Sella Concept’s North London studio is more than a workspace, it's a snapshot of the design duo's journey
It’s a luminous spring weekday and, under normal circumstances, Sella Concept founders Gayle Noonan and Tatjana von Stein would be rifling through fabric samples or thumbing floor plans in their airy North London studio. Instead, they’re holed up with family in rural Wiltshire – a craft room commandeered as makeshift workspace. With projects still on the go, there’s little time to sit back and take stock of the peculiar period. Like many in the creative industries they’ve simply been forced to adapt, making use of technology to keep conversations flowing and swapping their usual conference table for a kitchen table.
That we’ve joined them, virtually at least, to discuss their distinctively designed London studio space, and the journey to it, feels at first a little discombobulating. But it’s equally apt – a full circle moment of sorts – for it was on a kitchen table that Sella Concept was born and it is to a kitchen table it has returned, temporarily. It’s a reminder for both Noonan and von Stein of just how far they’ve come since Sella’s founding, in 2015.
“I’m so used to designing something on the back of a magazine while on the tube, but one of the positive things to come out of this is the focus,” says von Stein. “We’ve produced some of our best work.”
A space in Glasgow, an office design in New York and a branding project in Saudi Arabia are all pushing forward. There’s the potential of a hotel in Paris. Things might not be what they were, but there’s every reason for the duo to be upbeat – and they are.
“We’re also conscious of how this is shaping our thinking about how we’ll work ‘after’,” says Noonan. “Suddenly the idea of a full day in the studio, with only a lunch break, seems like madness. If people want to step away from their desks and go for a walk, that’s something we’d encourage; it’s healthy.”
But while design practices around the world ponder remote working as a new normal, the idea runs anathema to the DNA Noonan and von Stein want to establish for the studio. As von Stein, already missing her materials library, says, “It’s very difficult to build a team culture remotely and there are subtleties that happen in speaking to each other.”
We’re conscious of how this is shaping our thinking about how we’ll work ‘after’... suddenly the idea of a full day in the studio, with only a lunch break, seems like madness
Of course, having finally found a physical space onto which they can imprint their personalities and embed a sense of ownership, the idea of conducting business through a computer screen does seem something of a waste. It’s taken years, after all. The original kitchen table evolved into informal working at Soho House, until layouts began to spill across too many desks to be tenable. Then it was a stint at Great Western Studios, the Notting Hill creative hub home to numerous other design practices where, von Stein guesses, they occupied the smallest unit in the building. It wasn’t long before they were suffocating, desperate for more room. Crafting interiors for a living, there’s surely nothing more uninspiring and imagination-sapping than a white box or, perhaps, an abundance of polish. Now, sidling up to a tattoo parlour and an S&M photography studio, a lack of grit is hardly a complaint.
“It was, and is, one of those places you just don’t believe can be available and still make commercial sense in London,” enthuses Noonan, of the Camden Road digs that Sella now calls home. “I had an emotional response when I saw it.” The location isn’t exactly typical. Certainly, there are no queues of creatives battling over sandwiches at the local café, but if Sella Concept has taken a different road literally, it’s only because it’s always done so figuratively.
“One of our aims is not to be in line with anything and for a design to have its own unique language – one that transports a little,” says von Stein, not with hubris but a genuine desire to do things differently enough that the work resists comparison. “I think we’ve achieved that with the studio. One moment someone is walking through what is a slightly dubious space and then they open our door and it’s warm, with palms and African music playing loudly. There’s an element of surprise.”
Noonan, laughing, agrees: “It’s proven in the reactions we see. Someone will say, ‘it’s a bit messy out there but it’s lovely in here.’ And that’s want we want, to take someone somewhere. It’s challenging but comfortable.”
It’s so important in working spaces to create a philosophy and, here, it’s personal
The design process took about a month – the seven-metre-high space with mezzanine transformed into a controlled playground of colour and form. It’s the realisation of a vision that has long hovered in the minds of both, before there was a space in which it could manifest. Disagreements were minimal. Von Stein wanted sunken booths, Noonan talked her out of it – on several occasions, some more heated than others. What is left is a distillation of their shared tastes but dissimilar approaches.
“Gayle is more minimal,” says von Stein. “I’ll always want to design an elephant on top of a needle and she’ll pull me back.” Smiling, Noonan replies: “I revel in the meticulous, whereas Tatjana has a plethora of ideas.” Spatial planning was key and the mezzanine allowed for a break between ‘work’ and ‘play’. Desks are upstairs while below decks is where the fun happens, basic utilities hidden away so the overall feel of careful curation isn’t dashed by anything as unsightly as a microwave or kettle.
Rust, praline and various greys form the bulk of the palette, but there are unexpected moments. A hyper blue under the stairs is so vibrant as to appear not quite real – a little slip of the collar, a little risqué. Abstract shapes abound in Memphis chairs, modernist sculptures and painterly motifs. For Noonan it’s ‘modern opulent’, for von Stein, ‘a bit brutalist, but also over the top.’
It’s an interior of detail, one that tells a story of Noonan and von Stein’s journey together, as partners in life as well as business. One table is a memento of the day they met, working together on a concept store in Clerkenwell. It still has the logo from what was their inaugural project, from which the Japanese wabi-sabi pottery also came. There’s a sculpture von Stein made years ago and a painting by her mother. The coffee table is from a project they worked on for Alexa Chung; she didn’t want it, they kept it. A Bauhaus teapot is a market find, they still remember the day clearly; a Willy Rizzo table their pride and joy, gleaming and angular.
“These pieces are so full of love and talent,” says von Stein. “But they’re also reminders of what brought us to this place. It’s so important in working spaces to create a philosophy and, here, it’s personal.” There are also nods to the future, of course. The bar stools were custom designed by the pair, their first furniture collection, now selling in Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. There have been celebrations – the space playing host to a rave in aid of von Stein’s birthday, another chapter indelibly inked.
“Ideally we’d love to stay for a few years,” says Noonan. “But we also can’t help ourselves and we’re always looking for the next project. For Tajana and I, a new space will always be a new opportunity because, in the end, the love is in doing it.”