People Profile: Senior Interior Designer Elizabeth Clayton on the differences between working in China and in the UK

Senior Interior Designer Elizabeth Clayton joined Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio in 2014, where she worked on developments across China, predominantly in the retail sector. Having joined as an architect, Elizabeth subsequently switched her focus to interior design, performing a key role in the design and delivery of several major projects for the studio. In late 2018, Elizabeth moved to the London studio to work across a range of sectors as an Interior Designer. In this profile, we talk to Liz about her varied experience as an architect and interior designer in the UK, Hong Kong and China, her most memorable projects and her guiding design philosophy.

Tell us about your career background

My career journey has not been straight, but everything I have done has led to where I am now. At A-level, I studied Art, Design Technology, Graphics and Psychology, all of which I enjoyed. However, realising that my options were limited with these subjects, I enrolled on a Science and Engineering foundation course at Loughborough University that I hoped would widen my focus.

Despite enjoying engineering, I still veered towards design in some capacity and started to suspect that a career in that area may be for me. Architecture wasn’t offered at Loughborough at that time, so I studied Architectural Engineering and Design Management. After 18 months of long lectures on health and safety and contract law, I realised that I needed to make a change, so I moved to Birmingham to study architecture.

Eager to get ahead, I took a summer job in an architects’ practice in my second year, thankfully just before the 2008 recession. I had heard that the best way to get a job was to knock on doors, so, CVs in hand, I approached some firms. One company, Axis Design Architects, stood out; it was the building they occupied that resonated with me. The building was a renovated forge, in the centre of which the architects had created a planted atrium and waterfall feature. Upon seeing it, I felt I belonged, and it spoke to my values.

As I gave my pitch, I noticed a man listening, who I later learned was the owner of the company, and I think that’s why I got a job. He had previously lectured in behavioural science and the built environment and he became an influential mentor to me. He taught me how to manage myself on site and navigate the personalities you meet on the job. Despite being in a very supportive practice in 2012, after I had completed my Part II, I decided to take up a job in Hong Kong.

When did you first become interested in interior design?

In retrospect, it was apparent as I pursued my master’s degree in Architecture at De Montfort University in Leicester, which I undertook while still working for Axis. It was there I met Professor David Dernie, who is a prominent academic in his field and an inspiring character and educator. He tutored me through my dissertation and introduced me to phenomenology, the study of how people experience and respond to environments.

As a result, I inevitably gave my projects an interior focus, emphasising the human experience as key design-driving factors in the buildings and structures I designed. This worked well for me and I left with a first-class degree.

No. 1 Department Store, Shanghai

You subsequently moved to China. Was that a culture shock?

Yes, in some ways; the shock was mostly due to waking up on the other side of the planet in a new city, Hong Kong, and with a new job. My apartment, which I had arranged prior to my arrival, was on the 60th Floor, with a view over the bay and the islands. I woke up to oil tanker horns and eagles flying past my window. Once I started working, I began to settle in and observe the cultural differences and workplace habits.

I worked largely on architectural concept designs for hospitality and leisure buildings, some masterplans, residential resorts and villas (on which I learned some of the principles of feng shui). All the work was on the Chinese mainland, so I often crossed the border to the company’s other office in Shenzhen. I loved going to the Shenzhen office, as it was a chance to get some really good Chinese food and go for occasional dinners with colleagues.

I was the only westerner working for the firm. For me, this was a fantastic experience; I quickly made friends with my colleagues, with whom I frequently discussed cultural differences. This gave me a great insight, not only into Chinese culture, but also into my own culture as viewed from afar. Becoming aware of the idiosyncrasies of my own culture through the lens of another gave me a sense of perspective on what I had deemed normal up until that point. It also gave me the impetus to immerse myself further in China, its history, culture, language and landscapes.

Although I loved living in Hong Kong, I decided to quit my job to spend more time discovering China. I took myself off to the beautiful karst mountains in rural Guangxi province and attempted to learn Chinese. I then spent some time travelling around and getting to know the region. I found Asia fascinating.

When did you join Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio?

I joined Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio is 2014 after a brief hiatus in the UK while I was looking for a new opportunity in architecture. I was looking all over the globe, but I kept leaning to Asia.

After a few months, the agent I was using contacted me about a position at Chapman Taylor in Shanghai. I had wanted to work for a British firm and I still had much to discover about China, so I was delighted about the opportunity. After a couple of Skype interviews, I was offered a role and I moved to Shanghai.

Vanke Mall Sport Zone, Shanghai

What were the first projects you worked on at Chapman Taylor?

My first projects were large-scale masterplans. I worked in a team that was like the United Nations in terms of international make-up, and everyone in the team, which was led by Director Andy Hudson (now based at our London studio), was friendly, creative, imaginative and great fun. I was made to feel really at home and being in and out of the studio was very enjoyable.

2015 saw a downturn in the economy in China and architectural work diminished, which was the beginning of my move to interiors. Director Peter Mackey, who now heads the Shanghai studio and leads its Interiors team, asked me to work on some interior design projects, including the design for the Vanke 2049 shopping centre. I knew Vanke was a good client from my previous experience in China, so I was really pleased with the opportunity.

This move was a steep learning curve, but, as a result of our concept work, Vanke invited us to design another project, the award-winning Vanke Mall Sport Zone in Shanghai’s Qibao district. This project was enjoyable from start to finish, with a strong team, both internally and on the client side. The project was unusual and more of 3D installation exercise than an interior fit-out. The project included a suspended roller-skating track and a basketball half-court to NBA specifications, requiring a lot of negotiation with the structural engineer. I learned on that project that good working relationships are key to a successful outcome.

The next major project I worked on was No. 1 Department Store on Shanghai’s famous shopping street. It’s a beautiful 1930s art deco building, steeped in history. We had to produce a concept for 180,000m2 in under a month for a complex of three very different buildings and numerous spaces and themes. The rest of the project was just as fast-paced. We were on site within months and a lot of design had to take place while we were building.

Despite the pace, or maybe even because of it, this was the most enjoyable site to visit. It was a privilege to see behind the scenes of Old Shanghai in its 1930’s heyday. I also really enjoyed the traditional Shanghai noodles to be found in the restaurant just down the road, where Associate Director Jason Lei took us a few times after site meetings.

Being on site was my favourite part of any project in China; most of the major decisions had already been made and everything was about problem solving the physical construction. Problems would be discussed with all parties present and resolved there and then through negotiation. I often felt a real sense of teamwork in the final stages of a project, as everyone’s goal was for a successful project, delivered on time.

Other projects I worked on included Buji MixC shopping centre in Shenzhen, where I predominantly worked on the concept and schematic stages. I also worked on the concept for the recently opened Wuyue Square shopping centre in Changchun and led the concept team for ZNC Shopping Mall in Dongtai.

The Chinese project of which I am most proud is NIO House in Shenzhen, a concept store in the very prestigious the Ping-an Building, which was, at that time, the tallest building in China. NIO House was just emerging and were building just a few concept stores across the country. While they had the joviality of a start-up, there was also a lot of power behind them and their progressive business model.

The concept stage for this project was really engaging, as we had to shape the design around the ethos of the NIO House brand and the company’s vision of a car and the showroom as a lifestyle product. The development was split across two levels, with each offering a different feeling. The showroom gallery space at ground level was cool, calm and fluid, while the upper level clubhouse was a warm and inviting space reminiscent of the humanistic design styles of Scandinavia. This was the last project I saw completed before I left China to return to the UK.

ZNC Shopping Mall, Dongtai.

You transferred to the London studio in 2018. Why?

I was incredibly happy in Shanghai, but I needed to make a change and develop my career in new directions and be close to my family again. I am very grateful that Chapman Taylor gave me the opportunity to move. As I had made the transition to interior design at the Shanghai studio, I moved to London in the same capacity and I joined the Interiors team under Director Jon Grant.

I initially found it quite difficult to readapt to the UK, as I suspected I might. I had become used to China and the ways of behaving and interacting there, and I approached London as if it were a foreign city, which is how it felt. From each of my moves to large cities, I found that you are forced to change and adapt quite quickly, as your pattern of living is never the same.

My first project in the London studio was the MEGA Alma-Ata Food Hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan, working alongside our Moscow studio. The pace and expectations of the project were very similar to those I had experienced in China, so it was a great transition project for me. I also really enjoyed working with the Moscow team.

As with most of my work previously, the project was largely interior architecture, so it felt good to be building on past experience. My task was to deliver a concept and the Moscow team to deliver the project to completion. It completed in late 2019. I later went on the work with the Moscow studio again to produce the design for the innovative MyCar Showroom in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, which is currently on site.

Back in the UK, I have created and had a hand in several Build-to-Rent interiors concepts, in particular the Castle Park View residential development in Bristol, which I took to Stage 3 before handing over to my colleagues in the Bristol studio for Stage 4 and delivery.

MyCar Showroom in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

You are involved with the London studio’s Executive Group. What is your role?

I’m very passionate about collaboration and knowledge sharing. Both here and in Shanghai, I set up project presentations so that people can learn about what their colleagues are working on. I believe it plays a vital role in keeping staff informed and aware of the capabilities of the business and provides visibility into other sectors, teams, regions and disciplines.

In 2020, due to COVID, these presentations went online. This, advantageously, meant more opportunity to collaborate and share with the other UK studios and, heading into 2021, we have expanded the initiative to include presentations from our other studios across the globe.

NIO House, Shenzhen

What is your design philosophy?

There are four cornerstones to my design philosophy:

  • Have a strong concept
  • Design isn’t necessarily subjective
  • A happy team
  • Communication

A strong concept provides a firm basis on which to develop a common understanding among the team about where you want the design to go. It also provides a backbone for design decisions as a project moves forward for all parties, including the client.

Perhaps controversially, I don’t believe design is subjective. If it fits the brief and has a clear concept, then the design will resonate. Naturally, interiors are more subject to changing fashions, and this is certainly a factor, yet still something to which we are all exposed, albeit in culturally dependent ways.

I also believe it’s important to have a happy team and sharing a strong concept can help make it easier for people to collaborate and bring their best to the project, which I believe contributes to good results.

Finally, every design solution is a conversation first, so clear lines of communication are important.

What advice would you give to anyone considering interior design as a career choice?

I am incredibly grateful to have become involved in the sector. It’s a lot more flexible and fast-paced and involves more of my architecture background than one might expect. There is inevitably cross-over between the sectors and having that greater understanding is advantageous.

Interiors is a discipline in itself and, in making the move, I learned that it’s not a straightforward transition. There are different considerations that can often go unnoticed by the architect and which are not touched upon in architectural education.

I think the best advice I could give is that, while every project is different and must be designed with regard to the specific brief and unique context, it is important to have a strong design philosophy and the confidence to meet each project with enthusiasm and a clear sense of purpose. That, combined with showing respect and friendliness to everyone involved, will always yield the best possible results.

MEGA Alma-Ata Food Hall, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Elizabeth Clayton (BA (Hons) Architecture, MArch)

Senior Interior Designer

Elizabeth joined Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio in 2014, where she worked on developments of varying scales across China. Working on both architectural and interior projects, Elizabeth has taken key roles in the delivery of several major projects for Chapman Taylor.

Having honed her commercial expertise and acquired a detailed knowledge of consumer environments, Elizabeth moved back to the UK to join our London studio's Interiors team in 2018 and has worked on a range of projects in the retail, office, residential and mixed-use sectors.

Elizabeth has a strong design philosophy, believing passionately in the benefits of a clearly defined concept, excellent communication and a happy design team for a high quality of outcome.

Areas of expertise:

Architecture / Interior Design / Retail / Residential / Mixed-Use

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