Welcome to the new Approach to Science Lab Design - The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

Front of The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in London
The Front Façade of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre designed by Ian Ritchie Architects

I have a fascination with how interior design really works for people. Every day we go in and out of various spaces and we aren’t just affected by what they look like, we are affected by how we function in them.

I was recently at the launch event for a book about the design and build of University College London’s pioneering Neuroscience centre and labs - The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre. I found myself became engrossed by what had made this building different.  It spoke to my design geek and said here is a place where the whole design ethos has been based around taking the time to look at how people work. The building was created to bring together world-leading scientists to investigate how brain processes information to generate perception, form memories and guide behaviour. Its creators want the building itself to nurture that creative spark that lies in this field of science.

Being me I didn’t want to just read about it in the book, I wanted to see the building and understand it for myself. So I asked and they let me!

The Front of The  Sainsbury Wellcome Centre with its is stark which curves and art installation.

The outside of the build makes a pretty impressive statement with its crystal white curved facade. Under the awning an art installation shows sheet music from Bach "Musical Offering" which illustrates the brain's creativity on one side and on the other builds up to make the faces of the stars of Neuroscience. If you don’t look up you could miss it, like a little secret the building is waiting for you to find.

The Roof of the Awning hides a clever Art Installation - Look up or you'll miss it!

I was so lucky to be shown round the build by Adam Kampff whose enthusiasm for both this building and his field of research is infectious. I learnt more about Neuroscience in the few hours we spent together than I have ever know before (unsurprisingly!).

It has been a long time since I have stepped into a science lab - the last time while I was miserably failing my biology ‘A’ Level. I remember the classic wooden topped work benches all in rows, each with their sinks and Bunsen burners. On the back wall were shelves full of jars of things, lots and lots of jars! This place of learning came with a feeling of austereness and a faintly musty smell that lingered.

The Science Labs at The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

The Sainbury Wellcome Centre has put all the tradition aside and started again by looking at how the researchers who work here operate. Internally the building is divided up in to smaller sections in various layers all sectioned off by glass. The core of building is filled with glass walls. This has the amazing ability to create a feeling of space, light and open plan without any of the down side of actually being open plan. When I asked Adam how this had changed from his previous labs he has been involved with he said that though the previous labs were open plan, which should create a feeling of unity it didn’t.  Researchers would plug their earphones in and tune out the background noise and chatter to be able to concentrate on their experiments, therefore isolating themselves. Now you can see everyone go about their work, without disturbing people by being in their space.

Desk Areas & Meeting Rooms give a feeling of privacy while still feeling connected. 

And it’s not just about the defined areas but also about the flow between them. The scientists can go easily from their lab bench downstairs, to the offices spaces, then into the virtual reality room (oh yes, there is one and what fun I had!).  The functional areas are designed so related disciplines are in close proximity, from a basement that houses an impressive room full of machines where the scientists manufacture their own tools to penthouse meeting suites with views across London.

It’s also not just about the work.  Breakout spaces pop up all over the place both inside and outside the building. Spaces for people to relax and spend time talking to their colleagues is vital to the collaborative process.

Balconies and A Roof Terrace give great opportunity to take the debate outside

The architects designed flexibility into the heart of the building. Using the great term “Plug & Play”, desks can be moved, science benches swung around and connections made to ceiling laced with a myriad of cabling, all to accommodate the ever changing needs of the research. This building doesn’t only take into account what is needed today but what is needed tomorrow.

I love the fact that you can write on the walls and doors, I saw amazing looking equations scrawled across glass doors to funny little doodles on windows, because we all love to have a little doodle once in a while.

Have a break through idea? Then jot it down on the walls, doors or windows! 

I could write all about the ins and outs of the building, trying to take you step by step through its hallways but I am not trying to put an architecture review together. It is the synergy between the people who work in this building and the work they do that sits at the core of my wonderment. That is the point of this building.  

Why does the building work? It started the design process by throwing out what went before.  Ian Ritchie Architects along with the Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust started by looking at how Neuroscientists go about their business. They put what they learned at the heart of the design. The building is different because it didn’t want to copy the best of what came before, it wants to innovate lab design for the future, to create an environment that nurtures ground breaking discovery. No small ask.

So can it do it? I am not the one to answer that but this quote from Dr Adam Kampff gives me the belief that it will:

“I’m realising the building is designed to mix this entire domain of neurosciences, where people come with ideas about what brains might be, with people who bring data about what brains are doing and create a new kind of thing that we are in the process of trying to define. What is exciting about SWC to me, is that it feels possible.” 

This is the back of the building which overlooks the lower courtyard


A Very Special Thank you to Dr Adam Kampff  who took the time to share this building with me so I could share it with you. 


Feature Walls - Why do them?

Interior design presentation work in progress at Smartstyle Interiors

The Feature Wall has been a design statement for a long time, but is it always the right statement to be making in your space?

To make any design decision you should always start by asking yourself, “Why?!!”

Why it should be “Yes!”

When I design I look at the space I have been given as a whole, not just collection of features.  I consider how I want people to use the space and how they should feel when they are in it. There are often very strong reasons why I will decide to use a feature wall to fulfil those goals. It is a great way to create impact and pull the eye to the area of a room you want to people to flock to, like behind bedheads or dining areas in family kitchens. It says a lot about the space you want people to be focusing on. And it says it loudly.

Both images curtsy of Jenny Kakoudakis from  Seasons in Colour

A feature wall is also an amazing tool for manipulating a space visually.  This works especially well in spaces with lots of chopping and changing in wall levels so you draw the eye away from the weird bits and onto the good bits.  By creating a feature in one part of the room it actually calms down whole room – stopping the entire space from being too busy. A bit like wearing a flattering frock, drawing the eyes to what you want people to see.

Left Hand Image curtsy of Murals Wallpaper Jessica Jung as photographer. Right hand Image curtsy of Studio McGee

To do a Feature Wall right I say the clue is in the name. Don’t be timid about it - make it a showpiece. I’ll push for bold colour which really contrasts with the remaining walls especially when trying to trick the eye away from other areas of the room. I have seen a slightly dark wall with mouldings by Studio McGee on it work really well for adding interesting texture details.  If you are a bit more of a pattern person then there are some amazing wallpapers out there and they are getting bigger and bolder with every season. For the very brave (I put myself in this happy camp) I’d suggest a look at Surface View  or Murals Wallpaper who have many breath-taking images which can be produced as custom sized mural wallpaper, turning a plain old wall into a work of art.

Amazing Feature wall in the Henry Holland suite in  decked out in Habitat's House of Holland bedding!

Why it should be “No!”

Well… apart from the two very simple reasons stated above, I say “no” to any other reasons for picking a feature wall. The “I saw one on Pinterest”, “I just fancied it”, “I like the wallpaper but can’t afford any more” or the classic “I’m a little worried I’m not brave enough to do more”.  None of these reasons consider the room as a whole and all of them run the risk of getting a little bit messy.

As I originally said, a feature wall manipulates a space visually, so guess what happens if you add it to a space that is beautiful proportioned.   Now the feature wall is pushing itself forward of all the other walls and throwing the proportions that you loved about the room out.  I think it always look particularly odd when you have a feature like a fire place or French windows on one wall a “feature wall” on another.  The two features are now fighting for your attention and it’s all getting a little Great Interior Design Challenge.

Left hand image shows a fully papered Bedroom by Smartstyle Interiors -  Photo byPaul Winch Furness. Right hand image shows fully papered Dining Room from Jenny Kakoudakis  from Seasons in Colour

Love a wallpaper? Then be bold and do the whole room - that’s a better design statement than just one wall.

Can’t afford four walls of paper? Select key images from the paper, frame them up and create a gallery wall.  Clever and cost conscious!

Finally, your walls don’t need to be the focus of the room, so don’t do it for the sake of it. Play with your features in other ways; large scale light fittings, art or bright textiles on the sofa bring impact to the centre of a space. If you are inviting people into your lounge to sit together in the central space then that’s what these design choices gravity towards.

So if you are in the middle of considering that feature wall design decision, I bring you back to the first question of every design choice we ever make – “Why?”  Answer that question and you’re ready to create an amazing space not just one great wall. 

Thank you to Seasons in Colour, Mural Wallpaper and Studio McGee for kindly giving us permission to us their images to support this post.


A Life-Long Love Affair with Habitat

The white Armand-lamp-by-Habitat-brings-an-updated-look-to-a-classic-design-Interior-Design-by-Phoebe-Oldrey

You can never have too many cushions and the Bullseye & Zoe cushions form Habitat are right on target for adding pops of colour to your interiors this summer.

There’s only one shop in the whole world that I can honestly say has been a part of my life from childhood and still continues to lure me in season after season, and that shop is Habitat. It’s quite rare to have a long-term relationship with a brand these days, but heck, when I’m in love I’m very loyal and I’ve been going steady with Habitat for almost as long as I can remember. 

It was my mum who first introduced me to the wonder of Habitat when I was a little girl. She was an antique dealer and an interiors enthusiast (it runs in the family). We lived in a rambling cottage in the middle of Nottingham which was filled to the brim with antique furniture. As you can imagine, my childhood home was not a natural fit for a cutting-edge brand offering aspiration design at affordable prices in the 1970s. But one day, my mother brought home a white metal lamp with a dome-shaped perspex shade. The lamp was striking and modern and looked nothing like anything else in the house. From the moment I saw it, I was in love and I fondly called it The Mushroom Lamp. 

The Mushroom Lamp was the beginning of my long and loving relationship with Habitat. Remember when I mentioned I was loyal? Well, I loved that lamp so much that I took it with me when I moved out of my mother’s house. And it still lives with me today!

“The Mushroom Lamp” still in pride of place after all these years in two of my different homes. Photos by Paul Wince Furness (left) and David Merewether (right). 

I’m not the only one for whom Habitat ignites wonder and excitement. Though it’s easy to forget, Habitat was incredibly pioneering when it first began and it revolutionised the high street’s approach to interiors. Habitat was established by Sir Terence Conran in 1964 when he saw a gap in the market for great-looking furniture, lighting and homeswares for the everyman. Before he came along, cutting-edge interiors were for the elite and the rest of the population had slim pickings when it came to affordable and fashionable furnishings. Habitat changed all that and was one of the first companies to mail order products to customers, which meant everyone in Britain had the ability to get products from Habitat delivered right to their door. 

Habitat was also part of the flatpack revolution in the 1980s. I still remember a long afternoon spent putting together bookcases with my mother. As we fitted pieces and huddled over the instructions, I learned for the first time about furniture construction and also learned some rather colourful words that I certainly wasn’t allowed to repeat at the age of 10. 

A velvet Habitat sofa in my teenager's bedroom has introduced a new generation to the splendour of my favourite store. A trusty bedside lamp by Habitat shines bright in a Smartstyle bedroom. Photos by Daniella Exley (left) and Paul Winch Furness (right).

From my first student digs to my current home, there isn’t a single place that I’ve lived that hasn’t necessitated a trip (or two or five) to Habitat. I love an excuse to browse their shelves– always so full of temptation– and select the perfect pieces to make my home extra beautiful. Over the years, I’ve bought sofas, wardrobes, storage units, duvet covers, roasting tins, TV unites, lights (lots and lots of light) and so many delightful accessories for my home. Just this past Christmas, I finally get myself a set of matching plates from guess where… Habitat! Like all great relationships, Habitat just gets me. And I get it! Loads of it, as it turns out. 

Three sets of Habitat Cherry Blossom lights twisted together to create a unique lighting feature in this open-plan kitchen and dining space. Photo by Paul Wince Furness.

Habitat doesn’t just feature in my own home, I also include their pieces in many of my designs for clients. As I flicked through my portfolio the other day, I was struck by how many of my design projects include a special piece from Habitat. In fact, when I first set out on my own as Smartstyle Interiors, I gave the Habitat Spin Table centre stage in my first client’s breakfast room. It was a beautifully made table with a carved oak spindle through the middle and was solid as a rock. I recently heard from that client and though she has since moved out of the house I designed for her, she and her Habitat table are now very happy in a new home. 

The Peggy Throw comes in a super soft grey and green cotton and is perfect for curling up under while nurturing your green thumb.

Though Habitat pieces look great and last for generations, I can’t help but pick up a few new things from each collection to integrate into my home. Right now, I’m enjoying the romance of spring with some stunning goodies from the Habitat S/S17 range. It’s a pleasure to see that the brand is looking ahead and defining trends instead of looking around them to see what everyone else is doing. I already have my eye on a number of gems from their upcoming Spring/Summer collection, and was given the chance to have a play with a few of my favourite pieces to give you a little peek.

The Dolton Black Metal Coffee Table and the Zelda Vase, both from Habitat, make a striking pair.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll likely say it again: I firmly believe that black metal is going to be working its way into our homes and ousting brass as the metal of choice. Habitat is already there with some brilliant black metal pieces, like the (insert product name) coffee table. 

Colourful geometric textiles bring a cool retro vibe to their upcoming collection and their ceramics are beautifully crafted and sit so well with my vintage pieces that I almost felt as if Habitat had made them just for me! However, it’s their new mushroom lamp that brought back such happy memories for me. This modern take on my beloved classic lamp means that everyone can again enjoy the sculpture and beauty of it, and maybe even pass it along for generations to come!

The Elmer Blue & White Ceramic Vase sits nicely alongside ceramics old and new and will integrate nicely into any ceramics collection! 

Though Habitat and I have had a great relationship for almost three a half decades (God I feel old!) our relationship, like all relationships, is about growing together, and Habitat has some big changes ahead. This year, the brand is settling into a relationship with their new parent company, Sainsbury’s. Great design will be even more accessible to everyone this year as mini Habitat stores will be opening in Sainsbury’s shops across the UK. Rumour has it that a few large stand-alone stores will be opening in some key areas, too, which goes to show how much work they’ve put into rebuilding their brand since the last recession when we almost lost them from the British high street. Because Habitat has always put fabulous product design at the heart of their company, they’ve been able to come back stronger and all of our homes are better for it.

The Zoe Pink & Blue Embroidered Cushion (left) and  Armand White Lamp  (right) both look as if they've found their natural Habitat.

What Habitat pieces will become the next design staples here at Smartstyle? Time will only tell but you can shop my favourites from the new collection in stores or online. I'd also love to hear what pieces you're excited about purchasing in the comments!


All Habitat photos taken by Kate Sims.