Kate Ainslie Williams talks about Heritage Interior Design

Kate Ainslie Williams is the founder of KAW Design, an interior architecture and design practice that works with owners of listed buildings. Kate also wrote some of the course content for National Design Academy’s Heritage Interior Design Course.
She kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her career in Conservation and Heritage Interior Design.
NDA: How did you begin to specialise in Heritage Interiors?
I had worked as an Interior Designer for many years and wanted to change what I was doing. I found the idea of working with historic buildings very interesting and I had noticed that there weren’t many Interior Designers, if any back then, who could work with listed buildings. So I decided to educate myself and complete a Masters Degree in Historic Building Conservation at Oxford Brookes.
The course was great, I was the only Interior Designer on it at the time, the other students were from mixed backgrounds in related fields, so it also helped me make some good connections.
When I graduated I set about setting up my own practice that specialised in the conservation of the interiors of buildings listed for their architectural or historical importance; KAW Design has been around for over 15 years now.
NDA: What are the main challenges to beginning to work with Heritage and Listed Building interiors?
Typically, the main challenge has been a lack of appropriate training; most courses about historic buildings deal with structure and architectural elements so are aimed at Architects, Town Planners, Conservation Officers or Project Managers. There is little focus on interior elements. On my course at Oxford Brookes, I don’t think anyone had even heard of an Interior Designer; everyone was a bit undecided about what I actually did.
It certainly won’t be easy for students coming straight from studying Interior Design alone to begin working with historic buildings; they will need to learn about conservation of listed buildings and gain some work experience with a conservation architect’s practice or a conservation organisation first.
Another challenge is that being an Interior Designer is about being a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. You need to know about textiles, craftsmanship, paints, plasterwork, joinery, plan for architectural styles and so forth, but you don’t necessarily need to be an expert in each area. You must have the knowledge to know who to consult with about a particular aspect, which will only come with experience.
NDA: Would a Heritage Interior Design Degree have been useful to you when starting your career?
I’m sure it’s got to be a big advantage for people who want to work in this area. What I gained from my Masters was knowledge of how the conservation of historic buildings works as a whole, how the law, policy and procedure surrounding it works. The nearest we got to studying interiors was a talk on period paints. So from that point of view students who complete the Heritage Interior Design Degree will be able to offer more to an architect’s practice that specialises in conservation than someone who just learnt Interior Design on its own.
There are lots of people who work with Heritage Interiors, lots my peers, colleagues and friends, but very few of them are trained in this field. When I started, conservation of interior elements wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now, and its taken the last 20 years  for them to become really important. When I started, nobody gave much notice to wallpaper, or paint colours or anything. Now every detail counts and this Degree is the only one around that will teach this sort of thing.
NDA: What types of Clients do you work with?
Mostly private clients who live in or are thinking of moving into listed buildings. They want to know if the local planning authority is going to allow them to do X, Y and Z, so it is up to me with my experience to help them work out what it is they will be able to do to the property based on their proposals.
It could be anything from a listed cottage to a Grade II church being converted into a home. They can be large grand houses, or small cottages. Similarly the client may be rich or they may be less well off. Many have inherited the family home which needs to adapt to their lifestyle; they may want to fit a new bathroom, install a new staircase, change the paint colour, install a new window to make it brighter, or as with many old cottages, lower the floor.
Then there are the extremes; people who love their listed building and wouldn’t dream of changing anything, but want as much information about the property as possible, to people who have inherited or bought a building and want to change many aspects of the property.
It’s not just about 18th century buildings either. That was the case in the 50’s and 60’s, but now there is much more interest in 19th c. and 20thc. particularly now post WW11. When you list a building the whole building is listed, so for instance if you have a 60’s Formica kitchen, that will be part of the listing and then if you wanted to change it you will need to apply for listed building consent from the local planning authority. Legally, there is no distinction between the exterior and the interior, whatever the grade, whatever the listing.
I often find myself in the tricky situation whereby the conservation officers are on one side thinking that the private owners are going to be ripping stuff out and on the other side the clients are terrified that conservation officers won’t let them. You are left as the Piggy in the Middle and have to please both sides.
I haven’t worked for The National Trust or English Heritage, who tend to have heritage experts already working for them and a bank of experts that they call upon when needed, such as paint specialists, joiners and so on.
NDA: Describe some of the different jobs you have worked on.
I can think of three examples to demonstrate the variety of buildings and clients I work with:
I worked on an old family house that was a Grade I listed building and had not been touched for 100 years. The forebears of the family who lived there had built it. It was very tired and needed a complete overhaul. This is the kind of job that doesn’t come along very often, because it was the full works, so I was able to oversee every detail, cherishing its age value but bringing it into the 21st century.
Another job that required a completely different approach was for a Victorian house built by the well known architect George Devey. The original client had never had enough money to complete the interior, so although it was listed Grade II* we were able to pull out all later installed 1930’s decor and features and replace with more appropriate detailing.
The last one is a Robert Adam Grade I listed house in London, St James’s Square, which had been recently refurbished and leased to a drinks company. They employed us to fit out the building; there were lots of little things that were wrong and needed to be sorted out. Some of the rooms had been painted incorrectly. So it was a correction exercise, fixing lots of little things before we could get the furniture in and get the building used.
So, as you can see, every job is always very different. It’s not about what you and your clients do to the building, its about what you and your clients can do for the building. It’s a much more nurturing role than a designing one. You’ve got to have a different hat on. It’s not about you the designer, it’s about caring for and nurturing a building so it can be shown off to its utmost best.
NDA: What advice do you have for someone interested in working in the field of Heritage Interior Design?
Get the right kind of training. Learning Interior Design is very important but it isn’t enough on its own, you’ll need to do a course that focuses on historical buildings like the National Design Academy’s Heritage Interior Design Degree or a historical building conservation course.
Try to get experience working in an Conservation Architectural Practice that will give you the chance to build on what you’ve learned and to see how it works in practice when dealing with different clients and different types of buildings. If you work for a standard Interior Design  practice you might only get a listed building project once in a while. So if you want to work with historic buildings you need to work in a practice that specialises in conservation where you will get to learn lots on the job. That’s what its all about, gaining the experience.
It’s very important to know who to contact when you need a paint specialist or a textile expert or whatever. You need to know when to pull in the right people at the right time and you only learn that through experience and by building up a reliable list of contacts.
You’ve got to have design skills as well as co-ordination skills, like the hub of a wheel you are facilitating the whole process between clients, architects, local authorities and skilled specialists and craftsmen.

I would say that after two years work experience with an Interior Design practice and two years with a Conservation Architectural Practice you would then be in a position to set up your own business and begin to build up your practice and experience.

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