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Talking to Francesca Heathcote Sapey

Talking to Francesca Heathcote Sapey

MARCH 2023 | 7 minutes

"The biggest, and perhaps banal and common to many companies, challenge of the study is to allow its evolution to be organic and its transformation process to respond to the changing needs of the sector in an innovative, cutting-edge and contemporary way". 


After studying design and urban planning in London, where she later worked in an urban planning consultancy for several years, Francesca Heathcote is now a partner in the architecture and design studio founded by her mother, Teresa Sapey, in 1990, Teresa Sapey + Partners. Together they work for large hotel chains, such as Radisson, Room Mate, Petit Palace or NhOW, and well-known brands, such as Reebok, Ikea or Gancedo, as well as for the luxury residential sector. 

There is a lot of talk about hybrid spaces, but are cities and societies ready for them? As an urban planner, where should cities evolve to adapt to and facilitate the changes brought about by new patterns of living? 

We live in a world that is constantly and rapidly changing, so the need to design and create hybrid and flexible spaces is fundamental, as well as an architectural and spatial response to the great need to generate more sustainable environments, creating versatile and multi-faceted spaces that can be reused and recycled more easily. I believe that cities, businesses, and people have been ready for this for a long time, because, at their core, they are spatial typologies that respond to social needs and ambitions. For us, designing hybrid spaces does not mean saying yes to everything, but it does imply proposing strategic, sustainable and inclusive solutions. And, very importantly, versatility should not become an excuse to drastically reduce the dimensions of dwellings or offices.

From the city to the building, the changes experienced in recent years have brought with them a reinvention of hospitality environments as multipurpose places with endless possibilities. How has the studio experienced this change? What are the main trends in this sector?

In the hospitality sector we are seeing the accentuation of four trends that have been making their way for several years now: 

Every hotel, even those belonging to large chains, wants a 'differentiating concept', an identity of its own that the project embodies through design and architecture in order to offer different and unique experiences;
The integration of technological solutions that are easy to use and accessible to users to optimise and improve the quality of the experience;

The concept of 'mixed-use' applied to the hotel and, therefore, the incorporation of diverse spaces and functions for both the client and the local citizen, ranging from coworking areas, meeting rooms, gyms, etc. The notion of 'KM0' applied to design through a careful selection of finishes, suppliers, furniture, amenities, etc., and which emphasises the importance of the local culture in this type of project. 

How have these changes affected the residential sector and what are the main characteristics of the new homes? 

We have seen how the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of a series of changes in the residential sector as well. The house has suddenly become a hybrid space that functions as a cinema, restaurant, school, gymnasium, home office.... It is a very stimulating moment to develop new concepts of the home: more human, fairer, more welcoming, more liveable, and more hybrid. Housing is once again taking centre stage, at a time when personalised and measure-made housing for all types of families and needs is being reclaimed.

Although a priori the luxury residential sector may seem opposed to the philosophy of coliving, the studio has worked on projects that combine both concepts. What has been your experience? 

A few years ago we finished developing a luxury housing development in Madrid where we decided to take advantage of the common areas to outsource some uses, such as the spa, the gym, the wine cellar or the cinema, and thus make better use of the private square metres of each of the homes. 

Although we are aware of how luxury is intensifying, at the studio we are also living and working on projects that provide for a democratisation of quality in which we firmly believe. High quality projects can be carried out without being luxury, and it is essential to defend the importance of access to it, especially in housing and in the spaces that we all inhabit in our daily lives. 

Modular' and 'customisable' are two terms that we hear a lot lately. Although a priori they seem incompatible, you have managed to combine them in your projects. Is it possible to customize from the modular?

Of course it is. For us, modular is not synonymous with homogeneous. In fact, we have just launched an industrialised home for Ecotech House, the Apolo House, where there are three main distribution options and all the finishes, colours, bathroom fittings, taps and many other elements are completely customisable. And although the 'modular' concept is now very much in vogue, for us it is usually synonymous with a 'practical' solution, especially in new residential projects and hotels.

You have gone from designing cities from London to creating spaces, even objects, at Teresa Sapey + Partners. Can furniture facilitate hybrid uses that are at the same time unique? How do you incorporate other disciplines, such as art or furniture design, into architecture to create memorable spaces in these new lifestyles that demand more creativity and versatility?

The history of furniture is fascinating and each design or object arises in response to a specific need or function. Today, the need to produce hybrid furniture responds on the one hand to contemporary spatial and social demands, while at the same time allowing it to be reused in a more efficient and obvious way. It is important to highlight how 'hybrid' does not mean anonymous and a hybrid design can be unique at the same time. 

Every project, for us, is unique. We always try to make our starting point multidisciplinary, approaching each new project by listening and looking at it from different perspectives and disciplines. Art, music, history, fashion, anthropology... we live in a multifaceted world, and if we want to project for this world, we have to start from diversity and land on it. 

How can a space make us feel? Can spaces become experiences of wellbeing? What role do aspects that until recently were secondary and have become essential, such as colour, nature, smells and textures, play in this?

Spaces can make us feel in many different ways, and how we make people feel through our designs and the kind of experiences we create are major responsibilities and even pillars of our studio's philosophy. All the elements that create, as a whole, that space, that experience and those sensations, are important and have to go hand in hand to create a place of well-being. Colour, nature, smells and textures are not final touches, they are discussed, thought and valued from the beginning of the project and hand in hand with other aspects such as light, ventilation, space or circulation. It is essential to be clear about the purpose of each space and its raison d'être.

As designers and architects, do you include design from a gender perspective in your projects and creative processes? Is the gender perspective a tool that identifies and makes these inequalities visible, and allows you to design more inclusive spaces?

In our projects we try to incorporate all kinds of inclusive and accessible perspectives. We firmly believe in the diversity of perspectives, in the importance of their representation in everyday space, and in their communication through design. But it is essential not to be complacent, it is not enough to represent inequality in space for it to be accepted or equalised. It is one more step, but it goes hand in hand with multiple strategies that have to take place at various scales.

As the second generation of the studio, what are the challenges and opportunities ahead, where would you like to take Teresa Sapey's legacy? 

It is an honour to be the second generation of my mother's studio and to do it with her by my side, guiding me, teaching me, accompanying me through her genius in the day-to-day running of the studio. I think it is a unique opportunity because it is about living in a constant and enriching dialogue with her, with our team, with our clients, with the places we work in, with the disciplines we cover.... I have always been a firm believer in the power of dialogue and I have always been a great sceptic of monologues.

In terms of opportunities, we are consolidating the new image of the studio: two women, two generations, two personalities, mother and daughter, at the head of a great brand, on the one hand; and opening up new markets and new countries, on the other. We have never been as present in Italy as we are now.

I hope to be able, together with Teresa and the team, to allow the legacy to continue, to evolve, to grow and to never stop considering how to bring added value through each of its interventions.

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