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Licence to thrill: Lee Penson on the future of design and being big on everything

The PENSON founder discusses the nonconformist future of workplace and the studio’s bold new projects.

22/08/2022 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

We speak to Lee Penson virtually, with a background of dismantled racing cars and various motors strewn across his garage floor. There’s undoubtedly a metaphor in the pulled apart machinery waiting to be turned into something exciting. For 17 years, the architect and designer has been looking for new ways of reworking the established, pushing against the typical 9-to-5 system.

His eponymous studio specialises in commercial and residential architecture, interior design and experiential branding – even dipping their toes into the world of automotive and aviation interiors – all with a strategic and consultative approach.

“We started with a laptop and a printer bought from Curry’s in 2004. April Fool’s Day was the D Day – I moved house, left my previous business and on the dodgy carpet in a shared house in Tooting, PENSON was started. Eventually we moved into a business centre in Waterloo and from that little room something special matured and grew.”

Eventually the team settled in their HQ in Shad Thames, with plans to expand globally into New York and Beijing. Born from a frustration that typical practices weren’t looking at what buildings do for people’s lives, PENSON set out to be something different, moving away from the usual structure and approach many practices take. “When PENSON was founded, we had to make our mark to stand out. We did this by working harder than ever, being more creative whilst ensuring our ideas cost less, were easier and less risky,” Penson says.

“We basically stopped, thought about the norm and applied more common sense on all functional and practical matters, whilst also applying some visionary aesthetics. We challenged the rules – not for the sake of challenging them with gimmicks, but on the simplicity of making life better for people. That’s the current trend in everything these days, but we were doing that nearly20 years ago. The world is such a different place now, but the world of design hasn’t really kept up with that in my in my view, and we still see a lot of regurgitation. It frustrates me, but it also drives me and the team, because we want to see things being done differently.”

With all the gradual changes seen in the last decade, and even the dramatic ones in the past two years, in Penson’s eyes the industry is still slow to change. “We feel our responsibilities as a brand are to really maximise the discovery, exploration and justification of what COVID can actually do for us all, out of the tragedy. For our brand and our team, COVID has provided a ‘licence to thrill’; it’s given us a layer of justification to solve challenges that change people’s lives and make things a little bit slicker and easier –from [automated] toilet doors to asking if we need office buildings at all anymore. It’s probably the most exciting time the design industry has ever had.”

The team are putting these concepts into action with a wide range of projects, ranging from new work with long-time clients The Hut Group and a nightclub-cum-workplace to bold new projects in the USA, including a chain of cannabis-focused hospitality concepts in California.

PENSON is currently completing one of largest ever workplace campuses in the North West of theUK for one of the world’s biggest online beauty and wellness businesses, The Hut Group (THG). PENSON describes their relationship with the ecommerce giant over the past decade as a beautiful marriage, and the studio has acted as architect, interior designer, experiential creator and workplace strategist on a series of workplace, retail and F&B concepts. The new campus (THQ) in Manchester will represent 1.6m sq ft of commercial, workplace and hospitality space, while THG is investing over £1bn in the region over the next three years and supporting 10,000 jobs. The company’s new headquarters, spanning 16.8 acres, will be the UK’s largest bespoke office outside London, completing in 2024.

In the meantime, the studio has created a series of spaces for THG, serving as high-performing solutions for headcount issues for the interim period as well as testing out concepts for the big campus project. THG Ingenuity Campus (TIC) is a brand-new creative studio and workplace next to Manchester Airport, providing 272,000 sq ft of highly bespoke and inspiring ‘village campus vibes’ for 1,400 creative minds.

“THG Ingenuity Campus is the testbed for the bigger gig to come in the form of the main campus,” Penson explains. “But not wanting to make TIC subservient to THQ, Ingenuity Campus isn’t about game-changing interior design as such. It’s all about enabling people to change their lives inside and outside of the THG organisation, by simply giving them their malleability back. At this campus, the word ‘workplace’ is made redundant. Ingenuity Campus is special because it solves so many post-COVID issues, envisioned culturally and designed before we ever knew COVID existed. The campus has a village life atmosphere – it’s about people not just great design. It’s beautiful, highly sustainable and super economical to build and operate”

“This is very much the new breed of workplace and others are shortly to follow,” muses Penson. “To us, it’s not an office building anymore, it’s a life facilitator and a piece of inherent exercise equipment; it’s still a place that we all go to as every business still needs its heart and soul, and it’s epicentre. We are far from saying that this is the new standard for all workplaces, that’s the very key point here. Businesses should be designing much more unique buildings of their own, that stem from their brand values, considering their people, characters and beliefs. In other words, building a new business epicentre that isn’t a standard workplace format, it’s somewhere for people to come together and somewhere to unite a workforce.” Penson remains tight lipped about this project, for now.

Working across a number of hospitality concepts, from underwater pods to eco retreats, in Penson’s eyes the hospitality world can inform how we engage with our workspaces. “Workplace is going through a massive challenge and rightly so. For 25 years I have been saying that restaurants, bars and clubs are creating lovely atmospheres, whereas offices were paying far less attention to feeling and emotion, despite the fact we spent more of our time there,” he says. “Now, in a post-COVID world where priorities have changed, businesses are looking for new ways to engage staff, build retention and increase staff satisfaction.”

The JO&JOE brand is a huge source of pride for PENSON which, alongside Accor, created the brand from top to bottom in 2016; from the real estate approach, to the design and F&B approach. Developed to disrupt the economy hospitality model, PENSON created the hotel as a hybrid, sitting between an open house, a hotel and a hostel – open to neighbours and travellers alike. Like the work with THG, Penson believes it’s about people first and design second: “The reason it’s such a successful brand is because it’s not changing anything on a gimmicky level, it’s actually got to the root of the cause in terms of giving things back to people, and as a result JO&JOE is going to be huge. We just announced 1300 locations across China.”

The Paris Gentilly location launched in 2019, targeting both ‘tripsters’ and locals with a street art concept and multiple event spaces encourage socialising and guest encounters, including a large ‘beer wall.’ Going one step further with guest experience and sector disruption, PENSON is busy creating an eco-hospitality brand, named after one of the planet’s most carbon consuming plant species. Due to launch in the next few months, Penson is confident this new approach to hospitality with be enormously popular, but also a genuinely sustainable ‘planet-cleanser.’

“We’re creating an ‘eco sexy’ brand, not by smothering buildings with plants, but approaching sustainability more intuitively,” he notes. “Directly linked to each location’s natural resources, character and story, encouraging guests to live the real-life immersive experience. Feeling the heat, smelling the air and truly absorbing the character of a place.” Watch this space.

“We refer to all things as ‘design and life’ rather than architecture and interior design,” Penson concludes. “There is such a big opportunity and responsibility at this moment. I know that there’s something there as a different model, which is even better for organisations and people than the old format. And that’s what excites me, there’s something better there for everybody.” For Penson and his team, exploring new ways of living and working is nothing novel. The world is just ready to listen.

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