Speaking to Chris Godfrey as he sits in his office in the middle of Singapore’s buzzy Central Business District, he has a charming warmth about him and immediately makes you feel at ease (writes Jason Bailey). Maybe it’s his northern roots or the fact he’s worked in the design industry since he was 16, so he’s well accustomed to dealing with people and selling himself. Probably both. Now co-CEO of HBA, Chris leads 25 HBA offices worldwide as well as finding time to help educate and inspire the next generation of designers by giving lectures at Interior and Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Art in London and Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore.
Let’s go back to the beginning…how and where did your story start?
I grew up in the North, very humble beginnings. My father was a draftsman and a self-taught artist. He didn’t go to night school, let alone university, but he had an incredible talent, and I say that with no bias whatsoever. I grew up in a regular two-up two-down terrace house that was completely transformed by his hands. People used to laugh at our house – the walls were covered in a collage of magazine cuts that he’d made of architecture and photography. It was a formative environment to grow up in.
The only thing I was good at was art really. I left school at 16 with pretty much nothing and I was actually going to join the Marines. There weren’t many opportunities for a kid with no qualifications, so it seemed a sensible path to take. I ended up not going because I failed the final medical, which I was really upset about – looking back things would have been so different if I passed that test. I took a YTS job, which wouldn’t make sense to anyone now, but it’s a youth training scheme. It was in an architect’s office printing the drawings – the most humblest of beginnings in the design world.
What did those early experiences teach you about design?
I think my biggest learning was probably about the commerciality of design. I don’t think my dad was the most commercially minded, but he was able to commoditize his skill in some way. I talk about this a lot actually, most recently about the left and the right side of the brain and how often creative types can make terrible businesspeople! I wasn’t acutely aware of it at the time, but my dad was working to deadlines, selling his work and that was important. I reflect on this often, about how within the company structure that I now operate, it’s kind of critical to get that blend right, between giving people the platform to be creative, versus keeping things channelled and structured and commercially viable. That’s definitely the duality of my role now.
How did you end up in London?
I went to Glasgow School of Art, graduated from there and then moved to London. Everybody was doing it at the time, so it seemed the natural thing to do. I worked for a couple of small practices, doing residential scale projects. I really liked that scale I think because I’m very personable. I was so driven by the projects and by the people that I was working with – both in terms of the teams and also the clients. It therefore felt like a natural step to set up my own studio not long after.
You started your first business, SCAPE Architects, at 29. What did you learn from being a business owner at such a young age?
I was only three years out of graduating, and it was a fantastic experience and education on every level. That’s certainly why I really understand cause and effect, the value of every decision you make. That was my real education, running my own practice for a decade, where you’re the last person to be paid and knowing what you take home is only what’s left. It really makes you understand the value of every line that you draw and the impact that has on the project, the client, the team, and ultimately on yourself.
That was my real education, running my own practice for a decade, where you’re the last person to be paid and knowing what you take home is only what’s left
Also the global financial crisis in 2008/2009 was not an easy time. My son had just been born in the August of that year and it was really challenging. I was literally walking down the street in Clerkenwell and I remember distinctly thinking, what am I going to do? New child, the world upside down, what’s my move here?
I was reading the back of Building Design Magazine and there’s this little corner piece, somewhat coded advertisement for a new start- up and Jason Bailey answered, who I didn’t know at that time – that was my first interview for 1508.
How did your role as Creative Director at 1508 impact your career and inform where you are today?
It gave structure to what I do, and purpose to my perhaps hobbyist approach for the first time. There were so many things I enjoyed during my 4 years at 1508, but what they exposed me to was a greater international experience, and the scale of opportunity that came with that. When I moved to London, I was designing furniture firstly, and then interiors and then expended that out with the international projects. At 1508 I had the opportunity to join everything together, the scale of thinking from the big right down to the small.
You then moved to Singapore to set up HBA Residential. How has the culture shift been for you?
A large part of my experience has been the relocation – the brand is huge, especially in my side of the world. So when we initially got talking, from the outset I said I will come to Asia and I will be HBA Residential. I’ll work from your town, be your headquarters.
When you’re in London, you live in a very London centric experience. All roads typically lead into London. In Singapore, when I was coming here and meeting people I realized that, despite both being design hubs, Singapore is an outbound hub – so the thinking is somewhat different. It’s very global in its thinking, and that’s what that really captivated me. It’s such a dynamic place, open to so many different concepts. So it was a fit for my career but importantly as a creative as well.
What do you love about HBA?
HBA Residential is a company within a company, and because of that we were able to grow it in a structured way. In fact, I’d say that’s the magic of HBA – it’s made up of 16 small boutique companies joined together around the world. It’s not overly corporate but it’s very meritocratic, it’s very dynamic and it promotes individuality and people.
You’ve recently been made CEO – was the transition a huge step?
No, in a mechanical sense, because I think it’s been relatively gradual. Although I will say, the volatility of the time in which we currently are is just quite extraordinary. I feel like externally, globally, internally, something changes every four hours, and that’s something I’m okay with again, as a creative, you’re naturally used to reacting changing quickly. There are so many things to consider when you’re dealing with an aesthetic, global company in 25 countries with over 1,500 people who have all got their own stuff going on – and that stuff is personal, project related, colleague related. The complexity of that is a perpetual challenge. And I think, what I’ve learned is that you can’t necessarily prepare yourself for the day.
There are so many things to consider when you’re dealing with an aesthetic, global company in 25 countries with over 1,500 people who have all got their own stuff going on – and that stuff is personal, project related, colleague related
Having such a big role as part of a global company are you always having to travel?
Well, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I was always on a plane. And it was at times ridiculous amounts. I think I’ve covered, I don’t know, 350,000 miles in the last year!? And it was kind of my own undoing that wherever I was in the world – Russia, UK, France – I was determined to be back in Singapore on a Friday for the weekend with my family.
When Covid hit it put a stop to my travel which was a positive for me from a physical and familial perspective. My son was starting his teenage years, so I treasured that time – being present. Also, I couldn’t have done the transition of my role and even considered becoming CEO if I was working from an airport lounge somewhere. I think those two things combined were kind of accidental, but also inextricable – being in one place for more than a moment and taking on this new role has really changed things for me, having spent the last 6 years literally ‘on the road’.
Have you got any travel tips?
When you travel as much as I used to, you have to become a very efficient packer. Travel light and have your trusty essentials. More importantly, don’t drink too much Bordeaux on the plane!
I also read recently that Formula One drivers live on UK time wherever they are. The whole of the circuit lives on that same time zone, they don’t try and adjust because they’re moving so frequently. Wish I had learnt that 10 years ago!
How do you stay on top of a busy life?
I’ve got much more disciplined. I go to bed early and I am really comfortable at the weekend not doing too much – I’m happy to have the downtown with my family. I exercise a lot which, again, I’ve done more and more as the years have gone on, and as my pressures have increased. It helps me enormously. I had never appreciated the benefits of the sharpness that comes from physicality.
Does Singapore feel like home for you now?
Home has always been where the heart is for me. I have never been physically wedded to a place really. But I’m very connected to where we are now actually, even though we’ve not been very long. We live on former military camp in Singapore. It’s quite unique! Funnily enough, when I met my wife she lived in Maida Vale and I lived in Shoreditch. And now we live on a road called Maida Vale, in Singapore.
Is there anything that you miss about London?
London is a metropolis in many ways. It’s one of the world’s best cities and I miss its cultural depth and diversity. Our humour is definitely unique, the way we look at ourselves and at life is something that I always appreciate coming back to.
Is there something that people just don’t know about you?
I love making food – Again, that’s the thing my wife and I both talk a lot about missing in the UK. I would always cook in London. And I would create things too, we’d be out and try something and I would try to recreate it. I never read recipes never just went with the flow. It was a was a big love of mine. It still is, but I don’t have the time. A weekend in London would be the foraging the markets, putting stuff together, going back home, opening the wine and that was all part of life. I do miss that. But yes, when I have time I’m a big creative cook.
What’s your signature dish?
The one I get asked to make a lot is a Paella. Where we live now is very much inside, outside living and we have huge, covered area out in the back where we effectively live. We have a massive table, and always have people over, so it’s that kind of food.
Who would be the first person you’d call if you wanted to have fun?
The person that’s orchestrated this interview!
What shops can you not live without?
Well, I’m a Paul Smith obsessive. I missed that about the UK. I miss it. I mean, there’s ways in which you can live with anything these days with online shopping, but there would always be a pilgrimage whenever I go back to the UK to the favourite shops. I’m also a Vinyl collector. Although most of them have gone, but I enjoy regular trips to Berwick Street in Soho, I love to thumb through the vinyl and I’ve actually bought cases back over the years.
What kind of music?
Anything from 50’s, Jazz and Blues. And I love dub. Everything right the way through to 90s techno and current stuff, I just love music and my tastes massively vary.