Interview with William Smalley

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    We learn from London architect William Smalley who shares his thoughts on materiality, the local design scene, how life can be lived in his projects and where he goes to look at great design in the world.

    London architect William Smalley is one of those people who seem destined for their career – and to do great things with it. Developing an interest in design at an early age, he never strayed from the idea of one day becoming an architect. Always hoping to go out on his own, he took ‘the leap of faith’ nearly 20 years ago – knowing it was not too early or late in the piece to establish his studio.

    If you’ve already come across the work of William and his team, you’ve no doubt recognised how they make their mark with an understanding of traditional, heritage buildings and the know-how to reconfigure them. Their signature style is minimal, that varies in degree of understated-luxury and old-timely elegance from each public or private project. With a portfolio described as ‘monastic’, William Smalley’s expertise has taken him to other parts of the world to work his magic, but he says a deep connection to London where he’s based in a small office in Bloomsbury will always remain.

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    William Smalley

    We’ve long admired the work of William Smalley and how it places value in permanence, proportion and timelessness. You can see this from the fact that a project from ten years ago is just as relevant and beautiful as it is today. Prioritising simple, strong and quality materials comes from the belief that ‘materials are everything’ in architecture. So too does William know design objects, but is not precious about them – often leaving his own custom furniture mark in a home.

    Reading William’s words you will find an honesty and wisdom about how design should work in the world. He is true to himself and his clients, thinking deeply about how our spaces dictate our lives. While he admits he feels like his career has only just begun, he has already earned a respectable global reputation. We’re certainly excited to bring you more of his work hereafter.

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    London Woodland House by William Smalley RIBA
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    London Woodland House by William Smalley RIBA

    Firstly, could you please tell us a bit about your path to becoming an architect and starting your own firm? 

    William Smalley: I knew I wanted to be an architect at the age of about eight. I spent all my time designing buildings, and my village school headmaster bought me a copy of the Architectural Review when I was 10 which cemented it.

    I studied in Edinburgh and then worked for myself for a few years, but to qualify you have to work for an office, which I did for about eight years. I think you know when the time is right to set up your own studio – not too early and not too late. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but that’s what I had always wanted to do which helped.

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    London Woodland House by William Smalley RIBA
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    London Woodland House by William Smalley RIBA

    How would you describe your approach to residential design and what is the importance of a strong material palette?

    William Smalley: Our job is to translate our clients’ needs and ambitions into built form. We create atmospheres for them to live their lives in. Typically we work for private clients and I suppose there is a degree of discrimination in them approaching us. You might think the ideal client would give you the commission and then leave you to it, but actually you need to measure against their feedback. Projects always get richer with a good client.

    When we work with developers, I always invent an owner in my head, or for larger schemes make sure I’d be happy to live in every house or flat.

    Materiality is how buildings express themselves. They place a building in a context, have warmth, hardness, colour, texture, express a mood and character, weight or lightness, they speak of a place and time, they reveal the construction. Materials are everything.

    Your design office is based in London but you’ve worked on projects in New York and the French Alps. Could you please tell us a bit about these projects and how they came about? 

    William Smalley: Building in London can be constraining, and from our tiny studio in Bloomsbury I have always intended to work further afield – if nothing else it’s nice to get out for site visits. It’s impossible to design a building if you haven’t visited the site. There might seem an inherent contradiction in seeking to make buildings which are rooted to their place, as we do, when you are designing in a place you don’t know, but the answer is to be as open to intuition as possible. If you are then a response comes quickly, and appropriately. If a response doesn’t come you are probably in the wrong job.

    Our projects abroad have come about through clients at home. The New York project is for the sister of a London client. It’s the complete reconstruction of a large Upper West Side apartment on Manhattan. The apartment had a Scandinavian feel, so perhaps a European architect was more appropriate than it might seem. In France, we have been working on a chateau in the Alps for some London clients, where we took the cathedral-like roof off, rotten after 350 years, and replaced it with a new timber structure to make a 2,500sq ft, three-storey-high party room lined in French Larch.

    How does designing in London compare to other parts of the world?

    William Smalley: London is home, so there’s a deep connection, but perhaps the only real difference working here is that you don’t have to fly to site visits.

    What is your most memorable project to date?

    William Smalley: Probably projects early on in my career where everything seemed to be going wrong. It wasn’t, I just had higher expectations of life.

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    London Mews by William Smalley RIBA
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    Parkland House by William Smalley RIBA

    Can you share a rule from your personal design book?

    William Smalley: When thinking about a new project, think abstractly about how life could be lived, rather than how it is currently. This is probably easier in a younger, sunnier country like Australia. Our spaces dictate our lives more than we realise.

    What do you hope to achieve in your career that you haven’t yet? 

    William Smalley: I feel I have only just started. Architecture is a long game.

    Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designers or studios?

    William Smalley: I don’t hang out with architects as much as I probably should. We are across an alley from 6A Architects, and my long-time hero John Pawson is up the road in Kings Cross. There are good architects all over London, at least until Brexit.

    Favourite design stores? 

    William Smalley: Sigmar on the Kings Road in London sell perfect examples of elegant mid-century furniture and objects. They are the UK agent for the fifth-generation Viennese workshop of Carl Auböck and their century-long history of designing beautiful brass, leather and bone household objects. Their ashtrays make you want to take up smoking and bottle corks make you not want to finish the bottle.

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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA

    Favourite galleries and spaces?

    William Smalley: I immediately think of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the home-gallery of curator Jim Ede, who befriended and supported innumerable great artists of the twentieth century. He assembled his collection in his house, three tiny cottages knocked together to somehow make generous spaces, which he opened to the public every afternoon, so blurring the boundary between house and gallery. Extended with a library-gallery by Sir Leslie Martin in 1970 with bold subtlety, it maintains its domesticity, and is one of the most beautiful, mesmerically calming places there is.

    Where do you go to look at great design?

    William Smalley: The best design is found in nature, in the most ancient of art. Like the abstract prehistoric White Horse above Uffington in Oxfordshire, near where I grew up – and in the simplest, most humble objects that have stood the test of time so that you don’t even notice them. Great design shouldn’t shout design at you.

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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA
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    Liscombe House by William Smalley RIBA

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