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Francesc Rifé, interior architect

Interior and industrial designer Francesc Rifé (Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, 1969) set up his practice in 1994, the outcome, to a large extent, of a family history deeply-rooted in the world of furniture and craftsmanship. Order, definition, proportions, geometry and the value of giving space to spaces are some of the principles that have grown along with his works, which are enjoying more and more recognition within and beyond our borders.

Hotels (such as the Caro in Valencia), restaurants (a line of work that started out with Can Fabes), facilities of all kinds (such as Real Madrid’s sports city in Valdebebas), residential properties, and dozens of industrial designer objects, graphic arts and artistic direction projects make up a professional track record replete with distinctions such as the Contract World Awards, Red Dot, the Emporia National Award for Temporary Architecture, the ICFF Editors Awards, the FAD Awards and various ASCER prizes.

His work has also been featured in numerous specialist magazines and books, including major articles on some of his most outstanding projects.

What conceptual definition do you feel most comfortable with: interior design or interior architecture?

Francesc Rifé: Vaig estudiar el Grau de decoració en el seu moment i el cert és que des d’aleshores aquesta professió ha anat canviant de nom, potser per l’intrusisme. De qualsevol forma, com em sento més còmode és parlant d’arquitectura d’interiors. De fet, a nivell internacional, el títol s’anomena així. Considero que més que decorar, el que fem és modelar l’espai i per això em sento més proper a l’arquitectura.I did a degree in interior decoration back in the day, and the truth is that since then the name of this profession has changed, perhaps because of too many unqualified practitioners. Whatever the case, the term I feel most comfortable talking about is interior architecture. Indeed, this is what the qualification is called internationally. My belief is that rather than decorating, what we do is model the space and for that reason I feel closer to architecture.

And what’s the relationship with architecture per se?

F.R.: I can’t see the line that separates one from the other. I always cite the example of the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona, which was designed from a concept of inside-out and outside-in, and needs no kind of superfluous addition to be able to talk about interior design; the relationship is established by the architecture itself. With our work, we try to create this relationship, this bond, between the interior and the exterior. We are currently involved in projects with some major architectural practices that would previously never have considered us until the final phases, yet now they include us from the outset. We’re involved even before the foundations are laid, because there has to be a total connection between the two fields.

It seems that this relationship has changed a great deal…

F.R.: It has, tremendously. Decoration stores are doing interior design and interior designers are getting into furnishings. We’re looking at a very broad dynamic of professions within our remit. We don’t just decorate a house that is already built, but on many occasions we design extensions to the house or to hotels. And sometimes we’re involved in projects on which we even do the exterior landscaping as a brand. Everything has become very specialised in our field, and this occasionally allows us to tackle much broader concepts.

Order, neatness, simplicity, definition and the space as an essential feature. Are these the basic principles of your projects?

F.R.: We all have to come from somewhere. During your formative years you pick up references of the things you like best, what you understand and what you appreciate. From the people I’ve met along the way, the influence of countries like Japan, where I spent many years working on a regular basis, and the references I’ve picked up on a global level, I’ve ended up following a line that some people call minimalism, though I never use that word, because minimalism covers many other things: it is a state of mind, social, political, cultural… and you can’t just reduce minimalism to a reference to empty white spaces. But we do like to use the words simplicity and order. Perhaps it’s about being anti-decoration. If a space needs to be decorated, it’s because it has been badly designed, and we start from the premise that anything superfluous is unnecessary. This doesn’t mean living in the spatial austerity of a convent, but at the end of the day we are asked to design a space where later someone will live or work, so that space will take on the personality of its user. When it comes to a home, the project has got to leave some margin for the client’s decision. In the case of a facility, a hotel for example, many other factors come into play which you end up analysing, such as traffic flows or customer types.

Do these principles live happily alongside individuality or the differential factor that many of your commissions must demand?

F.R.: In the early days yes, we used to find ourselves in situations where people used to ask us to do things we couldn’t do, or where we and the client were speaking different languages. Fortunately, these days many of our clients are repeat ones, we’ve been working together for years and they understand our philosophy perfectly. It’s pretty unlikely that anyone looking for a baroque space will be calling at our studio.

You often mention the luxury of space. Is this an opposing concept to a luxury space

F.R.: Totally. What we try to achieve, based on our philosophy of working with simplicity and definition, and through the integration of different elements, is that the space is luxurious from the perspective of its simplicity. Perhaps right now, sat in this office, you’re thinking that it’s like a box, but I can assure you that it’s not such a simple box as it might initially appear. There is a door that is a filing cabinet, a washroom, a hidden air-conditioning device which is accessible from outside so as not to disturb anyone inside… there is a whole series of pieces that we create so they cannot be seen, but which end up giving sense to what we create. Based on this simplicity we manage to achieve a spacious, luxurious space. Square metres are a luxury. The proportion of things, the concept of spaciousness, is what we’re always trying to achieve.

When we talk about cities, we often talk about something under constant construction, an endless evolution. Is it the same with design? I mention it because we’ve sometimes read about you referring to the difficulties involved in actually bringing a project to a close…

F.R.: A project that’s right on track will never come to an end. Fortunately, on projects for commercial premises or public establishments there is a timeline which is the determining factor. When you find yourself in the perfect scenario, with a great project, a good client, the right budget and the optimum construction company, you could be making improvements continuously but you have to finish it at some point. At the same time, it’s difficult to escape the overriding influence of fashion. When I started working, people used to ask us to do projects that would last for ten years, especially in the commercial sector. As time has gone by, this period has shrunk: five years, three years, and now I can tell you there are some companies that even ask us to change something every year, because they are public-facing and they can’t remain static in view of all the competition. Very often the audio-visual world lets us make these changes. Barcelona is an example of constant change, unfortunately, because there are certain parts of the city that have become like a theme park. In many cases, you come across hotels or commercial establishments that are trying to imitate existing models, which I don’t think is necessary. We have a wonderful culture here and there’s no need to copy what they’re doing in New York or anywhere else. We try to stick to our own line, but when you look at these fashions from the outside you can see how they happen. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for those who think there are other ways of doing things, we’re currently in a phase where everything you do has to remind you of something, it has to refer to a model. In view of this trend, what we’re trying to do is implement more timeless projects, something that is not easy to do. In the office we’re in right now, the only thing we’ve changed in 18 years is this table top. As far as the rest of it is concerned, we haven’t even changed the sofa. And yet I’m still not tired of this space! This is what we’re trying to convey with our projects.

And do these concepts tend to clash with exterior architecture?

F.R.: The thing is that I can’t understand how there can be such a separation between the two. I understand that an architect may choose not to employ an interior designer because he is quite capable of doing it himself. From a legal point of view, an interior designer cannot be an architect. However, when we work abroad, in Latin America or places like Dubai and the UAE, you notice a great respect for European design. This means that there is far less differentiation between the two fields. On the other hand, in Europe the two professions are still very distinct, though in countries like Spain or Italy the capacity of interior architecture is given much more recognition than in other countries. In Ireland, for example, there is no ‘interior architecture’, the architect is responsible for it. In Barcelona we have been pioneers, but if this is not recognised at an intellectual level it is very difficult to convey it to society. Being able to have a unique space goes hand-in-hand with employing a professional to help you along the way. We need to know how to interpret the architecture, and the architects with whom we collaborate need to know how to understand the proposals we put forward, which will always be bound to the tastes and needs of our clients. This is both very simple and very complicated at the same time.

Why are the materials you choose for a project so important?

F.R.: They mean everything. They are the basis of the aesthetic realization of our projects. You can draw something with a pencil or design it in 3D on the computer, but the end result of a project is conveyed through its materials. The right decision on materials, both aesthetically and functionally and in terms of its timelessness, is what defines the look of a project. I can’t design without having the material in my mind’s eye; when I work out the layout of a floor, I’m already thinking in 3D. The volumes, the materials… everything is utterly connected. At the end of the day, the materials are just as important as the layout or the functions. Every aspect is essential in order to achieve a balance.

Can you get into industrial design from interior architecture?

F.R.: When doing interior design, I realise that I need detailed knowledge to tackle these projects. My interior design is full of industrial design features: hinges, handles, a part that lets you open a five metre window… From that point, we developed a complementary industrial design side, but always from the point of view of supporting our interior design projects, until we got to the point that many of the pieces that we were designing for our projects were being seen by people who got interested in them and wanted to know if they could be done industrially. In this way, industrial design has become more and more important to the practice, though I can’t say that our work is split 50-50, because the interior design projects always need more resources, they’re more substantial. Whatever the case, I believe it’s just as difficult to design that lamp you can see over there as a hotel. When it comes to designing a lamp or a chair, what do I need to do to make it different if there are already millions of them in the world? In the lighting world, LED technology has been revolutionary, but in the world of space people continue to sleep in a bed, keep their clothes in a wardrobe, and so on. The uses of space have evolved a great deal, but have not progressed much. In the field of industrial design, we’ve ended up making pieces with our own stamp: timelessness, durability and versatility, but always with the criteria of consistency and not frivolity.

Sustainability, energy efficiency… how do these requirements affect the world of interior design?

F.R.: Nowadays it’s very important that what you do is long-lasting and in the society and the culture in which we live everything has become very recyclable. All of us think and work in these terms. For example, in the case of wood, we work with prefabricated elements, preformed from recycled wood. All of this is easily available and doesn’t alter the way we work. The wooden floors in this office are 18 years old. I believe this is a sustainable and intelligent action: using a material which is perhaps a little more expensive, but which after 18 years has aged well. I think more about the timelessness of things as an element of efficiency and saving resources. The problems come when you have poor planning, badly-coordinated strategies. We can recycle all the rubbish and domestic waste we like, but in the meantime there are hundreds of aircraft burning thousands of litres of fuel in the skies above Barcelona.

Are technology and innovation big features of your work?

F.R.: There is no doubt that technology has brought us some incredible improvements in many aspects. The possibilities of smart systems in the home are even a bit mind-blowing, for example. 3D printing opens up enormous possibilities when it comes to making prototypes. Technology has been fundamental in moving forward and there are projects in which it has become an essential cornerstone. In the renovation of a 25-year-old shopping centre in Barcelona, the placement of three of four large screens has changed everything. Audiovisuals, imagery, is everything today, and occasionally technology can even take the place of architecture, whether interior or exterior. Fortunately, however, after this ubiquitous ‘contamination’, one enjoys a bit of tranquillity. This is when we come into the picture with our projects of order, space and silence.

Even so, are these technological elements important to your projects?

F.R.: In some cases, yes. We’ve got some projects in Shanghai where the walls suddenly turn into giant LED screens, but they don’t take up the whole space. In the end, when you’ve already seen a lot of technology, it doesn’t seem spectacular anymore and the images can even swamp you. Technology offers some amazing possibilities, but you’ve got to be able to use it in a controlled way.

How has Japanese culture influenced your work?

F.R.: I’ve been travelling back and forth to Japan for 12 years and this has helped me to reaffirm a lot of things, though what I was doing there was only possible, to a large extent, because I’m European. It’s an extraordinary civilisation. It’s a culture that is used to living with very little space, making it flexible and multipurpose so they can eat and sleep in the same room, and separating living areas with paper screens. Even today you might come across a high-tech building but inside they still maintain very traditional elements. These trips have helped me very much to understand the simplicity of things.

On your website, as well as your projects and news, there is a section called Inspirations with a series of ideas as interesting as they are different: La Ricarda; the Canalla restaurant in Mexico DF, the nature of light, Polvo Cerámico and Iceland. Is there a meaning to them all?

F.R.:They are all ideas that have replaced a blog we used to have. We’ve concentrated our efforts on the website, which we keep constantly updated so people can link up from anywhere in the world and get information on all our projects. Inspirations is a continuum of the blog and features things that have excited us. In the case of the restaurant in Mexico, the most unforgettable thing was people’s reactions. Another example, Polvo Cerámico, is an artisan space in Barcelona that does very short product runs, it’s a wonderful example of craftsmanship that is really captivating.

Would it be very difficult to highlight the projects you’ve been most satisfied with?

F.R.: Fortunately we’ve done a lot of projects and those you remember most are those that have ended up leading to a more personal relationship with the client. A project I’ve always had a soft spot for was the one for the Can Fabes restaurant of Santi Santamaría, who sadly passed away a few years ago. We had a great relationship on both a personal and a professional level. We’ve also been working for years with Real Madrid, for which we did the interior architecture for the residence of the first team and the junior teams at Valdebebas, as well as the VIP boxes and other spaces in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. This was a really interesting, unusual and fun project because they sought us out to create a more soothing and tranquil space in somewhere you would imagine would be quite the opposite.

Among our current projects, I would highlight the one we are involved in with Valencian chef Ricard Camarena, who has found a space in an old factory that will be turned into a private art foundation. We’ve also won a tender in Colombia to do the VIP lounges for Avianca, having competed against much bigger practices from all over the world. Luckily, however, the biggest doesn’t always win the prize!