Commercial interior design

 6 July 2011

Mark Bithrey is director of B3 Designers, an architectural interior design firm. Founded in 2002, B3 work on commercial interior design for restaurants, bars, hotels, retail and exhibition spaces.

B3 Designers work on commercial interior design, such as restaurants.
B3 Designers work on commercial interior design, such as restaurants.

B3 Designers' unique and contemporary designs have established them as industry leaders and led to a string of awards. These include ‘Restaurant and Bar Design Awards’ Best Bar for the Carbon Bar at the Cumberland Hotel in central London.

Studying for interior design

Mark was always good at drawing at school and headed for the traditional art school route after A-levels. However he soon realised that he was going to need much more than this to succeed as an interior designer.

“No-one was saying, 'Isn’t he good at drawing?' any more, like they did when I was at school! Many people on my foundation course were as good as me or better.

"Interior design involves so much more than drawing, including an in-depth understanding of architecture.

“By the end of my degree I realised how much more I had to learn. However, my studies had taught me to analyse, think, be creative and push the boundaries."

Finding work as an interior designer

After graduating with a BA Hons in Interior Design, Mark travelled overseas before working for a variety of interior design companies back in the UK.

"My studies had taught me to analyse, think, be creative and push the boundaries."

"Sheer determination helped me to secure my first jobs, and I had to accept low pay in those early days. However, I gained valuable experience in retail and restaurant design, both of which stood me in good stead for the future.”

After seven years’ experience working for other people, Mark decided to go it alone. He set up B3 Designers.

“This decision was made on the basis of a promise of work from one client, which did not materialise in the end. However, I gradually picked up other work and earned just enough money to survive.

"The business took around two years to take off. I then secured a couple of big contracts, including the restaurant ‘Roka’ and a dental practice. I slowly built the business, taking on a couple of other interior designers.”

Interior design: from brief to build

Within B3, designing a brand concept goes hand-in-hand with the design for the interior space. The aim is to increase the client’s competitiveness and help grow their business:

  • “Working with the client, the design team will start by analysing the brief and the core principles of the brand. We often use brainstorming to help generate ideas. This stage is really exciting and one that the designers love.
  • "The next stage is the development of the design direction. This comprises research into competitors and provides a rough idea of where the concept will fit in the current market.
  • “Back in the studio we work on the concept development, which involves fine-tuning the designs. The client is shown sample materials, colours, layouts and visuals.
  • The final stage involves preparing a set of working drawings, using CAD for 3D modelling. These are then printed out and sketched over by hand. After re-scanning them into the computer they are painted using Photoshop.

"Once everything is agreed the drawings are issued to a contractor for implementation."

Managing a creative team

"Interior design involves so much more than drawing, including an in-depth understanding of architecture.”

Mark manages a team of five designers, including one intern. The team are based in an open-plan design studio. This means he is close at hand to deal with any problems that arise.

“Queries from my designers take up much of my time, alongside meetings with clients. Every Monday morning we have a briefing meeting for the week ahead.”

He also works closely with an independent project manager, who works closely with the building contractors. At any one time B3 may have around 10 projects running concurrently.

“Having a project manager means my designers can focus on the creative work. It is very difficult for young interior designers to manage builders. However, the designers do visit the site about once a week to check on the builders’ progress.

Once the project is up and running it should, in theory, manage itself, as the site foreman takes care of everyday concerns. I become more involved if something unusual happens.

"When we were working on the Carbon Bar, the design incorporated a mezzanine floor. Part-way through the project the structural engineer advised me that the existing floor was not strong enough to take the weight of the proposed floor. In the end it was suspended from the ceiling. This was actually an advantage as it freed up the floor space as we reduced the number of pillars needed.”

Mark also employs a cost controller. They ensure that B3 spend the client’s money carefully and again free up the designers’ time for more creative work.

Interior design for restaurants

Mark often works for entrepreneurial restaurateurs, who are building up their business and perhaps a series of restaurants. Ever since designing his first restaurant interior, Mark has loved this aspect of his work.

“I really get a buzz out of designing restaurants. I think it is partly because people are going out to celebrate and enjoy food, and eating is also an every day experience.

"As a designer I can also do a lot to create ambience with lighting in restaurants. There is a real demand for exciting interiors in restaurants given the current interest in food and eating out.”

Mark needs an understanding of the client, the food they serve and the target audience. His designs are neither run-of-the-mill nor formulaic. Instead, his exciting and contemporary work makes the restaurant look appealing and therefore encourages customers to visit.

“Here at B3 we don’t really have a design trademark. I like to think we are down-to-earth and quite touchy-feely, with lots of textures and distressed timbers. Eclectic pretty much sums it up.”

Managing a creative workload

“I really get a buzz out of designing restaurants. There is a real demand for exciting interiors.”

Mark is now dad to a baby boy and so makes sure his weekends are kept for family time.

“I often work for an hour or so at home in the mornings to concentrate on emails quietly before arriving at the office. Once I get into work it is very busy and I often don’t leave until 8pm.

"I really try to avoid working at weekends. Before the arrival of my son I would begin thinking about the Monday morning meeting on Sunday evening. Nowadays the whole weekend is spent with the family, and going out to different places together helps provide the inspiration a designer needs.

"Even when I am holiday I look at designs and the detail in different interiors. I often pick up lots of new ideas when travelling abroad.”

Having separate premises to go to really helps Mark’s work-life balance. In the first two years of his business he worked from his living room in a one-bedroom flat.

“That was really stressful at times, especially if you were trying to relax. I was always surrounded by my work.”

Advice for commercial interior design

"Interior designers need lots of common sense:

  • "You have to put yourself in the client’s position and imagine that you own their business yourself
  • "You need to be careful and sensible with the client’s money and design something that will still look good in five years’ time
  • If you need to work from home, try to have a separate room where you can close the door at the end of the day."

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