Interview With... People Residential Design & News

An Interview with… Lester Bennett

Following the recent announcement of Lester Bennet’s selection as President of the BIID, the Project Interiors editor wanted to find out more on focuses for the year ahead and how design will adapt to a challenging and ever-evolving year.

Following the recent announcement of Lester Bennet’s selection as President of the BIID, the Project Interiors editor wanted to find out more on focuses for the year ahead and how design will adapt to a challenging and ever-evolving year. 

Firstly, congratulations on your new role as President of the BIID. It’s a few of months since you took up your position in some of the most unprecedented times for the design sector.

How has the BIID been providing support during this time for interior designers?

We have provided support in many ways, firstly as the lockdown coincided with our annual membership fee invoicing, we effectively reduced the fee by 25% and allowed a 3-month free period before subscriptions became due. Additionally, we launched several webinars and articles with advice on many issues facing our members from running the business to helping students in preparing portfolios and CVs. Our weekly newsletters also contain articles to support, help and inform.

You bring a wealth of knowledge and an impressive portfolio of case studies to your role, how will you use these and what key issues will you champion over the following year?

It’s true that I’ve been doing this for quite a while now and hopefully my experience of working through three recessions will enable me to help others in the Institute during this time. Amongst other things, we are producing a webinar later this month; two past presidents and myself talking about lessons we have learned and how they may be applied to today’s situation.

Other than helping our members through this pandemic, the key issues we are working on are a Diversity and Inclusion action plan; a new Code of Conduct; a sustainability strategy; and the Institute’s strategic plan for the next three years.

There is currently no research into diversity in the UK interior design community, and so that we may better understand the issue specifically in our profession, the BIID has launched the first ever ‘Diversity in Interior Design’ survey. We’re asking all professional interior designers, junior and senior, employees and practice owners, to complete the survey to help us understand more about the make-up of the profession. This will give us a detailed picture of the current landscape, gaining valuable insights to help inform our plan. To find out more and to take part in the survey, please visit the BIID website here.

Sustainability issues are also at the heart of our long-term strategy and our Professional Practice committee is currently working very hard to evolve practical and effective initiatives.

Another important topic that we have focussed on this year is professional contracts. The BIID has launched two new and updated Professional Services Contracts for Interior Designer Services in collaboration with RIBA. Interior designers should always have a contract in place when starting a new client project, to define both parties’ obligations and to ensure both parties are protected, which will help avoid any costly mistakes. The new contracts are designed to be clear and efficient, and include everything necessary for interior design projects, both domestic and commercial, in an easy-to-understand format. Using these new contracts will ensure interior designers are following best practice ways of working, which is vital for our profession.

On a lighter note, a particular passion of mine is hand drawing in all its forms, and we have instigated a monthly drawing board page in our newsletter, promoting hand drawing for various disciplines – technical, perspectives, detailing, etc.

As well as being the new BIID president you are a founding partner of Folio Design and an independent design consultant, how has the team taken your new role?

I now work on my own, from home, as a consultant and no longer have a team. However, several of my team from Folio days, and other colleagues, have been kind enough to send me emails of congratulations, support and best wishes in taking up this role.

What inspired you to pursue a career within the interior design sector and have there been any great designers or influences that have inspired you?

I have always enjoyed buildings and been fascinated by the wide and varied approaches to creating interiors. Growing up in Cornwall, visiting old farmhouses and NT properties, I loved the atmosphere of these old rambling interiors and, as time went on, my interest grew I how to achieve such atmosphere. I went to art college with a desire to be a fine artist but found I was more attuned to the applied arts. I studied the History of the English House and Furniture, designing rooms for friends and working on building sites to gain practical knowledge in my spare time. I later returned to college to gain a post-grad diploma in design technology, learning a little engineering, furniture making, plastics, etc. This gave me the necessary technical skills to understand drawing for construction in various materials.

Over the years there have been so many designers that I have admired but David Hicks, David Mlinaric and John Fowler are three that immediately spring to mind. I have also had the privilege to work with the great contemporary architectural practices of Fosters and Conran who were greatly influential, as well as an inspirational seven years with my colleagues at KSRArchitects and interior designers (previously Folio).

Bearing in mind the current climate, how will the BIID support Interior Designers starting out within the industry in 2020/2021?

As I mentioned above, we help with online mentoring for students and those starting out, such as portfolio support and preparation for venturing into the design world. We have online CPDs which offer a wealth of knowledge at a click of the button, and we offer free membership for graduate students in their first year of work. We also organise a student challenge each year (COVID-19 permitting) where a number of universities spend a day hosted by the Institute, where they are set a design challenge to be completed in that day. BIID members act as mentors for each university to guide and advise throughout the day. This is a great day and hugely valuable.

Looking back on over 40 years of experience within the design industry, what would be your advice to those embarking on a career within this sector?

Be positive; have a can-do attitude; prepare well – your cv and your portfolio; research thoroughly to find those practices that you believe share your values and vision.

Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you can tell us about?

The pandemic has stalled most work, but I do have two projects, a private house in St John’s Wood for a client that I have worked with for many years and the refurbishment of common areas in a residential apartment block in Belgravia. It is good to work with long term clients as there is trust, and humour.

How are you sourcing suppliers for your projects and are there any ‘go to’ products that you always love to use?

I am going to disappoint here; I’m not greatly affected or influenced by trends and source for each project/client independently as I don’t have a particular style, so it may be antiques one moment and contemporary seating the next.

What are your ambitions for the BIID going forward?

Other than achieving the goals I have mentioned above, I want to work to see the BIID recognised by all lay people, clients and professional colleagues alongside the RIBA, as the UK’s Interior Design flagship for professionalism, creativity and ethics.

How easy has it been to adapt to offering a consultancy during COVID-19 and what, (if any) positives have you seen from the sector?

This has been a challenging time for all of us and adapting to offer consultancy has been a necessity to continue working. Virtual communication has proved successful in the main but in a profession where creativity and professionalism are a prerequisite, relationships are key.

Certain sectors have been hit harder than others but without personal relationships being forged pipelines are harder to establish regardless of the sector. Also, the tactile nature of our business is also difficult to communicate, even though samples may be couriered we are not standing there to gauge reaction, encourage or enthuse.

A positive for many in urban situations is of course the freedom from the daily commute, more time to ourselves and hopefully a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. However, we must also be mindful of those who are in flat shares or similar, and have limited space or facilities to work from home. Also, the buzz of bouncing ideas off each other in an office setting is something that is harder to replicate online.

I think some middle ground will be the way of the future as I don’t believe we will all wish to return fully to the old daily grind!

To find out more about the BIID, membership and events visit their site biid.org.uk

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