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A decade in design: in conversation with Goddard Littlefair

Leading design duo Martin Goddard and Jo Littlefair reflect on creativity, purpose and the decade since founding their eponymous studio.

03/01/2023 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #223

Words: Dominic Lutyens
Images: Courtesy of Goddard Littlefair

A shared philosophy of interior design combined with a strong personal connection – that developed into a relationship – underpin the chemistry and creative compatibility of husband-and-wife duo Goddard Littlefair. When we met, the couple were refreshingly open about what drew them together, our conversation ricocheting effortlessly between (mostly) professional matters – chiefly how discovering that they were kindred spirits as designers led them to establish their studio Goddard Littlefair in 2012 – and the personal, with this meeting of minds blossoming into romance.

The company, whose London office occupies a converted warehouse in Clerkenwell, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2022. Over the past decade the studio has undertaken a roster of residential, hospitality and wellness projects. These include such hotels as London’s Mayfair Townhouse, Four Seasons Sultanahmet Istanbul, Villa Copenhagen, Gleneagles in Scotland and the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik in Croatia. The duo’s hospitality and residential projects are characteristically but not exclusively opulent, richly colourful and often theatrical.

Of course, the history of design from the 20th century onwards is filled with success stories of dynamic husband- and-wife teams, even though the input of the women in such couples was traditionally undervalued. By contrast, the name Goddard Littlefair, formed of Martin Goddard and Jo Littlefair, takes gender parity as a given. As we touch upon later, the duo have no truck with stereotypical notions of so-called masculine and feminine strengths in the worlds of architecture and interior design.

The interweaving of Goddard and Littlefair’s personal and professional lives almost has a fairytale quality, perhaps enhanced by their unashamedly romanticaesthetic. Internationally sought-after, the studio opened another office in Porto in 2020, which now has 20 employees. The pair first visited the city in 2012 and were instantly enchanted by it. “We visited Porto frequently at the beginning of our business partnership because we were collaborating a lot with Portuguese companies,” remembers Littlefair. “We’d wander through its nostalgic streets and spend perfect evenings in a little bar, sipping port and eating local cheeses.

“A love for Porto and being able to operate a business there, expanding on the network of companies we collaborate with, fills us with excitement for what thefuture could deliver there.”

Although Goddard Littlefair’s projects, particularly on the hospitality front, are sumptuously furnished and brim with bespoke elements guaranteed to sweep hotel guests away from humdrum reality, when the studio was launched – less glamorously – hard graft helped lay the foundations for its global success.

The duo talk almost as if, early in their careers, they were destined to meet, and indeed they did in 2005 while both worked for major hospitality interior design firm GA Design International [now the GA Group] in London. Goddard had previously worked at Richmond International, while Littlefair had recently left its sister company Areen Design to join the GA Group. Invoking the title of the classic 1990s movie, Littlefair says, “Martin and I had been like Sliding Doors throughout our careers. We should have met at things like Christmas parties. At GA Design International we did a year’s worth of projects together. We got each other’s taste. I was pregnant at the time and left the company but told Martin to call me if he ever wanted to work together in the future.”

“One thing we’d discovered was that we shared a strong work ethic and can-do attitude when any project was thrown at us,” interjects Goddard. He did get in touch with Littlefair, on being approached to design a huge spa. “My initial reaction was, well that’s all my weekends and evenings gone, so I contacted Jo via LinkedIn to see if she could help.”

“Ah yes LinkedIn, that famous dating site,” laughs Littlefair.

Looking back yet further, did they have arty family backgrounds that might have inspired them to become interior designers? “I have an artist uncle,” says Littlefair, who is from County Durham and studied textile design at Leeds University.

“My family could always draw but never seriously took it up,” says Goddard, who was born in East London and studied interior design at Middlesex University. “The course was very architecture-focused so my skill sets on graduating included masterplanning and spatial design.”

“There were few opportunities for interior designers in the North East, but I found work in London,” says Littlefair. “Along the way, I discovered the specialism of furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E); it immediately appealed to me as it allowed me to mix fabrics, textures and colour palettes, and I worked inprocurement and design specification. It was the perfect complement to Martin’s skill set.”

The duo summarises the architectural and FF&E specialisms as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ respectively, but refute the way their industry regards architectural skills as superior to FF&E. Asked why this is, Littlefair says: “It’s a very traditional, hierarchical thing. Even now we know architects are paid more than what we are; they’re treated more seriously. It’s a bit like the female-male pay gap we still have.”

When it’s suggested this prejudice has been perpetuated by the male-dominated architecture world, the couple seem to agree. “For the past 30 years, male architects have tended to design hotels,” says Goddard. “Many are designed by architects who don’t connect human beings to architecture, so the emotional aspect of these spaces is missing.”

“FF&E is often called fluffy,” continues Littlefair. “It’s very disrespectful. Yet designers like Martin Brudnizki, who has designed for Soho House, layers textiles and patterns that create an ambience which you can’t dismiss as irrelevant.” Goddard Littlefair aims to bring this more human-centric approach to design to the fore, too, she adds. “Our design springs from emotion, of the experience of being in a space. For me, hotel design is about giving guests inspiring, life-changing experiences. I remember feeling special sitting at the bar of Paris hotel George V for the first time, drinking a negroni. It made me want to pursue that feeling again. For us, it’s about creating a feeling – all the lighting, all the surfaces have to be right. A lot of our concepts are driven by our vision of the finished design.”

While both had a proven track record as designers employed by reputable companies, they had to prove that their new company could undertake projects to a high standard, they acknowledge: “When you’re setting up, you’re starting from scratch, however long you’ve worked for other companies. Can your clients trust you?We worked hard to win that trust,” explains Goddard.

Their first breakthrough project was designing three and four-bed apartments in a Belgravia new- build called Ebury Square for Berkeley Homes.
They opted for a style Littlefair dubs ‘modern classicism’, which nodded to the grandeur of the area’s traditional architecture while bridging it with a morecontemporary style. “It had over-scaled doors, highly polished dark timbers and rich brass and bronze elements,” she describes. The studio also secured commissions from Corinthia Hotels and the Hilton.

In two later projects – boutique hotel Mayfair Townhouse, completed in 2020, and the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, which opened in 2022 – Goddard and Littlefair were in their element in terms of their penchant for opulence and passion for detail. Mayfair Townhouse comprises 15 townhouses thatincorporate seven listed Georgian buildings. Knowing that Oscar Wilde had once lived in the townhouses, Goddard Littlefair ran with the theme of the flamboyant Aesthetic Movement cultivated by Wilde and his contemporaries, favouring sumptuous materials and dim, nocturnal lighting. Alabaster lamps illuminate the reception, while seating in the Dandy Bar is covered in printed velvets. Delphinium blue, sealing-wax red and olive green shades enhance the interior’s opulence. They also dreamt up a playful motif encapsulating the mischievous spirit of Wilde et al – the fox.

Its colour-drenched interiors, including its richly hued guest rooms, also challenge the received wisdom that neutral colours in smaller rooms make them look bigger. “You’d think neutral tones make small rooms look bigger but strong colours work well in them – they cocoon you,” says Littlefair.

Context and local culture and heritage also inform the interior of one of the studio’s latest projects – the 65-room Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet. “The hotel is a converted prison near the Hagia Sophiamosque,” says Littlefair. “The courtyard was an unsung element, so we proposed that it be relandscaped. It has beautiful stone cobbles and gardens and is a great success. We sourced all the objects in the hotel – embroideries, antique velvets, beaten metal chandeliers and beautiful blown glass – in Turkey, where we worked with local artisans. We brought in shades like cinnamon and paprika reds. There’s a wood-burning pizza ovenwith a bespoke copper cowl made by an artisan as no manufacturer could make it.”

It’s in the past two years that Goddard Littlefair has been most prolific, perhaps because commissions have snowballed as its reputation has grown. Two upcoming projects include the OWO Raffles Spa in London and the Mandarin Oriental Vienna.

Concluding, why do the duo think they’re now so busy? “We believe there are two reasons for this – firstly, several of our high-profile projects completed over the last three years, has given more visibility to our work,” says Littlefair. “Secondly, our projects are always intriguing. We aim to add value and narrative to them, which we believe draws in curiosity from all quarters.”

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