Carolyn Trevor runs TLA Studio, a London-based architecture and interior design practice, with her husband Pat Lahiff. Known for their carefully detailed remodelling of homes in the capital and beyond, the studio creates beautiful, thoroughly resolved bespoke environments, and has a loyal client following.
Do architects make good interior designers?
Very often they do, as, like us, they have the advantage of the complete architectural background, so they can produce the complete package. Lots of architects, however, just do the ‘white box’ thing and stop there, and because they are often not as confident doing the interior design/decoration bit, they are sometimes very dismissive of interior designers. We’ve always worked in an environment where the two disciplines cross over so much, so we’re well trained – for example, when we’re designing a room, we’ll take into account the views, the light, but also how it could work better for the furniture arrangement, or how best it could be used. It all sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many architects don’t really work out exactly where the bed’s going to go in a bedroom, for example – It could be so much better if they just moved the door a little bit.
Is there a typical refurbishment project? How do people want to live these days?
There no typical refurbishment project – everyone tends to have a different brief, and differing ideas as to how they want to live – although, thanks to the internet, people now do tend to follow the latest fashions for features in the home as they do for clothes. Currently it seems that most young informal families want a big kitchen/family space that might link through to a study, and a kids’ playroom/TV area so that their living spaces are all linked together rather than in smaller separate compartments. I suppose we do quite a lot of knocking down walls, adding on and extending. And everybody likes to have more inside-outside space now, with no threshold between the two, so it’s flush; the garden can then become another room for living and entertaining.
Then there are the downsizers who move into town from their big house in, say, Hampstead and buy a big flat in Mayfair or Marylebone. They quite like a separate dining room, but they still want that same feeling of linked space, with the light flowing through, so we might separate the spaces with big sliding doors.
Can you give any insights into how you rework layouts to make them work harder, and flow better?
For unmodernised buildings that were designed without modern services, the existing cellular and hierarchical layout isn’t really appropriate for contemporary living, but due to its historic status, can’t always be radically reworked. The introduction of new functional spaces, such as kitchens, bathrooms and media rooms, which were either previously non-existent or very basic, is also challenging. However, we usually work with buildings that have been radically changed over time, often very badly; we have to decide what then can be retained and what can be changed in order to meet the new occupants needs. When it comes to redesigning, we start with fully understanding our client’s brief; we then work out exactly how this can be synthesised into the existing building. Sometimes the change can be as little as reusing a space for another function, without or with very little change to the architecture; and sometimes the design requires wholesale change in order to work.
What’s your style?
It’s quite stripped down and contemporary – not traditional, though as our work is quite bespoke we can confidently ‘do’ any style (within reason) at our clients’ request. I like period furniture and I think I’ve got a good eye, so I can mix old and new quite easily. I like 30s and 40s stuff, and have for a long time – before everyone else got into it! I like 60s and 70s pieces too, but you have to be a bit more careful with it: you can soon get into too much chrome, or too much orange… London’s period spaces are amazing. You can strip them out and make them really minimal, but I think that’s rather a crime. In our house, we have kept all the period details and reinstated many others, like the cornices.
What would be your advice to someone looking to hire an architect?
I think a lot of people just ask their friends who have had similar work done. You can also see which architects have worked on residential jobs in your area by searching your local authority’s planning applications. I think it’s important to interview at least four or five people before you choose who to go with – you need to feel comfortable that you’ll be able to work quite closely with them, and for a long time if it’s a big project. Try to go and see an example of their work. Photographs are not a substitute for the real space!
Do you usually like the raw material that you’re presented with?
Not always on the initial visit – sometime you can see that there is a massive task ahead, but other times you can easily envisage the finished product. Mostly we love it, though – who wouldn’t want to work on listed buildings in Chelsea? Old buildings are very charming, and I love the planning stage where you spend hours poring over the layouts and scribbling on layers of detail paper until you crack it. I would also obviously enjoy building something amazing from scratch.
Do you think that the definition of luxury has changed?
I think that standards are rising quite quickly: now, even spec homes come with underfloor heating and sophisticated lighting controlled via iPad. But there are lots of so-called high-end luxury property developers that are growing their own design studios, trying to be the next Candy and Candy – designing spaces that might on the surface look quite flash, but are often a poor reproduction of true luxury or really good taste. The marble’s only 20mm around the basin top, not 30mm; it’s butt-jointed rather than mitred. Those sorts of details make a difference, and we know the details that can make a job look a few million dollars. It’s surprising how people don’t notice how cheaply some work has been done, and it’s surprising how people can get away with it when buyers might be paying as much as £12 million for a flat in Belgravia.