In the third of our new Studio Tour series we speak with Gurvinder Khurana, Director & Co-Founder at align about her studio which focuses on the psychological impact of design. We hope that you find this insight inspirational in your own career journey.
We began by asking about align’s history.
I set up align together with practice Co-founder Nigel Tresise six years ago now, in 2014. We were both very established designers with decades of experience that we wanted to bring to the market in our own name after so many years working for other people!
One of our key differentiators – and passions – when we set out was our focus on the psychological impact of design; how spaces can make people feel. In the office sector particularly, where talk used to revolve uniquely around headcounts and space-plans, clients would occasionally look at us as if we were mad when we talked about emotional reactions to space, as if such things had no place in business. Times have finally caught up with the way we thought! No one turns their emotions off in any arena after all – and we’re finally aware of the cost to wellbeing and our mental health of pretending otherwise. If design can affect emotions both positively and negatively, why not maximise its ability to encourage focus, wellbeing and a positive mindset? On a more personal level, we definitely wanted the reputation and the peer recognition we felt our designs deserved. With nearly 20 awards to our name already, that’s definitely happened too!
Our values as a business are to be expert, collaborative, passionate and honest. Integrity is a big deal for us. Also, that we’re attentive, personable and responsive in all our dealings. As a smaller company, inter-personal relationships are really important to us, both internally and also externally, with clients, consultants and suppliers. With clients particularly, our director-led service and easy, flexible attitude really count and give us a definite competitive edge when we come up against big-name practices!
We wanted to know about where the align team work.
We’re based in London’s Exmouth Market and moved into a new office space not that long before lockdown. Our new office has more flexible areas, including a meeting space that also serves for freelance or non-desktop working, plus a library and kitchen area. Other interesting people are all around too as the building has a creative business focus. It’s good to feel that energy.
All the team absolutely love the local area too. It’s a part of London that still has an edge, with great independent retail and hospitality. It’s culturally very distinct from Farringdon, where we were before. Exmouth Market is much less shirt-collar and more blurred in terms of types of business, which we really like. It feels like a real community and, once the pandemic is definitively over, we look forward to spending more leisure time here. Having said that, the Wilmington pub definitely feels like our local already!
We were keen to know more about Gurvinder’s team.
align is a small, boutique agency that has twice been named ‘Small Practice of the Year’ at the London Design Awards. We marry the positives of a small business with the larger-company experience of our Directors and our very own design flair as a team.
Both Nigel and I have worked for 20-30 years in the design industry and we bring different, but complementary, skillsets to our work. Nigel has huge experience of the world of architecture and construction, as well as a wealth of technical knowledge, whilst I very much have a holistic design approach that’s about balancing an organisation’s commercial and emotional requirements and brand values with those of its people. Plus, I love working with colour!
We have a really great team right now and I’d like to pull out the following three people for special mention:
Haroulla Georgiou is an architect and she’s brilliant – a really calm, gentle and talented presence in our office. She’s showing amazing mentoring skills right now too.
Davin Shaw is a great technical designer with extensive job-running skills. He’s our newest joiner and a great balance to the team’s more predominant female energy. He’s Australian with a great attitude and is also hilarious.
Aqilah Amran is a real whizz-kid when it comes to 3D visualising in Sketch-Up or Photoshop, as well as always bringing her own ideas to the table. Her understanding of materials is phenomenal too and she always keeps our product library at its best.
We asked Gurvinder about her teams’ design approach.
Our core business is all about aligning our clients’ brands and businesses with environments crafted around real people’s wants and needs, seeking to balance brand expression with end-user ergonomics. We specialise in the workplace, hospitality, residential and mixed-use markets and our client base covers a wide spectrum of sectors, including music, media, finance, law, technology, charity and the public sector. We love this cross-fertilisation of influences and the way it keeps our studio open and creative.
We take inspiration from anywhere and everywhere and we’re always connected to what’s happening in the wider creative world – including fashion (a personal passion!). We have a certain fearlessness too. We’re always up for the next challenge. Most clients will also tell you that we’re a lot of fun. The working day is long I always think. Why not have a smile on your face every now and then?
Gurvinder told us about a selection of align’s key projects.
Recent projects include the award-winning, co-working space at bubbleHUB. This was a great job for us: the re-working of a former pump house building in St Albans, with lots of attention paid to maximising the character of such an individual, historic building.
It’s quirky and full of life and colour – but also particularly relevant to the here and now, both because its spacious layout and fresh-air aircon place it ahead of the game for a safe return to work, but also because its location so close to London, makes it a perfect satellite office, something that will become more and more relevant to the future of workspace real estate.
At the other end of the scale, we completed a series of projects for a global financial giant whose UK operation is based in the City of London – and one with a very far-thinking culture. The latest – also an award-winner – was 13,745 sq ft of new working, meeting, presentation and break-out space with integrated, though differentiated, zones, with a pronounced accent on biophilia, agile working and staff wellbeing. It was the sensitivity to wellbeing in such a complex, high-pressure organisation that was so notable.
A third project we’d mention would be Omeara, a 350-capacity live music venue, bar and performance space under the railway arches in Flat Iron Square in London’s Borough. The project, which won Hospitality Project of the Year at the Mixology Awards, was carried out for Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons.
It was fantastic fun, very complex, especially acoustically, involving a great number of technical challenges, but it was a real privilege to work for someone with so much commitment to live music and such vision and determination.
What does the future hold for align?
For us, as a small business, the future will be about staying on our toes, being super-flexible and adaptable and also diversifying. Historically, we’ve always done a real mix, although workplace has been and will remain our core competency.
Obviously, that sector is having something of an identity crisis right now as the possibilities of working-from-home have been forcibly recognised by business owners. We believe this will lead to a new appreciation of the difference an office can provide in time, however – and with difference comes possibility and new scope for the imagination.
I think for all of us in design right now, the future is about being fluent and fluid. This is a time to re-assess and re-invent, ensuring we stay fresh and imaginative and see the challenges we’re all facing as a series of pointers as to what’s possible too. It’s definitely our ‘Madonna’ moment!