able to do that has undoubtedly affected my mental health. We can, potentially, learn to be more flexible but we still need to have a nice workplace so that we can attract people. We need good space so that we can do our best work together.

Jeni: Whether your workspace is pretty or not so pretty – more utilitarian – it is essentially where your brand comes to life. It can be a showplace for clients, but equally, it is how you showcase what your culture is. It can sometimes be an opportunity for a business to show how sustainable they are – or certainly how they want to be seen as sustainable. Our job is to try to bring that to life.

Kristoff: The office does set the context for the culture. Most companies are now looking for people to come back in and be part of that culture. The space has to say something about who you are as a business and what you’re about – and nothing says that better than fine quality. That means looking at value for money – I’m not just talking about big spending here, I’m talking about sustainability; about where you procure your materials, how you put them together, what your specifications are…

Chiara: I think there is something inherent to the idea of craftsmanship, marrying with the maker and being able to acknowledge who the maker is. There is an inherent skill in making products that can be celebrated. I think there are makers out there who are reactive – who react to your requests and do ask what it is we need.

Jeni: It’s about working together with the makers in partnership.

David: When you relate that back to what we do with clients, the earlier we meet the client, the richer the product will be. 

It seemed almost inevitable that, at some point in the conversation, the dreaded ‘VE’ would rear its head.

Tina: What so often happens is that the great VE sweep comes in – and all the great concepts and the sustainability goes out of the window. All of the values disappear and it comes down to what is cheapest. This is the tricky point, where we have the hard task of pushing things through.

Ciaran: This shouldn’t be such a big issue. Craftsmanship is about trying to understand what the end user needs, what is right for their environment, how it will be good for that environment, how long it might last and how it will work. What destroys it is that there are people out there who are only looking at making money – and making money by diminishing costs. We really want to deliver the very best product, on time, exactly as the client wants it. What stops us from doing this is these VE options and companies who are prepared to undercut at every point.

Tina: Value is an interesting word here – because what we’re really talking about here is cost and not value.

Jeni: It means that designers are now walking around on eggshells – they don’t want to go too far because they have no concept of what the true budget is!

Max: We have a couple of clients at the moment who are looking to locally source wherever possible – and with the global situation as it is, I think that will only increase.

Chiara: There is a need to encourage the development of this throughout the industry – and I’m Italian and I love Italian design, of course! But there is certainly an argument for sourcing locally and ensuring that those crafts skills are developed and maintained – and you can only do that if you invest in the industry.


Craftsmanship is at the very core of our industry and, in an age where sustainability is more important than ever, we need to turn away from cheap, disposable options and instead look to true, long-lasting value. Companies such as Specialist continue to develop skilled workers and provide quality, sustainable products. Let’s hope that this doesn’t – in the face of VE – become something that is too specialist!

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