From Filmmaking to Interiors: Tollgård Design Group Co-Founder Shares His Thoughts on Working in Times of Quarantine

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Jun 10 2020 / 15:00 PM

We speak to the London-based co-founder of Tollgård Design Group, Staffan Tollgård, on what inspires him and the journey of switching from film to interior design

From Filmmaking to Interiors: Tollgård Design Group Co-Founder Shares His Thoughts on Working in Times of Quarantine
Exterior views of Danish Summer House completed by Tollgård Design Group

What inspires you the most?

I am a design weathervane - constantly on the turn for inspiration from people, places, stories and pieces. Yet I have to say that nothing inspires me more than the clients I work for. Having worked within film at the start of my career I realise that I remain, at heart, a storyteller.

I keep reminding myself that my job is not only to hear, but truly to listen. We are fortunate to have worked with some amazing people, and we draw from their questions of living as well as their cultural heritage, rich lives and the collections they have brought together.

I am also lucky to have an encyclopedic memory for design - so to be able to tell our client’s stories using the language of design remains one of the most fulfilling parts of my work.

Staffan Tollgård

Which projects are you most proud of and why?

This is a little like asking me to choose between my children. As I have two sons that I love in equal measure, I also have two projects that I would struggle to choose between. The Danish summer house on Fano and the villa that we recently completed in Amman, Jordan, are projects that I have thrown my heart and soul into. 

In each we have woven a red thread that tells a unique story of compelling people in inspirational buildings that speak to their environment. They are such different projects: polar opposites in some senses, but with the narrative of the nurturing of family life at their centres.

Interior views of Danish Summer House completed by Tollgård Design Group

With so much competition around, how does your style differ?

We have always said that we are steered by our clients and do not have a “house style” but a strongly held set of design values and an ability to listen and to care.

In truth, these values and principles do guide our design studio towards making certain design decisions, and to using pieces from certain makers that also hold and reflect these values. I am drawn to design that transcends trends: pieces of functional sculpture that answer questions of living in different ages, architecture and settings.

My ambition for each of our projects is that our voice whispers; the clients should be heard most clearly. If I had to sum up our visual style it would be that we like to be bold with colour, texture and pattern. Just not all at once.

Interior views of Kensington and Notting Hill projects by Tollgård Design Group

What made you shift from film to interior design?

My wife. Pure and simple. During a hiatus in my development work she set up a meeting with Alan Hughes, of the Inchbald School of Design, and I was enrolled by the next term.

She had, astutely, noticed not only that I really enjoyed the work we did on our first home, but that I also got frustrated with the design choices that our architect was making. It was clear to me that there needed to be a consistent thread running through the project.

Just like making a film: we needed to decide which story we wanted to tell, and ruthlessly edit out all the design decisions that weren’t part of this story. My year at Inchbald then allowed me to test and develop this theory more fully, while learning about three years of design history and theory in ten months. It was quite an education.

Interior views of Kensington and Notting Hill projects by Tollgård Design Group

What is your design philosophy?

Alain de Botton captures the power of architecture beautifully in his book when he writes that, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places - and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

We want to improve the quality of our client’s lives through making the best design decisions we can. By listening to them carefully, by weaving their stories into the fabric of the design and understanding not just what they want, but what they need, we can use these powerful functional, aesthetic, tactile and emotional tools to nurture and sustain family life.

Kitchen views of Knightsbridge project by Tollgård Design Group

Your advice to aspiring interior designers?

This will sound counter-intuitive as most advice encourages students to aim for the stars, to aim high and to dream big. I say: think small. Design doesn’t just happen in starchitect studios, and success is not measured in square metres.

The lobby or restaurant of a large hotel may receive more footfall and more views, but conscious design decisions made for a family home will have a far greater impact on the lives of the people living there.

We have designed projects large and small, and the praise I am happiest to receive is when a client says something like “every time I enter my front door, I feel an inevitable lightness, a peace and a pure joy of arriving home.” That was a good email to receive.

 Bathroom views of Knightsbridge project by Tollgård Design Group

Anything else?

At the time of writing this, we are in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown - away from all our colleagues, stores, friends and family. It makes us appreciate all the more keenly why it is we do what we do. The power of home cannot be overstated. Yet it is also the journeys away from it that make home a refuge.

We are so grateful to the people working incredibly hard away from the safety of their homes to keep our country as healthy as possible. We try and think positively about the future when we can, once more, leave and come home as we please.

Photography by Richard Gooding, courtesy of Tollgård Design Group

From the Summer 2020 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Interiors