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Afroditi Krassa on why designers aren’t storytellers and why confidence is all about simplicity.
Words: Harry McKinley
Afroditi Krassa is at home when we speak – a swish Primrose Hill pile with high ceilings, wooden floors and sweeping staircases. She’s a good fit for this affluent North London neighbourhood, notoriously the stomping ground of rock stars and rebels done good. Just a few years ago she rebranded her eponymous studio, dropping Krassa and joining the ranks of those recognisable from a single name – the Sting of restaurant design, once listed by the Evening Standard as one of the capital’s ‘most influential people’.
“Yeah, the decision was a bit rock ‘n’ roll,” she laughs. “I think the more confidence you have as a brand, the more simple you become.”
She recalls her early days flying solo in the noughties, an alumnus of Seymourpowell where she was the first female designer hired in the practice’s history. Though operating out of ‘some shitty garage in South London, with murders all the time and no heating,’ she played with various grand monikers: Afroditi Krassa & Associates at times, Afroditi Krassa Industrial Design Studio at others.
“Over the years more and more was taken out, to the point where now we’re just the bones,” she says. “I always ask why we have something and if there’s no good reason, we get rid of it. As a studio that’s embedded in the way we do things. If something is redundant, if it’s just repeating, then kill it; creating simplicity in design and simplicity in processes.”
The chilly, murder-adjacent garage now a decades-old memory, it’s perhaps this clarity of vision that has seen her define, and often redefine, what hospitality means for our times – whether designing and branding Itsu, now a high street stalwart; or Dishoom, the restaurant collection commonly credited with reinventing Indian dining in the UK. The latter, inspired by the Iranian cafés of Bombay, still stands as one of the studio’s landmark projects, celebrated for – what is regularly termed – its narrative driven concept and interiors. Yet the oft-used, even cliched, characterisation of designers as storytellers is something Krassa gives little sway to.
“Because we’re not,” she says, hoody-clad arm flung wide for dramatic effect. “And I hate the word narrative, because it’s so overplayed. We’re not storytellers and we’re not artists, we’re designers. We have a very particular obligation, which is to satisfy a specific audience. That’s the beauty of the job.”
This pragmatic approach to the work of design – as much ‘economics, experience control and commercial savvy’ – is understandable from someone who trained as a product designer, at Central Saint Martins and subsequently the Royal College of Art. She’s even surrounded herself with them, half of the studio’s team coming from a product design background, something she credits for its rigour and discipline.
I don’t care whether something is liked by everyone, but I care very deeply that it’s liked and understood by those we’re trying to speak to.
“When I first started 20 years ago it was mostly architects designing restaurants,” she explains. “But the world has changed and it’s now about creating a product that is branded and packaged, more than just a spatial response. As product designers we’ve been trained to consider how something sits in the market and how it’s different from everything else out there. Understanding that context is central, before considering design.”
One of the studio’s latest projects is HUMO London, a just-opened, Miller Prada-helmed, 32-seater Mayfair restaurant that has been more than a year and a half in design development and realisation. With an open theatre kitchen, the cuisine is rooted in wood-firing – the material also forming the foundation of the interiors. It’s an ambitious and provocative space, all sultry lighting and plush textiles. More importantly, it has a point of view, uninterested in being all things to all people.
“If you try to appease everyone, you deliver something vanilla, going against the principle of good restaurant design,” Krassa says. “I don’t care whether something is liked by everyone, but I care very deeply that it’s liked and understood by those we’re trying to speak to. If that audience felt we’d created something derivative or inauthentic then I’d be upset, because as designers we’ve failed. The goal is to touch people in a special way and create that magic that happens when people connect with an experience, because that’s what they’ll want to come back for.”
Although, initially, bums-on-seats and return trade is a decent marker of success, for Krassa, time is the ultimate judge. Her design philosophy is grounded as much in how something withstands as in the weight with which it lands; the inevitably fleeting buzz that accompanies the new. It’s why she’s worked so consistently with those who have an equal sense of staying power, not least titans of the culinary world including Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal.
“Look at the Acropolis,” she says, nodding to an icon of her native Greece, “it has a very clear identity, presented simply, and that’s why it has this eternal relevance as a piece of work. It actually takes a lot of guts to cut away the inessential and the fussy, and yet for me that’s where the longevity comes from, because good design isn’t as subjective as people think. We can all recognise that if something is unoriginal, if it doesn’t progress the conversation, then it isn’t good design. If someone has gone on Pinterest and mashed together 10 different things to create something ‘new’, then it isn’t design at all.”
But what about personal taste, then? “Well, I do think people confuse design and aesthetics, which can be subjective. Zaha Hadid’s work might not be my own aesthetic language, someone else might not like it, but no one can deny she pushed boundaries – something I profoundly appreciate in other people’s work. Great design is not just a response to – and a mirror of – what is happening, it has a perpetual quality that transcends; like a David Bowie song. And it takes visionary clients, not just designers, to create seminal pieces of work.”
Currently, the studio’s client list is buoyant: a Mandarin Oriental in Greece (the country’s first), helming design on all public spaces, including F&B; projects with One&Only and Rosewood; translating Pasta Evangelist into a bricks and mortar space; a cool Covent Garden bar and restaurant with French innovators, Experimental Group; and another dining destination with Ramsay, at the grand dame of London hotels, The Savoy. Then there’s the little matter of a Saudi island in the Red Sea, for which the studio is responsible for master planning dozens of outlets, from concept through to delivery – all part of almost unimaginably pioneering plans by NEOM to put the kingdom at the forefront of design and hospitality but also, according to its own marketing spiel, human progress. Certainly the scale of development and pace of change is mindboggling; the rewriting of a country’s place in the world, a modern Acropolis. The studio’s vision, still coalescing, will be unveiled in the near future.
Wrapping up, conversation turns to whimsical mundanities – a pair of bold glasses, new; large dramatic frames. “I’d never worn glasses in my life,” Krassa chuckles, “so I decided that if I was going to have to start, I should get something fun, something that makes a statement. After all, there’s something powerful about that.” Even in the simple, then, the importance of a perspective, of having something to say. A compelling attitude on design and, more enticingly, on life.
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