Atul Bansal & Jon Humphreys
Love made me do it.
It was the enduring love of a partner that created the distinctive name, Sheila Bird, and initially we thought that this held no brand DNA or story, but on reflection, what better story can be told than a love story? And it’s the boundless love of spaces that has kept the firm flourishing for over 30 years. Today, ‘interior design’ is no longer sufficient to describe the depth of impact Sheila Bird has, nor is ’boutique’ accurate to describe the breadth of its work. The firm is lauded for designing environments for creative agencies, fashion companies, technology start-ups, educational institutions, corporates and beyond. Their work rewrites the ‘habits’ of employees, setting both dated patterns and new trends aside and prioritising the needs of each employee in a tailored and timeless way. It is design at its purest, passion for people at its strongest and storytelling at its best. So, in the age of remote working and the co-working hub, where cookie-cutter approaches are becoming more commonplace, what allows Sheila Bird to continue to create working homes away from home? At WeThree, we’ve distilled the three pillars that underpin Sheila Bird’s success.
For the love of space
When we sat down with Atul Bansal and Jon Humphreys, perhaps one thing was clear from the outset – their love and passion of spaces went far beyond interiors. Sheila Bird defines itself as creative directors and curators of spaces, doing everything it can to bring client brands to life through the rhythm of everyday work and the places it occurs in. ‘We take the conversation away from bums on seats and square footage’. Part visionary design, part behavioural psychology, this is the rawness of romance meets the practicality of science. Whereas some interior design firms might take client ‘wants’ as verbatim – from wall colours to the ubiquitous ping-pong table, Sheila Bird takes a different tact, holding workshops to truly understand what gets the clients’ hearts beating, translating this into design values that can then be activated to shift behaviour. This level of integrity, not surprisingly, has also influenced Sheila Bird’s own organisational approach. Once managing a truly mind-boggling headcount of almost 1000, today, the firm maintains a tight-knit team of 5 and working with a broad set of specialist partners, opting for meaningful work rather than volume of work.
For the love of people
Just as the world is catching on to the fact that work is about more than business, Sheila Bird champions the individual nature of work. In so doing, they keep the people they design for at heart. ‘It’s not an Instagram moment or a Pinterest shot’. They choose not to follow trends and refuse to see design as a commodity. You love deeply, not widely. They ask a simple and universal question – how do people want to work, and what story can we tell them through the space that will help them achieve that? ‘Thoughts are our currency’, says Bansal. But not only are Sheila Bird trend-wary, they also show marked skepticism of any movement that imposes a one-size fits all to creating spaces or brainwashes people into a uniform way of working. It’s the analogy of the food market that shows the ideal – drawing people in by promoting choice, connectivity and keeping it authentic. To deliver this, they do what many design firms are afraid of, loosening the reins and allowing the client to have a bigger say. ‘We let them be their own troublemaker’, Bansal says. ‘We like it when we come back to a client’s after some time and things are different.’ If work is personal, spaces should be too.
For the love of progress
Despite 30 years of success and the principled nature of it, Sheila Bird is not one for standing still. Jon Humphreys is now a co-owner in the studio, joining the firm after running his own successful agency The Neighbourhood for almost 12 years. He brings with him a skillset that sets in stone the essence that sets Sheila Bird apart – the acknowledgement that the work is more about creating an intimate bond with a place than interior design. ‘It’s about creating spaces. Interiors are just one part of it.’ Bansal and Humphreys come from different disciplines, but the compatibility allows Sheila to see decades into the future. ‘Workspaces are going the same way mobile phones are. They’re not just for calling. The word work will disappear. People just happen to work in these spaces.’ The vision is contagious as Bansal and Humphreys debate the waste of buildings that are closed at night. Rather than workers doing overtime they think about dual spaces, open to the public. They talk about reception that functions less like security and more like a concierge, and they talk about city centres that give citizens access to skyscrapers just as they do ground level. And they reinforce the need for warmth, culture and a home from home that you love, even as work becomes more mobile.