Lh Exclusive with HBA Residential’s Global Principal Chris Godfrey
Luxury Residential Design for the Most Distinguished Clients
I’ve long known of HBA/Hirsch Bedner Associates, the world’s leading hospitality interior design firm, so when I found out they had opened a boutique ultra-high-end residential design firm I could not wait to learn more! And what better way to take a deep dive inside HBA Residential than to get on the phone with its global principal Chris Godfrey. So that’s just what I did.
With Chris in Singapore and I in Washington, D.C., our window to find a time of day that worked for both of us was small, so we scheduled for 9:30 am his time, 9:30 pm mine and little did I know what kind of treat I was in for. Let’s just say Chris is a complete delight and his passion and enthusiasm for his craft are infectious. Not to mention he has a nice sense of humor which made our call that much more enjoyable.
Before I delve into all we discussed, here is a little background on Chris and HBA Residential.
In 2014 Chris moved to Singapore from his home city of London to set up HBA Residential’s first office for Hirsch Bedner Associates. HBA Residential was conceived as a highly-specialized residential design firm to create exquisite private villas, penthouses, and luxury residences for the world’s most discerning clients.
With a holistic and elite model in mind, Singapore was pinned as the perfect place to initiate HBA Residential. A great place to test the model, learn about the Asian market, and move the business forward quickly given the opportunities there for new construction. A welcome contrast to London’s established building fabric which, while offering many renovation and refurbishment projects, offers few options to build and design from the ground up.
In 2016, with the Singapore office up and running and the groundwork of HBA Residential established, it was time to bring the firm back to London, the market Chris knows well.
As global principal, Chris oversees all interior design and architectural design and operations in the firm’s two offices. Together with his teams, Chris brings the most essential design principals, a holistic approach to interior and exterior, and ambition and passion for understanding and accommodating his clients’ needs in order to deliver genuine, unique and exceptionally crafted homes.
Read on to hear directly from Chris about his path to today, what motivates and inspires him and all about the fabulous HBA Residential!
What began your love for architecture and interior design? Did one come before the other? How has your love for the two highly interconnected fields evolved over time?
My father was an architectural draftsman and a perspective artist for big-name architects working in London in the 1970s and early 80s. So, from our kitchen table, I was exposed to the craft. He was also an artist that designed our house in a very avant-garde way, he designed all the furniture, made all the furniture and all of the wall surfaces were covered in collages of art and architecture, nude photography, and more. Really looking back, it was quite an interesting point of germination! Not that I really appreciated it at that time, but I did join an architectural practice at 17. I started at the bottom. I left school early and started as a trained draftsman, then went to higher education a little bit later around 20, 21. So I really had a fantastic apprenticeship before I embarked on the higher education which I think ultimately set me up very well.
I trained in architecture at Glasgow School of Art and then moved down to London. My training in Glasgow was a modernist education, very much about the plan, the way light comes into a building, the form, the order of things, the real universal principals of design. It wasn’t an avant-garde school, it wasn’t a fashionable school, it was the rudiments of good design. That is something I have carried forth in everything I have done since – the basics, getting the basics right, and that if things are essentially right, they feel right, they feel good.
But in moving to London the opportunities to practice that way were more restricted so I started to design my own furniture. I worked for a couple of small architectural practices that were doing mostly interiors, but they had some very interesting commissions and interesting ways of working and that’s what exposed me not just to the inside but dealing with scale. Again, something that has carried forth with everything I do – an appreciation for scale.
The last person I worked with before setting up my first business was a guy named Seth Stein, who was a New Yorker based in London. Seth did solely residential design, an architect who did one-off houses around the world. That is really where I got the first taste and the bug for combining the two disciplines together in a very holistic and personal way.
All of Seth’s projects were for people, were very much personality-driven, and were very international. From that, I set up my own practice at 29 called SCAPE Architects and followed in a similar idiom of doing small projects for high nets in London and in Europe which were quite architectural but very personal.
This brings me back to my passion for the interconnectedness of architecture and design, I really got an appreciation of working for people, residential is that, about the people. I think you also get a real complete understanding of the relationship between architecture and interiors at the residential scale. A real chance to understand and test the two disciplines and how they harmonize together – there is no better scale of operation then the residence to really do that.
What drew you to residential design over commercial?
People. The opportunity in residential design to genuinely create something which befits someone solely, that’s ultimately what I do now and something that I really enjoy. You will only do this once and although we might carry that forward, and we always look to improve what we learned from the last job, in terms of the solution, that will never be repeated. I always say there is a triangular relationship between client, designer and situation, the site, the place, the building, etc., and that will never be repeated, we often work for clients again, but we will never repeat that process again. I use that as the premise for what we do. I think that is very inspiring and unique and that is why I am a residential designer.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The thought that something unexpected will happen any day. That you learn something every day. And that I am challenged every day as well. These are the things that I enjoy. When you walk in the office in the morning, ok, so what could happen and who can challenge me here in a good way. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
The passion that our clients exert and the infectiousness it has on me. And I would hope that is a reciprocal thing too. We need this kind of energy to work on these projects. They are intense, sometimes they are long, and so passion for me is a necessity.
And, my team and their shared ambitions to create great work.
Where do you go for inspiration?
People and places. The uniquenesses. The things that will inspire me that I haven’t encountered before. People and places are the fundamentals that underpin everything that we do.
I am lucky in that I am afforded a lot of travel through this, so obviously for everyone travel is a source of inspiration, seeing what you haven’t seen before, being exposed to different cultures, I am a constant sponge for that. I think the more it happens the more receptive you are. I think a key to the growth of any designer is to remain completely open and receptive and that is certainly my inspiration.
I am inspired by the energy of the team, and I think that is a reciprocal thing too. I love being shown something I haven’t thought of. We are not a very heavy top-down structure here, I try to encourage everyone to table their thoughts and to come in in the morning with thoughts.
I look to art and I read a lot, not necessarily design, actually hardly ever design books if I am honest. I read a lot of arts and a lot of literature and I can be inspired by quite diverse things.
My thinking time is always on planes, I always take inspiration from those moments of respite in the sky. That is when I really get inspired, when everything else just falls away and all you have is clouds and nothingness.
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What do you believe are the top 3 key elements for creating a perfect residence?
These are all subjective of course, but if you were really to put it down to three words.
Security. That’s emotional, probably more than physical, but can be physical. The sense of being at home, of being secure in every sense of the word, and that relates to comfort too.
These are universal criteria, but they are quintessential for me, you cannot have a residence without these essentials.
What has been your favorite project to date and why?
I think if you could ever answer this question it would be time to retire! You can never be happy with what you have done, the game is up then.
But I will give an anecdote as well because this is a source of inspiration for me also. My first project for myself was about 20 years ago for a Swiss-German couple who had been living all around the world. He was a big lawyer for one of the banks and had traveled endlessly for a 40-year career. They had never owned their own home and had lived the last 15 years in Japan. They elected to retire in London and bought a quite cool loft apartment as their retirement home. They saw in the Sunday times a table I had designed for myself and found a way to contact me because they liked the table. They asked me if I would be interested in designing the interior of their loft, of course, I was willing.
This is really the project that caused me to start my own business.
We had a few telephone interviews and I didn’t meet them for the first maybe 3-6 months of the commission, but would I did do is ask for access to their safestore that they had sent all of their belongings to. For about 3 months I forensically cataloged their lives while they remained at distance. It was really interesting. I remember thinking, how do I start, I have not met these guys, they are on the other side of the world. We visited the building so knew what it was, but how could I learn about them.
So, we went through the safestore, we unboxed stuff, we cataloged things, photographed things and in their absence, we tried to create an environment that housed, either by showing or hiding away, or accommodating all of this life, all of this stuff, but more than that, this life they had accumulated. I took it as a really fantastic essay project. It was really interesting. We remain friends 20 years later, they still live there. He is in a wheelchair now in his 80s, but they still live in this incredible contemporary and personal house. And that for me is a really powerful thing, a really resonate thing. And it kind of made the blueprint for how we have tried to work.
It has been very rare that we have been able to replicate such an intense process, but the ambition to try to understand and accommodate people, and their lives, and what we can do to help provide the background for their lives. That’s what I call what we do, we provide the background, we are not the foreground, they are the foreground, their life is the foreground.
That is something that still remains important to me today and there are projects in the current roaster which are getting near to that again. We are doing one house in India currently which is very, very interesting. We are dealing with issues of religion, of vastu, which is like feng shui, of family dynamics, of three generations living together, of people who collect art on a major scale, who have 300-person garden parties and by the end of the day close the doors and are a family of 5. All of these conundrums are what I use to create genuinely personal responses.
What are you working on currently?
We have some really interesting things going on right now. What’s nice for me, now that residential is about 5 years old, we are starting to get into that next tier of commission where more of our projects are the complete entity, the architecture, the interior. We have a few of those around the world now.
We just signed 2 projects in Bangladesh, and that’s a new country for me, I have never worked there before, so that’s interesting. We have projects in Africa, in Lagos. A very interesting house outside Shanghai for a Chinese fashion designer. In terms of those narratives I’ve just explained, these are all, for me, opportunities to work in that similar vein of unique people, unique places.
London is doing well and winning commissions in Moscow, so again massively diverse parts of the world, different clients with different needs and I am enjoying the geographical spread of the work and that seems to continue. And I am looking forward to, hopefully with the advent of a 3rd studio in the US, really furthering that dialog too.
Why would an HNWI or UHNWI hire HBA Residential over other firms?
For me, and for most of the senior team, residential design is a passion. It’s something we have all done individually and to a large degree collectively for a long time. I would never call it an expertise, but I think we have a great understanding of what residential design is all about.
I think also because we don’t come with a fixed pattern book. We come with a first-principals’ approach, and we try to work with you as the person and create something which is very personal.
On the more practical side, we are architects, interior designers, and furniture specialists. I have assembled teams which are quite diverse in their experience and offering, stylistically and from a skill sets perspective, so we can offer clients a genuinely wide scope of services and are happy to service them in different ways. A flexible and complete offer. As thus we are residential designers, we think of ourselves as designers for people. We work on quite different kinds of projects for our clients as well, it can be their homes, their offices, their leisure facilities, all within a private realm.
A diverse skill set, a diverse range of offer, it’s very personal.
Then beyond that, the HBA Residential to HBA relationship is an interesting one. We are deliberately on my account, and it will remain so, a boutique studio within the family of a truly global design company. We straddle the best of both worlds in that way. We are 30 people in Singapore, we will be 20-25 in London in a few months’ time. They are the perfect size studios for me, I can oversee everything and we have the right people who can deliver almost anything for a client, but never get too big and never get too commercial.
Within HBA we have a big brother who is in 26 countries and has nearly 2000 people in the group who we can plug into and utilize as a resource and a geographical network to help us further service our UHN’s who are incredibly international. So, unlike many other studios who might be of that boutique scale, they can’t necessarily by within Beijing in 4 hours, or see someone in LA the next day and ultimately genuinely deliver projects for people in the four corners of the world.
I think all these aspects combined make us a strong offer for the right client.
What are you most excited about for your new office in London?
London is home and it is one of the world’s design hubs, with NY, they are incredible centers of creativity and constant rejuvenation and refinement. To have HBA Residential there is natural and necessary. So, 18 months in, it was nearly a year and a half ago since we inaugurated it, it is really taking hold now, that in itself is exciting.
The day we started HBA Residential London, was the day after Brexit was announced, and we were really undeterred by that, because of the global operation that HBA is. From the onset I wanted the London studio to think far and wide too in the same way the Singapore studio operates far and wide. I am excited we have achieved some success in that already in attracting clients from Africa and Russia, and we have had a few forays into New York from London already too. I think it is exciting that we have a widescreen approach to what we do in London, but we are not very much rooted there from a creativity perspective.
What’s next for HBA Residential?
With the stability and growth of London, step two, we are looking at how we continue to define and refine our offer and our craft. What’s important for me, and with the advent of the 3rd studio as well, is that we remain one studio in two-three locations so we are working on how we service clients better in all parts of the world.
I have mentioned the plan to open in the US over the course of next year and we are currently thinking whether its East, West coast or both coasts and that’s exciting. That’s my next major plan and it’s something that I have personally always wanted to achieve. I am looking forward to what opportunities arise through that over the course of the next year or two.
By Anna Beck Bimba
All photos courtesy of HBA Residential