Bridge for Design August, 2005
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At last year’s Design & Decoration Awards Orla Collins was launched into the interior design world limelight in spectacular fashion. Winning her way through to finish as finalist in the “Best Contemporary Residence” category, Orla also picked up the award for “Best New Designer in Practice”. The judges, who included designers Mary Fox Linton and Nina Campbell, architect George Ferguson and presenter of Grand Designs Kevin McCloud, were impressed. “Orla showed great attention to detail and has a highly architectural design style,” they stated. “Her use of colour and luxurious materials has ensured stunning results.”

“I like the success and it’s nice to be recognised and appreciated for what you do,” Orla said of the accolade. “I think I’ve been lucky; three years with my own business is not long, but I have zero patience and I don’t want to sit around waiting for things to happen – I want them to happen now!” Her impatience and energy has paid off; hot on the heels of this high profile achievement came inclusion in the prestigious Andrew Martin Interior Design Review book and Orla’s star status was confirmed.

Her drive and determination is evident at every stage of Orla’s projects, from pulling up floors and taking down ceilings, to plumping up cushions and turning down covers. Acutely aware of the importance of the structural backbone of any redesign. Orla works closely with an architect on her projects, so the d&d judges’ comments on her architectural design style rings true for her. “My philosophy is to create dramatic spaces,” she says, “so I always start with the architecture. It is an integral part of the design and strictly interconnected with the decoration element of a project. There are no clashes between these two sides to the work because I can’t have one without the other, but the extent to which they affect each other does depend on the type of structure I am working with. If the building has good period features throughout I would look to retain and enhance them and very carefully introduce modern elements, for example in kitchen or bathroom areas. Often though, only a few period features remain or are limited to one room so here my approach would be to extend and add the main period features. If a building has character, I go with it; if it lacks character, I create it.”

Retaining and creating the architectural features Orla wants in a project can sometimes be a hard four battle, but the fiery Irish designer is used to getting her own way and will go to whatever lengths necessary. In one apartment project Orla discovered the original ornate ceiling had been hidden by a suspended ceiling. To be able to have the cornice repaired, she ended up having to re-route the pipes of both the apartment itself and the one above. “In another apartment project we did, the original ornate frame to the room had been covered up.” She says. “I wanted to open it up but when we did so, we found that all the communal cables for the entire building were passing through our apartment and in front of the frame. Our contractors wanted to cover the whole thing up again and wouldn’t move the cables, so after two days on the phone and lots of begging, grovelling – and bribery! – I eventually found someone who would cut the cables and reroute them.” Orla adds impishly; “We did this very late at night so that the other residents wouldn’t notice!”

With the homework done and the building still standing with the pipes and cables in the right place, it would only be fair if the fun could start, but Orla has other ideas. “Fun, what fun? The only fun I have is when it’s over!” she says. “No, I’m joking. Getting the phone call to say “go ahead with the job” is wonderful, I absolutely love the design process – the creation of something out of nothing, the bit in the middle is painful and the end is great. I would say though that once we have organised the architecture, then we could go a bit wild.”

Orla’s definition of ‘wild’ may appear elegant and sophisticated to some, but there is a distinctly adventurous side to her use and combination of colours and materials. “It all comes back to starting with the architecture,” she says. “If I design furniture it’s all very clean and I am not into curves or anything curly, but I like to think I approach colours and materials in an unusual and inventive way and with an element of spontaneity.” Orla cites an Art Deco inspired Georgian apartment as one of the projects that best reflects her ideal decorative style. “We finished the sofa side tables in high gloss black lacquer with an inlaid pen shell motif, upholstered the coffee table in black velvet with nickel buttoning and finished the concave base circular dining table in silver leaf with a tined black lacquer. I used fabrics in bronzes, pewters, lilacs and purples in pleated velvets, silks and suedes and had black granite floors and worktops and panels of purple glass in the kitchen.

Before training as a designer, Orla’s first career was as a fashion model. “There are some connections to be made between my two careers, but not being a designer to follow trends or fashions I would not apply any obvious similarities,” she says. “there are though some more subtle elements that I have taken from the fashion world and applied to my work. With concealed storage in my bathroom, for example, I tent to line the inside of the cupboards in strong colour or pattern in purple or lipstick red, and that inspiration was taken from the vivid linings used in Oswald Boateng suits.”

The fashion world has certainly left its mark on Orla’s choice of colours. “Black, black and more black – oh and sometimes purple and brown too,” she laughs. Purple Design is the name Orla chose when she set up her business (“though I can’t really say why – I just always knew that it would be Purple”), and a thread of the royal colour works its way into most of her designs, whether as a frosted glass bathroom sink, a suede ottoman, or a long vase of purple hydrangea.

Orla may like to incorporate purple flowers into her designs, but she is no shrinking violet herself. “In one kitchen I designers, I argued for half an hour with the guys installing a hob into the white island about the fact it was not straight. In the end I asked for it to be measured and it was 1mm out. The kitchen installer said it wouldn’t be noticed, I disagreed and I had him take it out and refit it straight. That not only had an affect with the kitchen guys , the main contractors never argued with me about tolerances again!”.

A favourite saying of Orla’s is, “If you are not failing now and again, it’s a sign you’re playing it safe”. In the reality of her working life though, failure – however mild – is something she does not take kindly to, in herself or others. “I am fussy and more”, she says. “I would go so far as to say I am very demanding, blunt, and can sometimes be unreasonable. What a nightmare – thank God for a sense of humour! The upside of my almost obsessive perfectionism is that the client gets fantastic results. The downside is lots of sleepless nights driving myself insane (and most likely others around me) going over a particular issue again and again and again until it’s right.”

However bumpy the ride, Orla is happiest in the driving seat leading a project to its destination. “Generally my clients want me to direct them, to give them a scheme that is more than they can imagine. I listen in terms of their aspirations and ideas and I respond and interpret them but ultimately I lead them,” she says”. “I do put my foot down about everything and anything I think will look rubbish. And from experience, when I have let something go it gets changed back later on. At the client’s request but having caused extra cost and time. I am pretty convincing too! I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a tyrant because that is not the case, and I do have a feel for what my clients would love. And – especially if I really like them – I will kill myself to create their dream.”

Orla’s latest project will take her back to her roots, but there is no sign of the momentum slipping in line with the sleepier way of life in rural Ireland compared to the buzz of central London. The complete renovation, refurbishment and decoration of a large mansion house overlooking the sea in County Cork could lead a less dynamic and assertive designer to believe they were in for a long haul. “I expect the job to be finished in six month,” says Orla confidently. “I do get my stick out!”