Visiting a great restaurant isn't just about the food. It's about the place, the space, the lighting and so many other factors that go beyond the sense of taste. David Collins, who has died of skin cancer, was one of those people who worked behind the scenes to create that multi-sensory dining experience, putting his stamp on so many of London's finest eateries and bars.
Collins was born in 1955 in Dublin, one of four children. His grandfather was involved in housing and his father was an architect, so he saw design as "in his genes". Collins recalled of his childhood how he "loved books about silent movie stars and photography and set design", which would be so much an influence for his later life. "I was quite a precocious child." His parents' quality of life was mirrored in his own aspirations "When I was growing up my parents always wanted the very best of what was affordable or feasible. If they did something they always wanted to do it well. And I'm the same."
He studied at the Bolton School of Architecture in Dublin and got his first major design commission by chance.He had just completed an interior for a friend of the chef Pierre Koffmann, who, impressed by the finished work, then offered Collins the opportunity to refurbish his restaurant La Tante Claire, in Chelsea. Shortly afterwards, in 1988, he was invited by Marco Pierre White to help with a refresh of Harvey's, which went on to be named that year's Times Restaurant of the Year.
In 1985 he founded the David Collins Studio as a platform for his work. Since then he and his team of 30 staff have worked on a large number of projects nationally and internationally. But it is for his work on bars and restaurants in London that he has become best known. A friend and colleague at the studio, who had worked with him for 13 years, said, "He changed the way in which people go out and go to bars." She spoke of him as "a mentor and inspiration to people all over the world. An absolute perfectionist, he always knew what it was that people wanted."
Collins himself acknowledged this sense of perfection. "Maybe I've got some sort of Asperger's Syndrome but I can always tell the size of a table or the length of a room or the height of a ceiling just by looking at them," he said. "I think the mathematical whirrings of my brain make me aspire to create spaces that look well-proportioned, well-structured and comfortable to move through."
In person, Collins reflected his design work, impeccably dressed, and as stylish as the interiors he created. He understood about a kind of luxury which went beyond mere brand names, creating these interiors which looked as if they had always been there. In all his work Collins recognised the need to balance traditional architecture with modern technical requirements and regulations. For example, working on The Gilbert Scott, a Marcus Wareing restaurant in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, he said: "Our design is a subtle intervention. Heritage buildings need to be considered carefully: the furniture, the palette, the artwork – the restaurant needs to be contemporary and acknowledge the significance of its surroundings."
His signature work, in his favourite colour, was the Blue Bar in Belgravia. In this space the carpet, walls and furniture are all in what Collins called Lutyens Blue (after the room's designer). The effect is to create a cool, open space in what is only a 50-seat room. Marcus Wareing said of the Blue Bar that it was a place that "wasn't about its size. It was about its style."
Fiona Golfar, editor-at-large at Vogue, said, "The things that mattered to David, as much as style and the right shade of blue, were his loyal and long-lasting circle of friends, who were like his family. You could always count on him to tell you what's what, to pay you a compliment, to tell you off, to break a diet with a scone or a cake, or to play cards with you. He involved you in all of his life. He adored glamour and beautiful things, and was always rushing off to Loro Piana to buy his mother something fabulous. He had a great sense of humour – he could make you cry with laughter."
Last year, the Delaunay Hotel, on which Collins had worked, won "Best New Restaurant" at the Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards. Jeremy King and Chris Corbin of Rex Restaurant Associates told The Independent: "David Collins worked with us from 1998 on five very distinctive restaurants – J Sheekey, The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Brasserie Zédel and Colbert. David understood restaurants so much more intuitively than almost any other interior designer and we like to think he produced much of his best work for us, primarily because, as he said himself, he enjoyed a rigorous collaboration. We often disagreed but we always knew that whenever we insisted on our solution he would gracefully comply and then enhance our ideas!"
David Collins, interior designer: born Dublin 1 March 1955; died London 17 July 2013.