Meet the Manchester-born Interior Designer who's looking to "Refine where we dwell"

Nicola Watkins is taking two decades' worth of experience and looking to re-define what we know about interiors.

By Ben Brown | 11 November 2021

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William McCue // Unsplash

As the city experiences an explosion in developments and new buildings, with new neighbourhoods and communities popping up in previously forgotten areas of Manchester, design has increasingly entered into the forefront of many people’s minds – both admiration and concern with how these new parts of the city are being nurtured.

As design permeates almost every aspect of our lives, from the products we use to the services that we need, a whole host of ‘stakeholders’ from across sectors and disciplines have arisen, ones who recognise the importance and impact that design has on the city and the wider UK economy in general.

Of course, as residents and citizens of Manchester, we should all have an opinion on architecture and design, it effects on our day-to-day lives and its impact on the city’s prominence and competitive advantage on a world scale.

But how important do you find interior design to this process? Has it received the same level of critique or admiration as much as the external?

Nicola Watkins

Well, in order to gain an insider perspective on the world of interior design, we sat down with Nicola Watkins, co-owner of byWatkins and a woman who’s worked across the globe on some seriously impressive projects & new developments, from the luxury Villa Can Cocotero in Ibiza, to new residential town houses for Barclay Homes and Lendlease, and the stunning Equinox Hotel in Downtown LA.

Taking full advantage of a government scheme aimed at getting young adults from a working class background into higher education, Nicola began her career gaining a degree in Interior Design from Leeds University of Arts, Nicola entered the world of interior design working with a variety of hotels in Manchester before stepping onto the global stage.

Luxury hotel projects in Egypt, India and Greece led to becoming a Founding Partner and Lead Designer at the internationally renowned Tara Bernerd & Partners based out of Belgravia in London.

It was with Tara Bernerd that Nicola worked on her most favourite projects, most noticeably SIXTY SoHo in New York City, a development where Nicola explains; “many of the principles rooted in this design then became embedded into my design DNA and projects to date.

Designed and completed in 2013, the hotel wouldn’t look out of place in the Northern Quarter, with a “timeless, industrial elegance” and a memorable dark petrol blue velvet wall behind the checking desk which Nicola included to soften the arrival experience, and a Venetian mirrored panel wall which reflects the outside street scene back into the venue.

Lobby SIXTY SoHo New York

“It’s not until you’re on site that you see the urban streetscape come to life in that mirror, and you can see how much the soft richness of velvet plays out against the street scene. It quickly became one of my favourite spaces.”

Throughout her career so far, Nicola has had many a proud moment, however it was during her work with the Equinox Hotel in Downtown LA where one of her her proudest achievements and biggest challenges occurred.

Equinox Hotel Downtown LA // Due to be completed in 2022

“I was designing the Equinox Hotel in LA in partnership with Gehry Architects. We flew out to NYC to present the guestrooms and restaurant design proposals to Harvey Spevak (the founder of Equinox), and after the presentation they signed the design off then and there!

“When you design a project and a client signs it off like that you know you get it and it’s definitely something that one can be proud of, you know you have not only understood their vision but have given them something more.”

Lobby at Thompson Hollywood Hotel

This “something more” is a factor that Nicola is keen to stress – and revolves around the idea of ‘good design’ that is “innovative, simple and timeless” in order to create something has a “DNA that is rooted in its context, it won’t become dated or considered a fad or a trend”. And above all – balance is key.

“Too much of a good thing is a bad thing! Balance can be hard to get right but comes with experience.”

“For me, balance starts when I’m sketching the layout of a space, it’s the bones of the project and involves considerable problem solving and experience to get right.”

“It’s a matter of weighing the architecture with the interiors in terms of function, flow and user experience. This strategy continues as the details of the space are developed as well; the furniture and finishes in each key area add something unique, yet are set against another element; be it pattern, colour, lighting or texture. In the end, the more balanced and considered a design, the fewer ingredients you need.”

Many of Nicola’s design inspirations come from this extensive research and design experience, and a chance encounter with Manchester icon Richard Chadwick created a memorable first design project.

It was whilst working as an intern at Richard Chadwick Associates in 1998, and it involved drawing up plans for a new Rock n Roll Café on Deansgate. Her first real insights into the design process, her first actual client was the late Tim Bacon from Living Ventures, someone who was able to communicate his vision with enthusiasm – a vision that eventually became famed celeb hotspot The Living Room.

The Living Room Manchester

With so many developments and buildings popping up all over the city at the moment, design is on the tip of most people’s tongues – and it seems everyone has an opinion. Does the exterior of the new building fit in with the city’s aesthetic? Will it be looked upon fondly after 15 years? Why does it look like a half-opened filing cabinet?

With a seemingly endless stream of questions from all directions, I asked Nicola where her major sources of inspiration come from, and also how this can alleviate any fears or concerns that people have.

She explained that in terms of interior architecture, “we take what works from the locale or its history and inject it with our own person aesthetic – a piece of what is now and indeed the future – which in our case is contemporary, modern with a timeless tailored elegance.”

So, in that respect, each and every project is different, depending on the history of the area or the building, but each one with a characteristic flair that’s unique to Nicola.

She adds: “When it comes to the furniture and styling, I like to be more abstract and eclectic, like my taste in art!”

“No piece is ever sourced from the same manufacturer and I like to combine hues and textures from the current catwalk collections which are then complimented by architectural detailing and finishes from architects that have influenced me. For each project, I tend to use the floor as a canvas for a bespoke floor design and to build up the elements from there.”

Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale

2020 saw Nicola join with her husband Brett to create byWatkins, an architecture-interior design firm working between California, London and Manchester exclusively for the hospitality industry and residential developments.

Launching into one of the most tumultuous and difficult years ever certainly wasn’t ideal – kicking off from scratch with no furlough, but something that Nicola is immensely proud of. They found that they could call upon their extensive experience and network to “adapt and manoeuvre between a wider range of project types and therefore we have a flexible and varied client base.”

One of the mantras of byWatkins, it’s raison d’etre if you will, is “refining where we dwell“, which I ask Nicola to explain to me further; “It’s basically where you choose. Where you choose to live, where you choose to go on holiday, where you choose to spend your time.”

“We create and refine those spaces and not by creating just beautiful interiors but also an experience which draws you in and becomes the place where you choose to dwell and linger a little longer.”

Alongside byWatkins, Nicola has also recently started teaching at the British Academy of Interior Design on the weekends in order to hopefully pass on her extensive industry knowledge and experiences, vital for aspiring interior designers that are set to be thrown into a highly competitive and significantly disrupted sector.

Members Clubhouse in Silicon Valley

Looking towards the future, it’s always difficult to foresee where the world of design and hospitality will be after the global pandemic, but Nicola is certain that 2021 will give her the chance to grow the team and studio, alongside working on a number of high-profile projects both in the UK and across the pond.

“We have been working on a number of high-end residential projects in London, alongside finishing up the design of a member’s co-working club that went on hold last year.”

Nicola exclaims: “I’ve never been so excited for the future” and with byWatkins looking ready to tackle 2021 head on, Nicola has certainly come a long way from her early beginnings growing up in Levenshulme.