Interview: Graham Harris of SHH on inspirations, innovations & interpreting aspirations

The co-founder & MD of influential London-based design practice SHH talks us through the firm’s formative years and remarkable journey – from being known as ‘the mews kids of Knightsbridge’ to working on some of the world’s most high profile projects – and explains how HNW tastes have changes over the last three decades…

The co-founder & MD of influential London-based design practice SHH talks us through the firm’s formative years and remarkable journey – from being known as ‘the mews kids of Knightsbridge’, to working on some of the world’s most high-profile projects – and explains how HNW tastes have changes over the last three decades…

Graham Harris co-founded SHH in 1991 with David Spence and Neil Hogan

Which was your first major residential project, and what were the big lessons you learned early on in your career?

One of our first schemes was Yeomans Row in Knightsbridge back in 1996. This project involved the conversion of architects’ offices, formerly artisan studios into high-end residential townhouses. This project was undertaken during a time when the stock market was booming and the HNW residential market was climbing and bonuses were rife.

Yeomans Row featured pioneering design with open plan living spaces, cantilever stairs, glass roofs and all arranged facilities. Till then we were known as “the mews kids of Knightsbridge”, but it was this project that got us firmly on the map.

One of the big lessons to be learned is to be the best at what you do and to stick at what you know. To get there it is important to listen and understand exactly what the client’s brief is, as well as the client’s parameters. Getting it all right is all about having the right team of people with all necessary skills or even sometimes with better skills than yourself.

What do you enjoy most about your role now?

As MD I still enjoy the thrill of receiving a new enquiry and converting it into a new project. It is great to see our team of individuals grow and keep momentum for the practice. I enjoy going through project briefs and working on some of the most extraordinarily beautiful projects internationally, dealing with more complex issues and advising clients throughout the process and putting together the right team for each project. Building trust and strong relationships with our clients is very rewarding and at the core of what we do.

You set up SHH in 1991 alongside David Spence and Neil Hogan; how have HNW design tastes changed over the last three decades, and is there an overarching theme to describe where we are now?

Working for a discerning clientele means taking a very personalised approach and being able to interpret these clients’ aspirations. High standards in terms of the quality of finishes and state-of-the-art amenities are highly sought after these days. Every project is unique and follows a distinct design narrative but it is essential to stay abreast of the latest technology, materials and finishes in order to deliver truly world-class design for this sector.  Sustainability sits alongside this. Over the last 30 years there has been a clear turn towards more sustainable ways of making buildings.

SHH is restoring the Grade II listed Winter House in Highgate, one of London’s most architecturally significant homes

Can you give us a flavour of the kind of schemes SHH is working on right now?

We specialise in the lifestyle sector and we are vastly experienced at working across the residential, hospitality and commercial sectors. Our range of projects is quite broad within both sectors internationally and domestically from large country estates and prime London townhouses to international restaurants, bars, hotels and resort complexes. We recently completed the Upper River Bank Apartment scheme in Kai Tak, Hong Kong which is now on-site, a multi-residential project. We are also thrilled to be involved in the 15-year development of Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi where we are fortunate enough to be working on a variety of residential and hospitality projects. 

We have been involved in the redesign of world class sporting venues. We have had the pleasure of an ongoing relationship with Wimbledon for nearly 10 years now, re-designing their F&B facilities across the board. Other venues include Ascot and more recently the Nationals stadium in Washington DC. Our work on commercial includes large scale office premises in London’s Fleet street, La Défense in Paris and various commercial spaces in major urban hubs in Shanghai, Hong Kong and mainland China.

Inside Upper River Bank Apartments in Hong Kong

How do you ensure your designs will stand the test of time?

Our designs intend to maintain the physical connections between the architecture and the interiors of the house and to preserve the design narrative throughout. Volume and connectivity dictate the overall look and feel of the residence while chic materials and elegance in the aesthetics of interiors guarantee that a project will stand the test of time.

SHH is firmly established as one of the top luxury design houses in the UK; how involved do you remain on each project?

I remain highly involved in most projects and enjoy bringing people within my network together. For me each project is a unique journey, from receiving the initial client brief and preparing the creative pitch through the design process and completion. My knowledge and long experience of the complexities of the planning process in London means that I can guide our clients and our team early on in the design process.

Which is the most challenging/rewarding project you have worked on to date?

Athlone House, we are extremely proud of it because of its local appeal. There were important challenges that we had to overcome to complete this project which involved campaigning and winning the trust of local authorities and committees. We managed to achieve a faithful restoration by adding contemporary additions. The end result is a culmination between architecture, interiors and FF&E.  

Athlone House in north London

Are there any other buildings or developments from the last 30 years that you’ve particularly admired, or wished you’d been a part of?

  • The renovation of the Hoover Building.
  • The Address Boulevard in Dubai.
  • Thomas Heatherwick’s Coal Drops Yard at the regeneration of King’s Cross.
  • Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Switzerland.

How hard is it to find talented designers and artisans at the current time?

We are very well-connected in the industry and we have a constantly growing network of artisans and suppliers with whom we collaborate and trust when it comes to referrals for highly-qualified designers.

How has the pandemic affected how SHH works on projects and with clients?

SHH has continued its usual service to clients on a remote basis, everyone had to adapt to the new way of doing business which relies heavily on technology. We have found that our global experience of running projects worldwide has helped us adapt to this way of working seamlessly – communicating and designing with people via technology across the globe and in different timeframes is something we actively enjoy.

In the light of recent events, how is your client base feeling about London as a place to live, work and invest?

London continues to attract an international clientele as a place to work and live in. With everyone spending significantly more time at home the pandemic has increased the need to repair and improve existing spaces. We have noticed a greater demand from our clients for second homes and country estates, with state-of-the-art facilities including the odd helipads.

The hotel and resi sectors share a number of characteristics, but which is currently leading the way in terms of design? Are there any stand-out examples of design innovations that have caught your eye?

The home-from-home idea leads the way on both resi and hotel sectors these days. We notice that influence is driven by high-net-worth clients who feed back to the upper-end of the housing market. Technology has largely driven innovations. Home integration AV with temperature and lighting controls has been particularly popular as clients enjoy their independence from using everything from one place. Integration of energy efficiency is also shifting design with the use of energy producing tiles, photovoltaics and ground source heat pumps.

SHH has been involved in the 15-year development of Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi

Which world city/enclave seems to be out in front with the new ideas right now? Are there any particularly unusual places you look for inspiration?

There are some really exciting projects and pioneering designs happening in LA, Shanghai, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Brasilia is very inspiring as well featuring some great icons of modernism. During a trip in the US (pre-Covid), I was very inspired by some of the contemporary architecture in Malibu. For me nature is a great source of inspiration, simply observing hidden shapes and formations in the natural environment can be very motivating.

What’s your best advice for making sure a luxury scheme gets delivered on time – and on budget?

Careful planning, having a set timeline and clear communication between all parties involved and the client is of the highest importance. In essence in the ultra-HNW world one can buy anything but time.

Delivering top-end projects for demanding, discerning clients can be a stressful business; what do you do to relax?

I have recently taken up golf and I have been working on my inner core strength with the assistance of my personal trainer and I can now be found hanging upside down from rings.