Twenty years ago, Jonathan Reed was seen as a champion of the neutral, pared-down and disciplined look that came to dominate the next two decades of interior decoration. Having imagined his home to be a cool, monastic white box devoid of personal paraphernalia, it is discombobulating to arrive at an unassuming door on a Whitechapel street and step into an interior that could still be the sea captain’s residence it once was 200 years ago. The sitting room is a panelled cocoon of dark Georgian colours with a log fire burning in the grate and a dog called Harris warming himself blissfully in the heat. There is studio pottery on the shelves, a medley of Arts and Crafts and early English furniture, and a wall-to-wall blacksmith-forged bookcase made of steel and reclaimed timbers. On the table is a Mouseman oak tray laid out with a Michael Cardew teapot and cups and delicious homemade flapjacks. I feel as though I have stepped into a Wilkie Collins novel.
Reed enjoys having this effect on visitors, who come expecting one thing and discover the precise opposite. He may have made his name initially as a champion of purism (this was back in the early 1990s, when few English designers embraced such an edited aesthetic), but it was never one true to his own heart. Of his home he says: “This is not indicative of what I do for the majority of my clients. It is a place that gives me comfort and so allows me to do what I do for other people.” So far as being the master of minimalism goes, he is dismissive: “Even those who have never seen my work assume what I do is minimal. It is true that it can be very pure and clean of line, but it is maximally crafted, maximally textured and makes maximal use of materials.”
It is no surprise that what Reed creates is so little known. The company website is as basic as can be and Reed is off-grid for social media; he employs no PR and generally does not give interviews; he rarely publishes projects because his clients are of the kind that would abhor such intrusions; and he has never written a book, fronted a TV series or launched a range of own-brand merchandise. Tim Jefferies, owner of Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair, describes him as a “stealth designer”, adding: “He is the guy to go to if you are really in the know.” Reed and Jefferies met 14 years ago, when Reed was commissioned to refurbish the gallery. They are now in the midst of transforming it once again, a process that Jefferies is enjoying hugely. “The great thing about working with Jonathan is that he doesn’t impose his will on your space, but really invests himself in every project. You give him a thought or an idea and he then expands and develops it until you have something that is to the power of 12. Working with him is a pleasure because he encourages you to be a partner rather than just a client.”
Reed himself is discreet about discussing his stellar client list, which includes the King and Queen of Jordan, Bryan Adams and David and Iman Bowie. For the latter, he designed a vast loft in downtown New York and commissioned British craftsmen to create rich textural finishes inspired by African designs, such as heavily bleached and sand-blasted wenge wood, contrasted with cast-steel industrial floor tiles.
Creating homes for royalty – either real or rock – is a far cry from Reed’s proud Yorkshire roots. He originally intended to be a doctor, studying physiology at King’s College London. During that period, he decided to spend some time as an antiques dealer. Every week he would drive north to Yorkshire, fill his car with goods he bought at knock-down prices from the auction rooms there, then sell them on his stall – rotating three days a week between Portobello Road, Covent Garden and Camden. “That is where I trained my eye,” he says, “learning the true value of great design and craftsmanship. Soon I could spot the difference between, say, a common-or-garden pot and a Bernard Leach one at a hundred paces.”
From itinerant dealing, he progressed after university to a job at gentlemen’s clothing store Hackett. His role was to track down antique and vintage items to sell in the shop, as well as sourcing craftspeople to make the new “old” lines of clothing and accessories – leather workers in Walsall for wallets, for example, and polishers in Sheffield to apply the gunmetal finish to scissors. There he got his first really big break. “Ralph Lauren was our biggest customer for the second-hand stuff,” he recalls, “so Ralph would fly into London with his creative director Jeff Walker, and they would buy all these things that fitted with their vision of the English country-house look.” Lauren and Walker liked what Reed found so much that they asked him to accept a job with them, based in New York. He refused, but when they offered Paris instead, he decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. It was there that he met Ann Boyd, then creative director for Europe, and worked with her on co-ordinating the styling of Ralph Lauren Home stores all over the continent. “The funny thing is that we were probably selling more props than sheets,” he recalls. “People just wanted that look so badly. That is how Ann and I were asked to do up houses.”
The first project they collaborated on was a one-bedroom apartment in Cadogan Gardens that was a haiku poem of cream and white. The year was 1993 and the interiors press was still largely bedded in chintz and frills. Images of the apartment were published in World of Interiors and then in a further 19 magazines internationally, with the flat also appearing twice on television. Suddenly, Boyd and Reed were hot property. The irony is that although it never reflected Reed’s personal taste, it became the look for which he was known. Few people since have done it better: “I look around now and what I see is so often uniformly beige and bland, far more watered down than what we created.”
After three more years working together, each went solo, with Reed establishing Studio Reed, both an architectural and interior-design practice, in 1997. One thing he was never interested in was endlessly replicating the cool modernism of that first project with Boyd. “What I do is not about having a Jonathan Reed or Studio Reed look and applying it indiscriminately, but about establishing a design language that is appropriate to the client, project, location, architecture and history, whether it is a coach house in Marylebone or a holiday villa in Italy. I would not get asked back by a client to do seven projects – which has happened – if those houses all looked the same.”
Indeed, his is a medieval vision. Unlike many designers, who tick off their master list at Chelsea Harbour, the third floor of Harrods or B&B Italia, Reed takes the hard path. He is a passionate advocate of craftsmanship: “We are one of the few practices that works at an intense level with hundreds of small makers to create the unusual, the interesting and the different. We are overwhelmed at times by the sheer amount of effort required to hand over a single room, which might have had 40 or 50 makers involved. Frankly, we create enormous problems for ourselves, but we know that when we come to install we can guarantee a project of immense quality that will really last.”
He prefers to work with clients who can demonstrate that same level of faith and commitment. “For us, it is not just a question of producing a set of drawings and handing them over. When we commission a one‑man band in a workshop in Wales to make us something, even we can’t know exactly what the result will be – it’s not like buying from a catalogue or having the guarantees of a factory. There is no instruction manual for co-ordinating half a dozen disparate individuals working in different parts of Britain or the world to their own timescales and using their own methods. We can’t produce the ultimate set of drawings, because there is a magic that is not in the drawings that makes the end result so special. It is interior couture, in effect.”
He believes that is why he attracts the kind of clients he does. “They tend not to be the sort of people who buy expensive design or art just to impress – often they owe their success to being intelligent and especially creative, and they understand what we are trying to do on their behalf. Also, many of them enjoy the fact that they can visit the workshops and see the love and passion that are going into something made only for them. They connect to it.” This is a thought echoed by rock star Bryan Adams, who commissioned Reed to design key rooms in his London home: “He has a vast knowledge of British craftspeople, who do everything from panelling rooms and making tables and chairs to creating tiles and crockery. Because of that, he is able to deliver unique resolutions and create environments that no one else could.”
It would be wrong to imagine, however, that Reed is overseeing a twee cottage industry. He estimates that he places orders for around £5m-£10m worth of specially commissioned artisan-led furniture per annum, spending at least the same on largely British materials and workmanship, such as stonework, cabinetry, glass and metalwork. “This translates to about £10m-£20m of cash flow generated in the UK each year, largely in the hands of small makers.” He states this not out of arrogance, but because he is evangelical about the need to support the country’s rich heritage of craftsmanship through such patronage. For a 35,000sq ft beach home in Kuwait City that Reed designed from the ground up and that has been eight years in the making, he flew out an army of British craftspeople to oversee the installation of what they had individually created. This included massive bronze doors 8.5m high that were cast in a fine-art foundry in Shropshire; a pergola of green oak beams and corrosion-resistant steel from Sussex; a fish tank of bronze lotus flowers cast in Essex; limed-oak cabinetry from Somerset, with bronze and leather handles woven in south London; and walls of plaster cast in Kent, with ornamental silver and abalone-shell dragonflies made in Staffordshire. “It is not so much about things being obviously crafted in the traditional sense,” he says, “but in visible ways they have been touched by the human hand. What we do is a reflection of a living process, not a prescribed, definitive thing.” Reed speaks of “a language of materiality”, a design palette that is defined by contrasting textures, hand-worked surfaces and subtle colourations – each ingredient being just a small piece in the giant jigsaw he resolves in his head.
His attention to detail is akin to a revival of the ethos championed by the Arts and Crafts movement. At another project in the Middle East, he is using handmade bricks. “That will mean opening a brickworks locally, because it is 1,000 years since they were last made in that region.” For the refurbishment of a Grade-I Lutyens house in Berkshire, he has installed panelled rooms in air-dried British oak, crafted by Mouseman of North Yorkshire, and a swimming pool clad in copper by a Scottish whisky-still maker.
One might well imagine that the idea of undertaking a commercial project for developers is anathema to him. But last year, he agreed to take on the design of a show penthouse at Neo Bankside, the premier development by Native Land close to Tate Modern. As he says: “Show apartments are usually very super-finished, shiny and glitzy – that is what people with money are perceived to desire. But that is not what we do.” Happily, Native Land chairman and chief executive Alasdair Nicholls was keen to go against the grain. What Reed created is an interior rich in texture and contrasts that transformed the Richard Rogers glass box into a space that speaks of warmth, comfort and tactility.
The penthouse is currently on the market for £19.75m with Knight Frank and so positive has been the reaction to it that Studio Reed is now collaborating with Native Land on the development of six penthouses in Campden Hill, where Reed has taken inspiration from the landscape of neighbouring Holland Park to create über-contemporary interiors that are also full of natural materials – Purbeck stone floors, for example, and cabinetry made from London plane trees.
Projects often come to Reed as they always have done – via word of mouth. The studio involves some 30 people working on around five to 10 projects at any one time. He recognises that his whole approach to design is out of kilter with most of the interior-design industry, but has no plans to waver from this course. “What we do is not a cookie-cutter type of product. Most people prefer designers with a discernible look, but I have always had a roving eye in that regard. There is no single message. I would hate to rock up, stamp my ego on a home and then say I am a genius.”