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In conversation with Universal Design Studio

Celebrating two decades of design, adventures in new ways of thinking and an impressive landmark project, Universal Design Studio’s Associate Director Carly Sweeney and Director Paul Gulati take time to reflect.

05/07/2022 6 min read
Paul Gulati and Carly Sweeney. Image: Mix Interiors
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 220

Words: Chloe Petersen Snell
210 Euston Road Photography: Paul Bevan

May 2022 marked the opening of The Office Group’s (TOG) 40th London workspace at 210 Euston Road, in the beating heart of the city’s Knowledge Quarter. The first to launch in the wake of the COVID pandemic, the seven-floor building is one of TOG’s largest to date, and the fourth designed by award-winning practice, Universal Design Studio.

The design of the new TOG space has a distinctly ‘Universal’ style that extends to the studio’s own workplace; a burst of warm timber and lighting hidden inside an unassuming Clerkenwell office block. Oversized Hotaru paper lanterns designed by Barber Osgerby hang overhead, a reminder of the studio’s founders, and there is a distinct sense of community as we pass the team eating together – here’s a design firm that practices what it preaches.

Founded in 2001 by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby – a way to separate the duo’s product design from other design disciplines – the studio recently marked two decades of business, amidst a pandemic. Celebrating the occasion, new book Inside Out details sketches, inspiration and details on their most iconic designs – offering a holistic view of how the practice works and thinks.

“[The pandemic] was an unexpected moment where we could slow down, reflect and really get under the skin of ourselves,” says Associate Director Carly Sweeney. “Normally we get under the skins of clients – so it was a nice way to figure out who we are and what we really stand for. In the book we looked at different projects through different lenses – human, transformative. We thought about how we work and why we work, and what things are important to us.”

Universal clients span the full gamut of spatial design, including workspace, hospitality, retail and cultural institutions across the globe. Perhaps most famous is its work for US hotel company Ace, at the imitable Ace Shoreditch, the brand’s first UK outpost. It is possibly difficult to look back at a time when coworking and hospitality didn’t come hand in hand, and yet when it opened in 2013 the hotel was the ultimate industry disruptor – reimagining what a hotel can be by incorporating a workspace in the lobby and involving the surrounding community.

Forward-thinking, Ace had already evolved plenty of progressive ideas in the hotels it had completed in the States, but it was a big jump to open in the UK, which enabled Universal to become more than just a designer, but also create links to local collaborators.

“A key project aspiration we have at the beginning of every project is to try and do something new, to innovate and push things forward a little bit. Ace offered that opportunity,” says Director Paul Gulati. “At the early strategic stages, you start to build a narrative. A story involves people and people are part of the community – so how do we deal with that existing community, as well as transient visitors? How can you create common qualities that are conducive to spending time inhabiting that space?” Bringing in the industrial heritage of Shoreditch with European touches – not least in the hotel’s restaurant Hoi Polloi, a modernist brasserie inspired by mid-twentieth century European bistros – the hotel brought together a number of independent businesses under one roof to create a new energy.

The project eventually led to a long-term collaboration with TOG, the studio designing its flagship Tintagel House in 2018.

“Something that has come into our work following Ace is how we can create a space that works for people that are coming from very different places, and coming there for very different reasons,” adds Gulati. “As a result, much of the work we’ve completed with TOG and newer clients is about finding new ways of making those connections to the locality, bringing in creative and collaborative partners when we can, and offering a meaningful experience.”

Universal was approached by TOG in January 2020 to take on 210 Euston Road, starting work just before the world ground to a halt in March. “It was a project that had its challenges,” Gulati says, with a laugh. “TOG is a fantastic client, and had confidence in the human need to get back together to collaborate and work together.”

After a brief pause, the team picked up work again towards the end of 2020, during a time when many clients were continuing to put the brakes on physical spaces.

“There wasn’t a dramatic pivot in the design due to the pandemic, but there was definitely a more nuanced response to how TOG anticipated people would work,” says Sweeney. “Instead of singular elements like big collaboration spaces, there are more smaller pockets and hybrid working. Lighting was considered significantly for this space, perhaps not usually as high up on the brief before the pandemic, and technology was more integrated to accommodate zoom calls.”

Two of the seven floors are designed for individual businesses, while the other floors are devoted to flexible office units and, on the lower floors, coworking, with more than 800 workspaces throughout the building. This flexibility within each floor was a design challenge for the team, but one Gulati thinks will continue in future spaces.

“There was a tendency to put these key collaborative spaces on the ground floor, shared by everyone, stacking these different types of spaces like a massive club sandwich,” he says. “If you want to change the mode in which you work, it requires you to have the potential to change your experience in the space – whether that’s more collaborative or social, or more focused – without having to move between lots of floors.”

As with all of Universal’s projects, the team took a step back and looked at the surrounding area. From the British Library to the Wellcome Trust, University College London to the Bartlett School of Architecture, the stretch of Euston Road at King’s Cross is lined with learning, home to a cluster of world-renowned institutions that have helped turn the area into a magnet for international businesses, from Google to Facebook. “We quickly established the building’s location as an important crux of the project,” says Sweeney. “We learned lessons from how those spaces work – a lot of those buildings have elements that are publicly accessible, as well as bonus spaces that you can get when you’re a member. We also looked at areas within the British Library, such as the reading room – and the fact that all those spaces speak to coworking. It felt like there were tools that we always use from the local area, that make the building relevant.”

Combining the functionality of workspace with the aesthetics of luxury hospitality, Euston Road is a warm and texture-filled space that takes cues from the richness and timelessness of Scandinavian design – thanks in part to the use of wood and lighting, from the contemporary oak-clad reception all the way up to the bar and event space on the top floor.

Furniture was selected to feel classic and contemporary, with various groupings accompanied by large-scale textiles and over-sized stripe motifs. The interior palette uses a base of creams, yellow and aubergine, set against natural timber.

Like Ace, Euston Road welcomes the community inside with a public café and showcase space, moving through large timber doors into a completely different and more intimate area that sits under an undulating, sculptural ceiling. “The palette of materials that we used is elegant and timeless, and it does feel quite grown up,” says Sweeney. “That’s the type of member that TOG wanted to attract for that building – it felt relevant for that site. We’re always thinking about the site context, the character and the people.”

So what’s next for the studio? For Gulati, the future involves testing out lots of new ideas, some brought on by their time to reflect during the pandemic. “We’re always generating new ideas. For us, it’s about trying to find ways in which those ideas can come into the world.”

“We’ve got some beautiful projects in the mix, some really exciting stuff,” agrees Sweeney. “We’re always evolving as a studio; we’re always pushing ourselves. I think we’re quite difficult to define because we are such a cross sector studio – but it’s that variety as well that keeps us really interested and passionate about our work.”


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