The humanist approach of Ilse Crawford

By Ali Morris

A pioneering force in design, Ilse Crawford has quietly influenced a generation of design.

Whenever I feel jaded or begin to question the industry that I have spent my career writing about, I find myself seeking out the work and words of Ilse Crawford. In the spaces she designs, interviews she has given and in the books she has written, she so eloquently and succinctly communicates what it is that makes the vast and sometimes problematic field of design so powerful and important. ​​

Endlessly wise, Crawford has spent her career quietly influencing an entire industry to use design as a tool to put human needs above aesthetics. Her efforts have seen her become one of Britain's most well-respected interior designers, an MBE, the subject of a documentary and now this year's winner of the London Design Medal. “I couldn’t be more proud to win this award,” she tells me.

On London as a design capital

For Crawford, receiving the London Design Medal is a very personal accolade. “I am indeed a Londoner through and through,” she reflects. “BD ( Before Design) I was born in Powis Square, went to school at Avondale, W11, worked across town in various jobs from barmaid to cook, Debenhams shoes sales girl to secretary. In 1989, I was the launch editor of Elle Decoration. And in 2003, the same date that the London Design Festival began, I started Studioilse.” 

“Without question, LDF has transformed the city’s entire attitude to design,” Crawford continues. “From a city that scarcely knew the meaning of the word to one that celebrates it. And LDF put it on the map for design from a global perspective.” 

On her humanist approach

Conversely, Crawford’s star rose out of an ego-centric era within the industry, where design was celebrated for being bombastic, but often lacked meaning beyond the surface. Today, the industry is only just catching up with the approach that she has long championed, shifting from the style-driven to human-focused. In 1999, she introduced the idea of wellbeing as a pivotal objective for design, founding the Man and Wellbeing department at Design Academy Eindhoven, which she ran for two decades. This birthed a whole new generation of young designers, who address social issues on personal, societal and global levels. 

Her eponymous design firm, Studioilse puts this humanistic approach into practice, making cosy and user-focused spaces for the public and private sectors, as well as furniture and objects for brands from Georg Jensen to Ikea.

On community kitchen Refettorio Felix

"Ilse has always been something of an outlier in the design industry – ‘a quiet revolutionary’ as she put it on one of our very first meetings, almost 20 years ago," recollects Hugo Macdonald, Studioilse’s brand director, responsible for consultancy, strategy and communications.

"She talks about designing with ‘a cool head and a warm heart’, balancing rational rigour with emotional intelligence. There is a powerful humanity in all that she does,” Macdonald continues. “I find this captivating and ever more relevant as we enter the age of automation and begin to question what it means to be animal in our increasingly digitised world." This ethos is perhaps no more poignantly demonstrated than within Refettorio Felix, a community kitchen and dining hall in London’s St. Cuthbert's Centre that provides meals for those living in socially vulnerable conditions. “My only request of Ilse was to design a beautiful space,” remembers chef Massimo Bottura, whose non-profit organisation Food for Soul instigated the project and commissioned Crawford for its design.

“She understood it was not about the choice of paint or the lights, but the opportunity to create a story of possibility. Her ability to see the human side of design and explore vulnerabilities with sensitivity and creativity made her an exceptional fit for Refettorio Felix. This is what beauty is. She gave our guests a place to call home, a place to dream and a place to believe in one another."