'The first major pitch we won was for Chelsea Barracks townhouses': Ben Johnson of Albion Nord on co-founding one of London's most exciting design studios

By Jason Bailey

PrimeResi x Plugged in: Continuing a series of in-depth interviews with key players from the world of design, Jason Bailey catches up with Ben Johnson, who discusses his career path - from landing his first job at Candy & Candy to co-founding Albion Nord - and what's next for the in-demand studio...

Ben Johnson might have had his sights on becoming a famous footballer, but it’s his colourful design career that has led him to glory (writes Jason Bailey). Chatting to him about his journey so far, it seems he’s had some serendipitous moments but mainly it’s been passion and hard graft that’s got him where he is today.

As co-Founder of high-end design studio Albion Nord, he’s able to stay true to his love of blurring the lines between architecture and interior design, creating spaces that ooze integrity and craftsmanship. But despite all his achievements to date, he still has his feet firmly on the ground (and usually his chops around a cheese and pickle sandwich), with his family and two boys being his raison d’etre. A proper family man and proud of it too.

How did you get started on your journey into the Interior Design industry?

If you’d have said to my 16-year-old self, you’re going to be an Interior Designer I would never have believed you. I had no idea that Interior Design was even an industry to go into!  I always had a love and talent for art, but my other passion growing up was football. I wanted to be a professional footballer. It was the dream. I played for Millwall up until the age of 16 but unfortunately when I got to the age when you find out whether you’re going to make it or not, I was released from the club. So, I stayed on at school and took A-level Art. I absolutely loved it – pretty much all my spare time went into drawing and painting.

I knew that a career in the Arts felt like the natural step, so I went on to do an Art foundation Course at Oxford Brookes. There you brutally learn what you’re good at and what you’re not, but it opened my mind to other possibilities in Art and Design. That’s where I eventually decided Interior Design was an interesting route as it seemed so broad a subject.

Where did you go to study Interior Design?

I went to what was previously called UCA Birmingham Institute of Art & Design. I loved the course. It was creative, concept-led, with great tutors – Jean, Andy and Kevin! I threw myself into the work; like all Art courses it was all-consuming. But the hard work paid off and I ended up graduating with a first-class honour’s degree in Interior Design.

Congratulations, a 1st is not an easy achievement.

I think I’ve always had an inner determination to do well. I can’t settle for something that isn’t my best. I know that sounds a bit trite, but I think I have an inner competitiveness and determination to be good or beat the competition. I was also very lucky to have such a supportive family to enable me to follow passions and good tutors to help me navigate through the course.

Well, you certainly beat the competition when it came to landing your first role in Interior Design….starting out at Candy & Candy must have been a dream come true. How was the transition from University to working for a leading design business?

It was a very big eye opener coming from University where everything is so creative and conceptual into the real world, and into the Candy & Candy world. The first weeks & months of working for Candy & Candy was a game of learning on the job whilst convincing people you knew what you were doing. I just had to learn on the job and try and soak it all up. I was lucky that there were some really good people that took me under their wing and helped me get a foothold. At the time C&C had an incredible cast of characters to learn from, many have gone on to set up some of our industry’s best known design studios! I look back on that time with a big smile – so many stories and good times.

So, tell me about the next chapter.

After two and a bit years at C&C, I joined Heatherwick Studio. It was quite the contrast to C&C. Incredibly creative, very challenging but an unbelievable design experience. Thomas Heatherwick is a creative genius, the Willy Wonka of the design world, striving for originality and always pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved. It was an incredibly talented studio filled with architects, product designers, theatre designers, model makers and at the time I was their first ‘Interior Designer’.

Thomas is a great guy, expert communicator and has a determination never to settle for the ordinary. I learnt a lot at my time there, not just in design but how best to communicate it. It also instilled in me the notion that good design is never style, or time/era driven. Each individual project is about a response to a specific problem and the solution should be playful, unexpected and original. I also got to spend 5 months in Hong Kong implementing the interior design of a shopping mall. This tested my negotiating and communication skills! It was a very work heavy part of my life. It was a great experience, but one that was all-consuming.

How did you balance such an intense work life with your personal life?

I was fortunate that at that time I had the opportunity to take on a couple of private projects on my own, working alongside my then partner outside of working hours. When this got too much to juggle, I decided to leave Heatherwicks. I pulled in a friend to assist with a project I had, and it quickly became an opportunity to set up a two-man studio. Although we completed a couple of nice private commissions and grew to four, it always felt like a stop gap to something else, and not the right time in my career to fly solo.

Where did you go after that?

Going solo at that time was an essential bump in the road as it led to a conversation and offer from my good friend Fuad Quablwi, the then Director of a new start-up called 1508. I had known Fu from my C&C days – our industry is built on contacts and connections. I always had the ambition to be part of something bigger, and being part of 1508 from the start was too good an opportunity not to be part of. 1508 had good backing and an exciting roadmap, but it was also a great opportunity to work alongside the then 1508 Creative Director Chris Godfrey. At the start of the studio there were about seven or eight of us, then after a couple of years the studio was almost 50-strong. However, this really was just the start of the rollercoaster.

Rollercoaster in a good, fun way or in a scary, feel sick way?

Ha, a mix of all I guess. After four years of helping grow the studio to a 40-plus team as ‘Head of Design’, I became Joint Creative Director and Partner with the brilliant Louise Wickstead. At times fun, at times very demanding, We had the collective responsibility of winning new business to feed the machine; then the responsibility to design, manage and deliver a huge number of projects. On top of that trying to keep everybody in the studio happy and on the right track. Needless to say, my 6 years at 1508 taught me a lot in regard to the business of design and growing a studio. It also taught me about the importance of having the right balance within, and outside work, and the need or want to have control over my own path. Ultimately being Creative Director of a studio of that size without ‘skin in the game’ meant that there was effectively a ceiling to my ambitions.

Did you aspire to having your own business again?

I did but not without the opportunity to regroup and work out what I wanted to do. Again, regarding old connections, I had a good relationship with Stephen Palazzolo who was working at CPC group. Stephen had previously been one of my mentors at the start of my career at C&C. There was an opportunity to work on a number of amazing single unit developments and I took the opportunity to try something new and different from previous experiences. In hindsight this was the best move I have made in my career.

I took the opportunity to try something new and different from previous experiences. In hindsight this was the best move I have made in my career

Not only was it relatively calm compared to the journey I had been on, but it’s also where I met Anthony, Milly and Ottalie. After a year or so of being there, CPC began winding down operations and it created the perfect storm for us to think about creating our own design studio outside of and beyond CPC.

And so Albion Nord was born. How did the four of you go about bringing it to life?

I knew the type of studio I would like to own/be part of – an antidote to the large studios I had been working for. In the more challenging times of my previous roles I would often think ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, and so far that has proven to be correct. But it was also luck that I met three such incredible individuals in Anthony, Milly and Ottalie. In terms of starting a design studio, you need a multi-disciplined team to make sure you can comfortably cover all the bases from the business and organisational side to the design side. Running an interior design studio certainly isn’t all creative!

Anthony is a Project Manager by trade, he is meticulous, and leads the studios management and processes. As a team we lean on each other perfectly in that regard. Milly and Ottalie, our Creative Directors, initially were predominantly FF&E leaning so together with my more Interior and Architectural background we formed a tight team that trusted each other. Our bond is very strong. As a group we had the perfect foundations to be able to take on differing scales of projects, adding to the team when required.

Tell me about your first major success as Albion Nord…

The new townhouses at Chelsea Barracks are some of the most prestigious & valuable residences in the capital (Qatari Diar)

The first major pitch we won was for Chelsea Barracks townhouses. We were competing against five or six other very established interior designers and we were the new kids on the block.

The pitch process took me back to my university days in terms of cramming to create a presentation where it would be very difficult for the client to say no.

It took all our collective experience to think of how best to communicate our design in an interesting way to the client. It was also the first time we had collectively pitched together as a team.

You must be proud of what you have achieved

Yes, extremely proud of the studio we have created. We are six years old and 20 strong. Only one member of the team has left the studio in that time, and that was for a change in career. I’m really proud of that. I love our team, such a talented bunch. It is really important to me and the other Directors that the studio culture was right, we spoke about culture together from day one, about the type of place we would want to work and where others would feel good about coming to the studio everyday.

We’re not all hanging out on bean bags and playing fusball or anything like that, but there is a good atmosphere and we are a proper tight knit team, we work hard for each other, and we have a good level of trust and respect…hopefully that will continue!

‘I think our clients can see the synergy and strong bond the four of us have as well as our relationships with the senior AN team’

What sets you apart?

Creatively I love working with Milly and Ottalie, not only are they great people, they have a phenomenal eye. As Albion Nord’s Creative Directors they have very much driven our design output. When we launched, we could see that the luxury residential market was quite formulaic, especially in residential development. It lacked any sort of soul, authenticity, and character. Cold and shiny is not our thing. If we are working on a contemporary or classical project we bring the same refined approach to materiality and palette. Even with projects that require a contemporary response, you have to use materials that add texture and warmth,;and details should be crafted and refined.

We are creative, but we are also very structured

Otallie and Milly’s love and specialist knowledge for antiques and vintage furniture just pushes our vision to create originality within our schemes. As well as Albion Nord’s aesthetic, I would say we are good to work with. I think our clients can see the synergy and strong bond the four of us have as well as our relationships with the senior AN team. This may sound strange but what I mean by that is we are not difficult prima donnas. We very much work with our clients, and always try to go the extra mile to make sure things happen smoothly. We are creative, but we are also very structured. We work hard on the process and delivery of projects.

What’s next for Albion Nord?

Phase one was a start-up, phase two was establishing ourselves, expanding a little bit, and moving into our current studio space. Now, I would say, we have just started phase three…world domination! I joke, but we have built up a good portfolio, have excellent projects on our books and currently involved in exciting Hospitality projects. Three landmark hotels, two in London and one in Oxfordshire. We also have several very exciting private client and development projects.

We are really looking forward to showing and talking about what we have been up to in the next year or two when projects are completed – our portfolio will be a lot richer, exciting times ahead. Ottalie is also spearheading our shop and bespoke product and furniture range, watch this space! As I said there are 20 of us, and we may need a bigger boat! – but we are determined to keep the studio to a manageable number and in or around 20 feels good.

Black Cab or Uber?

Black cab, the knowledge is a remarkable thing – it would be rubbish if London was only dependent on ratings and a Sat Nav.

What was the last film you watched?

The honest answer would be Cars 3, Moana, or Toy Story 4 – what a movie by the way, best one yet. Last actual film was probably the new Westside Story. I like a good series – just finished Succession and absolutely loved it.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

I think something football related. I would have loved to have been a football journalist, although I’m probably not smart enough for that, so probably a coach. I currently coach and manage 25 seven year olds every weekend, and love it.

What is your inspiration?

Inspiration for design? I’m surrounded by it! Inspiration everywhere and anything, every place and thing you see. We are totally bombarded with images – so many great things. I wouldn’t say that I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the design world. For me, when you’re in design, doing design, I like to escape when out of the studio! Inspiration for projects starts with the project itself – working out its context and language ,and then thinking up ideas to give it a unique narrative. That’s always the most fun bit of a project; working with great guys in the office, working through ideas together. Without sounding naff – that’s inspiring! General inspiration though, my reason to get up, is my family. When you have a family and kids you soon realise that really what you are doing all this for is to help provide for them.

How do you like to spend your weekends?

Well, it starts nice and early because I am coaching 25 kids how to play football on a Saturday. I am a proud Dad so weekends are mostly about spending time with my wife, playing with my lads and managing their weekend schedules. It all revolves around them at the moment. This is a very boring answer – sorry!

Where would you go?

Anywhere! My wife Rachael and I are enjoying frequent Soho Farmhouse Friday escapes at the moment. I love going out for a meal with Rach, but we rarely do it at the moment – Kids, moved out of London, etc. My ideal is a great pub in the country that does outstanding food…we’re lucky to be surrounded by a couple of those.

Soho Farmhouse

If you wanted to have fun, who would you call?

I am fortunate, I love my family and friends. My best friends are from my school days, we have all kept in touch ever since. Much to my wife’s dismay I’m in contact with my three best mates every single day, pretty much continually. We find ourselves very funny. My wife is very fun too to be honest, but like most parents it’s finding the time to be fun! Give me a year or two, and I will be fun again. I hope.

Is there something that not many people know about you?

I once trained as a figure skater. This would have been in the late 80s, when I was seven or eight. I had lessons and got I still have the grade badges.

If you were invisible for the day what would you do?

If I was invisible for the day I would sit next to Jurgen Klopp in the dug-out at Anfield and watch a game.

Is there a shop or shops that you can’t live without?

I would say Pret for the world’s greatest tomato soup, cheese and pickle sandwich and chocolate brownie. Then Octobre for threads.

Are you a cat or a dog person?

I hate domestic cats. I’m allergic and I don’t trust them. I tell people I love dogs, but no one believes me, because I don’t actually want one.

What does home mean?

My family. I’m a homebody. Sanctury, I love being at home. So home is everything.

Is there a ‘shoes off ’ rule in your house?

Absolutely. It’s insane to walk into someone’s home with your shoes on.

Inside an Albion Nord project
A PrimeResi series in partnership with Plug.