Inspirationist exclusive: Interview with Nicholas Stoupas and Joseph Stella, founders of twenty2degrees

twenty2degrees is a hospitality design practice with a wide portfolio of work across Europe, the UK and in Africa. They say it it within their instinct to design interiors that are original, yet true to brand, interiors which are modern, infused with sense of place and a sense of fun, and yet are seriously fit for purpose. They take a lot of care with what they design, both creatively and by really understanding the minutiae of their concept so that it can be implemented in full.

twenty2 degrees was founded in London in 2012 by Nicholas Stoupas and Joseph Stella with the intention of turning the dial a little. Nick was following 10 years of working at director level within the hospitality design sector. He drives now the growth of twenty2 degrees, managing the firm’s strategic vision and its relationships with owners, operators and members of the project team. Joe worked at a senior level with two widely respected London-based firms. It was at one of these that he met Nick and within a few months of the founding of twenty2 degrees, he joined the company with the remit to further enhance its conceptual offering and help grow the young firm into an award-winning practice.

We sat down with the designers to learn more about how they fell in love with design, how they found themselves involved in hospitality and how spaces connect emotionally:

INSPIRATIONIST: Where are you from and where do you live now?

Nicholas Stoupas: I’m from Melbourne, Australia but came over to the UK almost 20 years ago. I was looking for new opportunity and found it in London where, certainly at the time, young designers were given their head. I have not forgotten how this empowered me and I make a point at offering the same to our young designers whenever possible.

Joseph Stella: I’m also from Melbourne and came to the UK a few years after Nick. My future wife and I were backpacking our way around Europe so we visited London for a few days, and here we still are 15 years later! I guess that we immediately felt at home because London is such a melting pot – like Melbourne but even more so.  

I.: How did you fall in love with interior design and why? 

N.S.: I have always been interested in design and construction and generally tinkering with things. I got this from my father who was an inventor and I remember spending many nights watching him sketching and working on his inventions. This is what inspired me to study architecture in the first place and then, when I moved to the UK and found myself involved in hospitality design, I knew I had found what I really wanted to do. I like the fact that we get to sink our teeth into many different aspects of design as hotels are such varied projects and with so many different spaces to consider.

What’s not to love about what we do as hospitality designers? The opportunity to move people emotionally and create special memories…that’s what matters to me.

Joseph Stella

J.S.: Growing up I was surrounded by a number of creatives in my family and was encouraged to try my hand at a variety of different media. Whether it was making a piece of furniture, painting a canvas or sketching a design, I have always managed to find a way to achieve creative fulfilment in what I do.  

When I was in secondary school, I had to choose two work experience placements and I opted for an interior design firm and a restaurant kitchen. Actually, I loved trying my hand at being a chef and cooking has remained a passion of mine ever since, but I chose to study interior design.

Now I think about it – what’s not to love about what we do as hospitality designers? The opportunity to move people emotionally and create special memories…that’s what matters to me. Music can do this, gathering together with friends over a wonderful meal can also do this, and so can the design of a space.

I.: Where do you spend most of your time normally, and what does a typical day for you entail? How has your routine changed with the social isolation constraints?

N.S.: I usually arrive at the studio between 8 – 9 am. Before Covid-19 hit, I liked to get in at this time to enjoy the quiet before everyone else arrived. Of course, this has changed over the past year but I still like a relatively early start. In the past, our mornings would start with team design discussions and planning, before moving onto the more administrative aspects of the studio. Come 5:30, latest 6:00 PM, I make sure everyone has left and go home myself. One of my core principles is that we all work hard during the day and then have a proper evening.

My routine has not changed that much because of the pandemic. I have been coming into the studio most days and some of the team have joined me from time-to-time rather than work remotely. There are, of course, many more virtual meetings and presentations than before, which carry an up- and a downside and I do miss overseas travel, although it can be more time-efficient to stay in the studio. However, I am sure that travel will return just as it’s possible. The hospitality design sector is one that likes to gather; we are creative people who find our inspiration in experiencing new places and socializing with colleagues.

It feels like a real luxury investing time in getting to know and understand local cultures, but it is essential so that I can deliver a design that is true to me as a designer as well as true to the place in order to achieve a sense of provenance in our design. 

Joseph Stella

I.: What is your favorite part of your job?

N.S.: My favorite part of the job is traveling to different places and meeting different people, gaining an understanding of their working and social cultures.  It is also great to see our projects become reality, from our initial sketch book concepts to the physical entity.

J.S.: For me, it’s the sheer variety of my role as Creative Director – one day I am designing an entire restaurant space, the next a bespoke carpet design, and the next I am curating an art collection for a lobby. In addition, I am travelling across Europe and Africa, to wherever our projects are located. It feels like a real luxury investing time in getting to know and understand local cultures, but it is essential so that I can deliver a design that is true to me as a designer as well as true to the place in order to achieve a sense of provenance in our design. 

I.: Can you describe an evolution in your work from when you began until today? 

J.S.: I think the evolution of our work as designers has been about learning to balance the function of the space with aesthetic sensitivity, in order to develop a concept that meets the brief, whilst also putting our creative stamp on the design.  

It’s natural that young designers want to design entire spaces, however I believe you first have to start by designing individual elements and then gradually develop the skills and insight to join the dots into a cohesive space and recognizable design style. If I may bring in another analogy to cooking, it’s like learning the importance of starting with the best ingredients and then not over seasoning the food. 

N.S.: I would add that we are working at an interesting time in hospitality design as hotel brands have become a lot more open to working with their designers to create a measure of difference in their properties. Of course, brand standards have to be honored but we can add layers that offer a sense of place and differentiate the experience. Clients and operators are now keen to build narratives for each hotel and appreciate the role of design in achieving this. We are responding to what guests want rather than telling them what they will get.

I.: Has the pandemic and the changes it brought provoked a shift in your design thinking moving forward? In how you’ll be perceiving and designing spaces from now on?

N.S.: The pandemic hasn’t dramatically affected our designs but it’s how we get to our designs that has changed. Fortunately, technology has advanced rapidly, facilitating us in the process as well as in our communications. In fact, when I look back at the past year, I am amazed by how many projects we have managed to win and progress, all remotely. 

J.S.: I agree. However, we have had to learn how to use the technology stategically. A design studio needs creative spontaneity and if the team cannot gather together then we need to find other ways to achieve this. Both Nick and I like to jump on impromtu Team meetings to keep our designers engaged and focused throughout the day. 

It’s now clear that you can fairly successfully run parts of a business remotely. Nevertheless, in all creative industries there is a need to brainstorm ideas in person in order to keep those ideas fresh and engaging. I believe it‘s about finding the right balance that suits the individual, studio or task being carried out in deciding whether the work needs to be done remotely or in person.

Right now people are disturbed by the experience of Covid so the role of design is to contribute to their sense of security and wellbeing. This is a lot more than simply erecting screens; it’s about creating experiences infused with a sense of comfort.

Nicholas Stoupas

I.: What do you think is the role of design in a global crisis such as the one we are living and how can it contribute is a positive way to its management and perhaps overcoming?

N.S.:  Hospitality design is ultimately about bringing people together for leisure, rejuvenation or work. Right now people are disturbed by the experience of Covid so the role of design is to contribute to their sense of security and wellbeing. This is a lot more than simply erecting screens; it’s about creating experiences infused with a sense of comfort. The important thing to say though is that it won’t be like this forever. Memories of the pandemic will fade and it’s important to remember that most of the hotels we are designing today will not be open for at least another two years or so. 

I.: Which is your favorite building (interior-wise or not)?

N.S.: For me it’s El Nacional Barcelona which is an emblematic building for the city. It began life towards the end of the 19th Century as a cafe theatre, then became a factory and was latterly a car park before it was converted into Bacelona’s first wining and dining destination offering a collection of different spaces under one roof. However, it’s not the architectural significance nor the appealing interior design that makes it special to me so much as the memories. I was visiting Barcelona a lot shortly after El Nacional had re-opened and I happened to stumble across the building. It was the experience of discovery that made El Nacional so special as well as the many happy times I went on to spend there.

J.S.: I cannot give a design answer in favour of one building or interior – there are numerous interiors and buildings that I love for many reasons. Some because of their aesthetic beauty, others for an emotional connection or unique design style, their texture or colour scheme. Ultimately, it’s about the soul of a place, the history or geographical location that may have inspired the design and the people who engage with it. Some of my favourite restaurants aren’t designed in the way we would design them but rather, over the years, these spaces have become lived in and have developed their own unique personalities that cannot be designed. Sure, it’s about the initial design, but it’s also about how the rest of the space connects emotionally – lighting, music, art, the aromas of the kitchen, the sound of a cocktail being shaken or the banter between staff and guests. One example that ticks this box for me is E Pellicci (established 1900), a family owned caff in London’s East End. It’s a tiny space where you eat knocking elbows with the person next to you, has beautiful Art Deco lined timber marquetry walls, the owners remember everyone by name, old family photos are displayed with pride & the sound of the coffee machine never stops. A great architectural space isn’t just bricks and mortar; it is a living, breathing entity.

I.: Which of the spaces you designed is your personal favorite and why? 

J.S.: I don’t believe it’s about any particular space, but it is about every project where we have been entrusted to explore in a way that means we can develop an aesthetic anchored in context that feels unique to the location of the project.

N.S.: I agree. Rather than a favourite space, it is, for me, the process that makes a project special, particularly when it involves going to a new location and exploring the neighbourhood.

I.: How do you unwind?

J.S.: I have been playing even more music during lockdown, not just to unwind but because my son is now old enough to share the enjoyment of playing an instrument with me. I have also returned to piano playing after many years, which I find very calming. In my work, I am always responding to a brief. When I am playing the piano, I can roam freely. It is a form of meditation for me.  

In the evenings, I like to unwind with my family over a tipple of Stellacello or Amaro London, both award-winning liqueurs produced by my artisan liqueur company.

N.S.: I love an energetic game of tennis or a round of golf but, like Joe, music is also an essential part of my life. In fact, music soundtracks are a big part of the studio ambience and we were very partial to the occasional Rock n Roll Friday afternoons before the pandemic. We will definitely get these going again when we’re once more all working together!

I.: What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

J.S.: Today I started my day listening to RY X, live at Royal Albert Hall with London Contemporary Orchestra, Michael Kiwanuka, some early Beastie Boys and the latest Strokes album. I love rock’n roll, however for me it is all about well-written and produced music of many different genres – blues, soul, hip-hop, classical as well as rock are the sounds I play through the day. An upside of working remotely so much during the pandemic is that I can play what I want and that has included an extensive playlist we curated for our Sleep & Eat pop-up room set at the end of 2019. This has been fabulous to listen to during the time since then. It reminds me of the last great gathering of the hospitality design industry and reassures me that there will be more to come.

N.S.:  Alternative music is my favorite genre, although we do listen to a wide range of music in the office. Personally, my favorite bands, or artists are Soundgarden, the Foo Fighters, Daft Punk and Air to name a few… Now, I’m probably showing my age!

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