Inside The Mind Of… Ben Backhouse

Ben Backhouse has been deeply ensconced in the Kuwait design scene for the last decade, heading the interior design department at Pace. His love of historical architecture juxtaposed with a contemporary design brought him to his interview location, an Italian farmhouse that is currently being renovated into his family’s dream home. We speak to him amidst these scenic surrounds, interrupted occasionally by a beautiful pet dog or cat.

 


 

 

Based in Kuwait, British-born interior designer Ben Backhouse has been Head of Interior Design at multidisciplinary firm, Pace, for the last decade. He works across a large spectrum of design projects, ranging from hospitality to healthcare.

Ben has been a designer for 35 years, and he relishes the process of seeing a design through from conception to completion. Having moved around a lot as a child, he was always acutely aware of his surroundings and, in some ways, feels like interior design chose him. Always rising to the challenges in front of him – structural, technological, administerial, he pushes boundaries while remaining true to the aim of each project. 

 

How did your career blossom?

I had always been interested in art and design at school, and also photography at the time. I had just come back from high school in California on a summer break, and my mother found an advert in a local paper of a design company looking for someone to look after the designers – make coffee, sharpen pencils. So of course I went for it and absolutely loved it. After about a year with the company, they offered to send me on a formal drawing course in London. When I completed that course, I was offered a place in Kingston University, and my career pretty much started from there. It (designing) suits me perfectly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

After Kingston, I was writing to different architectural practices in the UK. At the time, my brother’s friend had a small design firm in Germany and he asked me to come and work with them. They had all the latest computer technology at the time. So I was drawing in 3D and we were working on computers I’d never have had the chance to otherwise experience in the mid to late nineties. 

While I was in Germany I continued applying to firms in London. There was one particular interior architect who had completed a beautifully executed project on Piccadilly. He invited me back in the summer to work on a big commercial project in London. That was my first formal experience with commercial design, and a great project to cut my teeth on. We removed one entire floor and completely refurbished it from top to bottom. I loved working with David – his was a really small firm, so it gave me the opportunity to have full responsibility, far more than I would ever have had in a larger firm. 

After that, I felt I needed to experience a large architectural firm, so I went to a company called Lewis and Hickey, and joined their interiors team in London. I worked my way up and eventually they gave me a directorship. This was my first opportunity to run a business, as well as design.

Al Rai Studios, Kuwait

So what brought you to the region?

I was approached by a company called EPR, who are well established London architects. They invited me to head up their interiors department , and I worked with them for two years. I am always looking for ways to expand my knowledge, and wanted to experience what it was like to be the client instead of the consultant. I was invited by one of our clients to work with a developer who had some fantastic, grade one listed buildings in London – beautiful buildings, with complicated procedures in terms of planning permissions, local authorities, English Heritage, etc.

I worked for another developer after that on a boutique hotel in London, and then decided it was time to experience living abroad. That is when I met Tarek Shuaib from Pace in 2008. He offered me a job, and I’ve been there ever since! Tarek is an incredible CEO, very forward-looking and always rejuvenating the company, despite the fact that it is now 50 years old. 

 

What do you find most challenging about working in this region? 

Understanding expectations. You could say this about all areas of design – that different clients have different levels of expectation. But I think in the Middle East, it was clear that there were very different levels of expectation from governmental projects, to private clients. Now that I’ve spent as long as I have there, I am able to gauge client expectations much more quickly. But getting into that mindset was one of my first challenges. Design is almost as much a psychology as it is art – you need to get inside your client’s mind to be able to deliver what they want. 

The other challenge was the different way of working with contractors. In the UK, I was used to very clear contractual separation between different people. In this region, it’s much more fluid – some people can do almost everything, while others are very specific. It makes you more flexible and adaptable as a person.

Palace of Justice, Kuwait

What would you say has been a particularly challenging or exciting project?

A particularly exciting project we’re working on at the moment is the Palace of Justice. Scale wise it’s not only the largest project I’ve ever worked on, but also the most complex, because it involves all sorts of elements – administrative offices, public areas, a separate section for lawyers and judges. So just from a planning point of view, you’ve got three completely different circulation systems in the building. It is also the expression of Kuwait’s justice system, hence there is a lot of importance behind the building in that respect.

For the most challenging, I’m going to go back to London and 11 Cadogan Gardens, a grade listed hotel, made up of several Queen Anne style houses from the early 1700s. We had to deal with the listed building status, as well as English Heritage. One day, the contactors turned up with a drill hammer that took two guys to hold. The hammering was so loud, I could hear it down the street, and all the while I was thinking, ‘We’re hammering into a very important historic building and I’m responsible for it’.

Top: Cadogan Gardens, London; Above: Knightsbridge Penthouse and Buckingham Securities, London

If you weren’t an interior designer what would you be?

I would be a lighting designer. I always tell my clients, ‘You can spend a million pounds on your house, your office, whatever we’re working on. But if you haven’t got the lighting right, you may as well not bother’. 

 

How would you describe your design style?

I would say the ‘human modernist’. Contemporary in style but the design has to have a human touch, and it has to be about the people who are using the space. I think the biggest pleasure I get out of my job is after I’ve designed a space with my team and go back for a visit, and we see people using it the way we had envisioned. 

 

What inspires you?

This may sound a bit cliched, but I think inspiration is everywhere. At the moment, for instance, we’re in our house in Italy, and just going out in the garden and seeing natural materials and plants takes you back to how materials start their life. And I think there’s a natural connection between all of us and the world around us, and particularly nature. 

 

What is your favourite design sector?

My two favourite areas are commercial and hospitality. But the pandemic has changed our perception of the office, and how we work has just been completely revolutionised. The changes that have taken place are things that designers have been talking about for decades. More importantly, these are changes that users have been asking for. The pandemic has forced owners and businesses to rethink. I think we’re about to go into a very exciting new period in design. 

Clockwise from top left: Kuwait Projects – JW Marriott, HSBC and BNK

Where do you see the interior design industry five years from now?

The past year or so of isolation has forced people to become more introspective, and reassess where we are, who we are, and what it is that we want from our lives. A good example is how, in the UK, a lot of people are selling out of London and buying homes in the country because they want to be surrounded by greenery, be with their families, and get that work life balance. So I think the design industry is going to head more towards facilitating this change, and that’s going to happen across sectors. We’ve seen it with hospitality where hotels have now become like a second home, giving you a sense of place when you arrive. Even student housing is creating the sense of a home away from home. 

 

If you could design anything without constraints?

Mine’s traditional – an Italian farmhouse ruin. In fact, that is what we’re in the middle of at the moment. We bought this house in 2018, and are in the process of bringing it back up to scratch and breathing life into it. That combination of very historic buildings with ultra-modern interiors is something I just love. That’s my dream design.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Pare down, keep editing and re-editing, and questioning your ideas to make sure that they’re still in touch with who you are as a designer. At every step during the process, stop and ask yourself, ‘Am I really getting to the heart of this? Am I expressing who I am?’. 

 

Lastly, who is Ben Backhouse, the man behind the designer?

I love to play the piano. In fact, I finished my grade eight a few years ago. The next step is a performance exam, part of the ABRSM, which is the Royal Society of Music. So I now have the opportunity to put together a half hour concert. That is my next goal. I also like to paint now and then, dabble with watercolours when I have the chance. Photography is also a big passion of mine.

 

What is family life like? 

Life is very calm, very relaxed. It’s mainly about the animals. We’re always getting back from a walk, building a fire if it’s cold, and cooking. As you know, Italy is great for natural ingredients so you’re never short of that. I love history, visiting historical towns, learning about what happened in cities and piecing together our past. I think it’s really important that we all remain aware of our ancestors, and how we got to where we are.

The view from his Italian farmhouse

Article info
Experts
Companies
Related Articles