architecture & design
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How to approach inspiring commercial interiors

When designing a space, either independently or when working with an interior designer, start by considering the atmosphere that you want to create and the values which are important to project to visitors and users. This will set you on a path to choosing a style, defining a colour scheme and palette, as well as making informed material choices which all work together to strengthen your vision.

Concept: Defining Atmosphere and Values

What kind of atmosphere and values do you want to project? All five senses combine to create the perfect atmosphere – so use complimentary accessories, sounds (background music, ambient noise etc), lighting and smells. Make the most of it if you have coffee machines, vintage doorbells, live music etc!

Here are some examples:

1. Cosy/Welcoming

The above are examples of a cosy and welcoming cafe or bakery. Books, handwritten signage, mismatched vintage furniture and exposed brick all work together to create the welcoming atmosphere.

Image Source: Pinterest.

2. Futuristic/Clinical

Here, the attributes of a clinical environment are used to positively convey cleanliness and scientific technology. Neon/hard white lighting, translucent materials, glass, beakers and highly polished hard metallic surfaces feature prominently; occasionally softened by living greenery and other organic materials.

Image Source: Pinterest. (Left: Selfridges Fragrance Lab. Right: Aesop Midtown skincare’s clinical-inspired retail space in midtown Tokyo by Torafu).

3. Youthful/Playful

A bold and colourful scheme full of surprises featuring shapes, movable furniture and glazing at low level makes for a fun environment for young children.

Image Source: Pinterest. (Left: Da Ya Kindergarten by Jmlin Architect/observer Design Group. The designers used coloured glass within hexagonal windows to create a spectacular combination of colours on the exterior and bring an imaginative dream like atmosphere into the interior spaces to encourage free spirits. Right: Rosemary Works School by Aberrant Architecture. The school’s waterside location was used as a points of reference for the design which includes brightly painted period features and a fleet of wooden canal barges.)

4. Professional/Corporate

Glass walls within an open plan room arrangement reinforce values like professional transparency whilst providing privacy for meetings and isolated working. Introduce crisp contrasting glazing bars and linear elements like defined circulation routes to give structure to the space and define zones. Highly stylised uniform furnishings will prioritise the corporation over the individual. These spaces ooze contemporary class, are unfussy and suggest a focused atmosphere.

Image Source: Pinterest. (Left: Slattery Australia Office by architecture studio Elenberg Fraser. A muted palette of blonde timbers, white leather and white and black furniture creates a disciplined, ordered space, while precise black lines add rhythm, resulting in a meticulous interior that mirrors the statistical data and cost planning work that the organisation produces. Right: Meeting Room, designer unknown)

5. Traditional/historic

Where you wish to convey a sense of gravitas and history, perhaps in a bank, library, academic institution or courtroom, consider using rich traditional materials such as polished timbers like walnut, bronze metal accents, soft leather wall panels and luxurious deep carpets which muffle sound. Incorporate bespoke fittings like chandeliers and hand wrought iron handrails or canopies. These interiors are by their nature expensive, and the quality of the finish should convey the craftsmanship that has gone into their design and creation.

Image Source: Leather Sellers Hall by Eric Parry Architects. This is an example of an interior which is steeped in history, yet contemporary in it’s feel and detailing. The interiors have been immaculately crafted, with references throughout to the history of the Leathersellers’ trade.

Styling: Creating the “Look”

Once you have identified the atmosphere and values that you want to project, it is time to consider ways in which you can achieve this look. This may be guided by the building fabric that you already have, or it may be superimposed to suit your brand and taste. Accessories, loose furniture, materials and feature lighting all combine to give character and style. In a new build you will have to make some firm decisions about the architecture of the space as well as the interior finishes and furniture. The way that people use and engage with the space will further add to the overall impression so consider the feel and function of glazing, circulation and access systems carefully alongside the aesthetic ‘design’ elements.

The above mood boards were put together for a unique inward looking office fit-out scheme. The team of travel writers called ‘Canopy and Stars’ find and promote unusual quirky spaces to stay around the world. The overall office atmosphere was playful and informal which allowed for quirky themed spaces. The scheme incorporated a Moroccan souk inspired workspace for the team, with luxurious layered drapes, rich colours and low seating.

Images: Moodboards for Sawdays Publishing Canopy and Stars team by Christine Skaar

The look for the finance department in the office was inspired by an old bank, with decorative accessories like typewriters, stationery organisers and leather books. The chairs specified were deeper style, buttoned or trimmed and accented with dark wood. Desks were also finished with leather desk mats in green and red.

Images: Moodboards for Sawdays Publishing finance team by Christine Skaar

The bar at Five Miles embraces the textured industrial finish of the warehouse conversion, with exposed services and raw materials like metal, ply, concrete and acoustic panels. The space is accented with pops of colour, and humanised by handwritten beer names over the taps.

Images: Photographs of the FIVE MILES bar at TEN87 Studios in Tottenham, by KVIST design, completed autumn 2017.

Deciding on a colour scheme:

The color wheel provides a visual representation of which colors blend nicely together. Paletton is a website that will let you create your own color scheme online, and ColorSchemer offers the same capabilities in a mobile app. There are 12 hues in the colour wheel - one half comprises the ‘cool’ colours and the other the ‘warm’ hues.

  • Primary Colors: Red, blue, and yellow. Cannot be made from mixing other colors.

  • Secondary Colors: Orange, Purple, and Green. Can be made by mixing two of the primary colours together. 

  • Tertiary Colors: The six shades that can be made from mixing primary and secondary colors. This gives us to give us lime green, turquoise, magenta, peach, deep purple and so much more. 

When decorating an interior the options for colours and styles can be overwhelming. We recommend starting with one of the 12 hues in the colour wheel that resonates with you or your brand, which will help to narrow down your selections and settle on a palette. It is also a good way in if you are unsure about introducing strong colours!

You may have heard colours described as having a temperature. When choosing colour temperature for a space you should also consider the size. Using a warm colour in a small room could make it feel claustrophobic. However, using cool colours in a spacious room could leave it feeling unwelcoming.

Image Source: Pinterest. The above are examples of ‘cool’ mint/blue and white dining rooms/kitchens. These colours can feel unwelcoming if the space is not softened with textures, accessories, lighting or if they are too sparse.

You can explore complimentary tints, shades and tonal colours by mixing your base colour with a neutral; like white, black or grey. This gives variations of the original colour to play with which will ensure that your scheme is harmonious. 

  • Tint: The act of lighting a colour by adding white to it.

  • Shade: The act of darkening a color by adding black

  • Tone: Slightly darkening a colour by adding grey

Once you have a feel for the atmosphere and look that you want to achieve, there are a few ways to approach composing your space. You may wish to play with a consistent strategy throughout, or apply different methods to different spaces for a dramatic effect. In this case, we recommend going bolder in busier public areas or spaces that may be changed more often, and considering a more timeless look for rooms elsewhere.


Monochrome doesn’t mean black and white, but one colour. This is the easiest and often considered the safest scheme, used regularly for residential developments like show homes which need to appeal to a broad audience. However, living with a monochrome space in the long run can become boring; so how do you avoid this?!

The key to getting your monochromatic scheme to sing is to keep all the different tones and tints of the colour in mind – in combination with interesting shapes, materials and textures. This is what will keep it stimulating and give the space depth. If you have a pale palette, consider using bleached timber with a rugged texture, or stone with a natural vein or texture, lit to cast shadows and add warmth. We did this recently in a basement pool and spa area for a private client to create a bright, contemporary space with a limited neutral palette.

Image: moodboard for private residential basemement pool & spa scheme

Incorporating different textures and materials can turn a space from bland to luxurious. Lighting is also key to enhancing features and making the space warm or cool. Layer cushions and drapes with different fabrics to create depth and reflect light into the space. Mix and match decorative upholstery techniques like buttoning, stitching, tufting, trims, studs etc, incorporating metals or pattern for timeless visual interest.

Image Source: Houzz. Living Room and Kitchen by Geoff Chick & Associates

Image Source: Pinterest. Choose furniture with interesting patterns, textures, shapes and upholstery techniques to add interest to a monochrome scheme.

Another trick which is highly fashionable at the moment is using dark, bold colours as the base for your monochrome space; like navy blue and emerald green. Going for a monochrome style also makes using strong contrasting patterns very simple to incorporate - as you just match them by colour. 

Image Sources: Pinterest/Dezeen. (Far Left: Naïve Bar, Ukraine by AKZ Architectura - a Kiev bar solely dedicated to sparkling wine. Left Middle: Rosemary Works School by Aberrant Architecture. Right Middle: The Jane, two Michelin Restaurant by Studio Piet Boon. Far Right: Pink Room Bar, Ukraine by Circle Line Interiors.)


Choose two or more colours that sit side by side on the colour wheel to create a harmonious scheme. These colours are from the same family. Red next to pink, blue next to violet or yellow with green for example. This provides more variation that the monochrome colour scheme; and works well if you use a couple of colours as your base and then harmonise around them. 

Image Source: Dezeen. Montreal studio Apparel Architecture has differentiated spaces inside Pastel Rita, a cafe and artist workshop in the city by colour-blocking them green, pink and gold.

Two colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel are known as complimentary colours. We recommend typically choosing one colour acts as the dominant shade and the other as an accent. This means combinations like red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple. Use a more tonally muted palette to create a relaxed harmonious space and strong complimentary colours for energy and vibrancy.  

If you want more contrast, use stronger colours, sometimes in combination. This is best used in small doses and when you want to draw attention to a particular design element. You could use it to make a space pop or to bring extra vibrancy and character to a room.

Image Source: Dezeen. US design studio BHDM was not shy with colour when renovating the Shoreline Waikiki Hotel in Hawaii, where bold shades that echo the island chain's tropical flora and fauna were chosen to entice the millennial-minded traveler and make it the most “Instagrammable” hotel in Hawaii.

If you choose a complimentary colour scheme, we recommend embracing neutrals. They will provide a place for your eye to rest and keep you from becoming overwhelmed in the room. If you like the idea of a complimentary colour scheme but are afraid it may be a little too bold for your tastes, split complimentary is a safer choice. This colour scheme is based on first choosing a base shade. Then, instead of choosing the colour directly opposite of your base, you chose the two shades on either side of the opposite colour. Those two shades will provide a sense of balance to the room. You’ll still get the visual impact of bold colour, but you’ll be able to incorporate more of it instead of relying heavily on neutrals to calm the space.

Split-complimentary works best when you use your base colour as the dominant. However, instead of choosing a saturated shade, try to focus on a colour that is more muted. Then, go bold with your other two shades in the room’s accent pieces.

Image Source: Dezeen. Blue and ‘orange’ in the form of plywood are combined with a neutral white base at the The London Animal Hospital (TLAH) by architecture studio Alma-nac.