Featured image: Ceramics by Annie Fourmanoir courtesy of Matthew Donaldson.
Jonathan Tuckey Design specialises in ‘remodelling and radically transforming old buildings for modern uses’. A case in point is the ongoing re-purposing of an old dairy just behind Harvey Nichols in London’s Knightsbridge, for Maureen Doherty, the owner of Egg – the influential ‘slow fashion’ Knightsbridge boutique that has dressed everyone from Grace Jones to Theresa May. Many aspects of this project are unique: from the physical space (where the lines between residential and retail are blurred and intertwined) to the modular division of the living area, to the nature of the working relationship between Tuckey and Doherty themselves.
All of which provides the perfect opportunity to sit down with the two of them –plus an ever-changing chorus of assistants, customers, business associates and even a couple of dogs (Lilly and Finn), who pass through the building in the course of our discussion. On the agenda: their shared aesthetic and ethos, the changing demands of modern living, the trouble with minimalism and what makes a house a home…
On the art of a good brief
J I got an email in the middle of the night which said something like, ‘I live in a dairy and I think I need something very simple. I don’t want to change too much, but I do want to bring it into the next century. Love Maureen.’ Sent at 2.34am. [laughter] I didn’t pick it up until the morning, but I do remember thinking…
M ‘…Weirdo!’ [laughter]
It was very easy. I saw the Shadow House that you did in Wiltshire. I went there to view it, potentially to buy it. And I just loved the atmosphere there. Loved the people… It was just a shame it wasn’t in Scotland! And then this place came up. There was a little old lady who’d been living here – it hadn’t been touched since the 1940s. And my first thought was: Tuckey. It wasn’t, ‘Shall I see which architect to choose?’ I knew it was Tuckey. And then I met you, and it was charming and easy. It feels as if it’s been here for a long time.
J We got a builder in who just stripped everything back and left it as the frame of the house. They took out the ceiling joists and we found this big truss. We left it like that for about six months. And I think that was really helpful for us both in thinking about where we wanted to be. It was really exciting. Previously it was lots of little rooms, a loft you couldn’t really get into – and I think you were already downstairs weren’t you, Maureen?
M We were using it as storage, yeah.
J We knew we weren’t going to hide what was here – we liked what was here. Maureen and I both talked about how it would be nice to sleep in a cupboard or on a cupboard or under a cupboard – we shared quite a lot of conversations about those atmospheres in rooms.
M Lily sleeps in the clothes cupboard. But if you don’t give Finn a soft bed, he would just stand all night.
J We were definitely aware that the space had to be a backdrop; it’s always going to have people from Egg swarming in; opening a suitcase, hanging things up and then departing. And then Maureen and the dogs and the grandchildren – it’s constantly changing the whole time. It definitely needs to be a backdrop to all that… It’s that idea of creating fluid space. It’s the space in between those objects that are as interesting as the object. And I think that is absent in the way a lot of people work.
On keeping up with the neighbours
M Everybody in this street, they buy a house for £7 million, they rip it all out, live in it for three months and then they sell it! And then the next person comes in and rips it out again! It’s constant. And they are always saying, ‘Oh Maureen, we’d like to come up and see your flat.’ So they come up and say, ‘Oh…’ [laughter]It’s like Egg, when we first opened, everyone said give her six months and she’ll be bankrupt. And then two years later they walk in wearing Egg!
On work/life balance
J Compared to a lot of people I work with, the boundaries between work and ‘not work’ for Maureen are very blurred.
M It’s great living here – but then it’s awful at the same time. People tend to shout up from the shop. So I just keep the windows shut! But I like it. It’s sort of my hobby. Compared to my previous work, this is almost my old people’s home. Small, manageable – difficult! I don’t want a chain of shops, but I’d like to do a project maybe – with a beginning, a middle and an end. We did the uniforms for Spring [Skye Gyngell’s restaurant in Somerset House] and that was fantastic – dressing 100 bodies.
On the secret of a good working relationship
J It’s about the person and the space. If one of those is wrong then it’s not as exciting. The conversations that Maureen and I had together – plus this building: that made for a really enjoyable journey. Sometimes if those things don’t line up then it just doesn’t work. Maureen knew the sort of spaces she wanted that would feel right: it wasn’t about having to fill in a spreadsheet, it was a much nicer way of working.
M For me it was about trusting Jonathan. It was as simple as that. There was no ego bouncing around. Which isn’t always the case with architects!
J Maureen was living here, close by, while we were doing the work, so there was hardly a day that went by when there wasn’t a conversation about it – just questioning us as to what we were doing. Obviously there were times when it was intense, but it was still really enjoyable. I mean how many whites did we look at? We did a lot of whites! We looked at them at all different times of day…
M They had to paint six coats of white, and I used to ring up and say, ‘I like Bill doing it, but I don’t like Fred doing it.’ [laughter] You know, ‘He’s just not in it, but Bill is doing it right.’ And then Fred would get annoyed.
J We set up a camera on site for the whole period and we were constantly changing the memory stick every week. And when you now watch it back; there’s builders in their orange jackets making things every day and then Maureen will turn up all in white to check things; and then the whole of Egg will wander through…
M There was a moment when we dressed all the staff up in pyjamas for the camera – with the Japanese architect too. I insisted he put his nightshirt on. And he turned from this very stoic, quiet man into this… strange fairy, flitting around, with the builders all around.
J He hid in the cupboard too! But it really represented how it was – there was always a customer downstairs who would wander up with Maureen… That was really enjoyable.
M A guy I know was a friend of Samuel Beckett’s, and Beckett lived in Paris with two cups, two spoons, two plates, two chairs and a table. And every time he acquired new things, he’d have them taken away every month. He’d just live with nothing. I’ve always had that in my head. Obviously I can’t do it to that level because I’m not Beckett, but every six months I have to cleanse. It’s got to be gone, gone, gone. That was always in the back of my mind – I don’t think I even discussed it with you Jonathan. I like it empty. I’m beautifully full of rubbish!
J I think it’s changing all the time Maureen. I think it’s constantly changing in exactly the way you wanted.
M I worked with Issey Miyake for a long time and I spent a lot of time in Japan, so obviously I picked up that Japanese sense. I’m always searching for peace. But then again, I had to do Issey’s flat in Paris and when we finished, and he brought this big multi-coloured screen in, like a child would have in their room, with really naff Swiss scenes and Christmas pictures. And that was his focal point in the flat. It actually looked quite nice there. So he has this other side, as they all do – the floral side.
On building a home, not a house
J People taking ownership of a building is the most pleasurable thing. I hate it when people feel they can’t make their own mark. The idea that the work is somehow sullied once the owner moves in – that is the exact opposite of how I feel. We sometimes have to give people a little push – like you’re pushing off a boat – just to say, it’s OK, you can whack a nail in the wall. Because sometimes there is a nervousness; it’s inevitable when it’s something you’ve collectively dreamt about – and some people have invested a lot in. You don’t want to change it. But these places are robust enough, and our designs are meant to be lived in. Sometimes it takes people longer than others. Maureen had moved in before the builders had moved out, so there was always a sense of living in it and living around it.
I studied anthropology rather than architecture. Le Corbusier said ‘Life is right; art is wrong’. He appreciated how people could adapt and evolve and appropriate the spaces he designed. And I think that’s really important.
M I remember I told the metalworker what I wanted, but then they said it was impossible. Obviously. So then I sulked.
J Everyone in our studio spends a long time trying to work out how something is made. For this building, it was helpful that we could get in and pull it apart. That’s not often always possible. So in other cases we’ll make quite a lot of models. We’re working on this old farmhouse in France at the moment and we can’t strip that out because someone’s still living there, so we’re making a big model of it to see how it’s made. And then that reveals more questions – how does that beam sit on that one? When you build it as a model you can start to take things away and work out if they should be there or not.
M When the little wooden model of this place arrived, I thought, I’m going to cry! It was just so nice.
J It used to live in Maureen’s bag for a long time.
M I carried it around with me. My house!
J But it starts way before we start work on the site. It begins with understanding how someone lives or works or plays. And it’s trying to bring those things together. It’s a much longer take – and upon which the building will evolve at the end.
On defining one’s style
M I don’t put labels on anything… And I don’t want to be known – I want it to be known as a team. I think because I’ve always worked behind designers, I don’t like the upfront position at all. So if somebody comes in and says, ‘That’s disgusting’ – that’s fine, I don’t mind. Or the opposite! What I hate is anything where people wear a whole collection from one designer. That would annoy me. A bit like with an architect – not having soul.
We get quite a few Americans who arrive in stretch limos and say, ‘Is this The Egg? Really?’ And then they disappear. We had a group of Middle Eastern women who all came in one door and straight out the other towards Harvey Nichols! It’s what it is. I’m not a designer; I put things together. Usually old things. You can see a lot of Miyake influence in that.
What I love is if something can work on different bodies. I remember dressing Grace Jones and my mum in the same frock. And my mum’s Scottish, size 20. And exactly the same frock worked for her and Grace. That’s a good frock!
But I like old clothes a lot. I’m not very keen on new. I can’t go to fashion shows, they make me… nervous. I like being at the back – where it’s happening.
J I think because we straddle that architecture through to interior designer role, we don’t actually get labelled with either of those two. It can be restrictive to be labelled as one or other. I suppose because I hadn’t done architecture, people would often say, ‘You can’t do that’ – but that issue’s gone away in time.
M I’m not trying to make anything new. There’s so much pressure in fashion to every six months have this newness. When I opened Egg, I wanted it to be like a chair: well that’s OK for ten years. It’s not for six months; it’s ten years. I like the fact that it can be an heirloom.