When Róisín Lafferty started out in interior design, she sought employment at one of the big London firms. That didn’t work out: with no real-world experience during a highly competitive time, she couldn’t get a gig. It turns out to have been the best outcome. Twelve years after founding her own practice, Kingston Lafferty Design, she has built a reputation and garnered accolades both in Ireland and internationally for her richly layered interiors — especially residences animated by daring colour-blocking and material combinations, as well as bold bespoke furnishings and millwork. One of her early projects, Bolton Coach House, already feels iconic simply for the long pink sofa that hugs one of its dramatically linear rooms; Lovers Walk, her most recently completed home, features saturated hues and plush jewel tones that dial in to the current obsession with all things ’70s.
For Lafferty, it’s really about the person whose spatial reality she is envisioning. “It’s probably the interior architecture aspect that I love the most, that understanding of space and how you can enhance behaviour through design,” she told Azure. Now with a staff of 15 (including Lafferty), her firm is designing a whole new batch of residential, retail and hospitality projects, including a series of luxury tree houses for a hotel in Cork, Ireland. At a time when blond-wood interiors are the domain of minimalist designers everywhere, Lafferty’s signature style is in great demand. Azure Editor in Chief Elizabeth Pagliacolo chatted with Róisín Lafferty recently to find out how she crafts her exuberant home interiors.
When you started your firm in 2010, how did you get your first commissions?
It was the height of the recession in Ireland when I graduated. So I did a master’s in product design in London, at Kingston University. And after that, there weren’t really any practices in Ireland that I wanted to work in. There were firms in London, like Studioilse, but even to get internships, you needed so much experience. The reason I started Kingston Lafferty Design initially was to get some real hands-on experience first, to then go back and apply to companies like that. The earlier jobs were so small, and they came through word of mouth, friends of friends, relatives.
Can you describe some of those first projects?
Susanna Kingston, my former partner, and I did a bathroom showroom and a small house renovation, and then we got a really large and architectural project. We ended up being the lead designers and had to put together the professional team: structural engineer, environmentalists, mechanical and electrical. We were so out of our depth! And I would say that those three projects are where we learned the reality: I was getting to strip out physical buildings and actually study in real life how the different circuits work, how the plumbing works, and understand the impact of our design decisions.
That large Georgian house was a conservation project as well, so we were scrutinized by Dublin City Council. I’d almost look at it like a PhD: It took about four years to do and we were either going to massively fall on our face or it was going to go well. It went well, eventually, and made us both realize that we could do this. It felt like we really understood that connection between this whimsical concept and the application to site and budget and building constraints — which is not really taught in school.
Along the way, you developed a very distinct aesthetic, one that embraces colour. How did that distinct Róisín Lafferty style come about, and where did you build the confidence to put that style forward into the world?
I was always quite concept-driven and wanted to create dynamic, exciting, unexpected spaces, but it’s been a long journey to instill that confidence and reassurance in the clients that we work with. I wanted for people to use their imagination, to show that you don’t have to have a house that looks a certain way. In Ireland, it’s quite methodical, and the housing estates are all very formulaic, repetitive and soulless. I just wanted to show an element of playfulness: It’s your home; you can express yourself.
We’ve certainly developed design principles and a design language — how we create spatial definition, the framed views, the portals and secret doors, an element of colour blocking and clean lines — but the aesthetic depends on the client’s goals as well, and we don’t want to be repeating ourselves all the time. One thing we used to get a lot was, “Yeah, that sounds great, but can you show me a photo of where you did it before?” We’d be like, “No, that’s the whole point. We haven’t.”
And now people trust the idea, and that’s wonderful. Because for us to excel at what we do, it’s about the relationships we have with people. We were thinking about what word captures the projects we want to do and the people we want to work with, and it’s “enrichment.” We want to enrich the people we work with, but we want to feel enriched as well.
You’re creating these very beautiful and layered interiors. Do you ever get to revisit any of them? How are people living in them or making them their own over time?
We do, actually. A home is only ever a home when people are living in it. And, realistically, we could be working on a house for three to four years: We design the space, then the joinery. We select every material that goes in it. We pick every piece of art, furniture, styling, everything over a long period of time. But then, ultimately, it’s still just static. We want it to be lived in.
It’s so much nicer when people are in there, with music playing and smells in the kitchen — those things bring it all to life. Otherwise, it could just be a showroom. And that’s what we try to avoid, even when we are given that much freedom that we pick absolutely everything that’s in it. It needs to feel tactile and have depth and richness. So we are always looking at the materials to make sure that they get more beautiful as they wear and age, so it’s not too precious.
Are you using mostly natural materials?
I prefer when we use the real material. I love timber floors that have quite a raw-looking finish to them, rather than high polish, so that all those grooves will wear over time. The same with stone. Even if it stains and wears, it will have character, right? You walk around Italy and there are whole buildings and hotels and roads that have worn, eroded stone. And it’s still so beautiful.
The same with timber joinery. I do use a lot of not-natural finishes — I do love resin and high-gloss lacquer — but the base needs to be really durable. Even with metals, we veer away from having lacquer on them to have that nice, live metal that will change over time and develop that patina. It’s less perfect, but it’s more realistic for how people live.
One of the most surprising uses of material I’ve seen is in the kitchen of your Lovers Walk residence.
That is probably the bravest kitchen anyone in Ireland has ever commissioned. It is very out there. The starting point for the home, however, was the central wooden stairwell, which was done in the ’70s in a deliberate style — not something that we would’ve put there — in a quite saturated orange tone. But we decided to celebrate it. And we started looking at mahogany, which is a traditional finish, and different timbers that are much more vibrant than we’d normally use. We actually brought out the red tone in the mahogany with a slightly red-tinted stain. Initially, the stone was going to be much more muted, like a microcement or a tile. And I remember suggesting that stone, thinking it would be absolutely rejected, but it wasn’t. So you’ve got the pink and mauve countertop set against this saturated red — and it shouldn’t work. And I think probably a lot of people hate it, but it’s so beautiful and so striking and really just suits that house.
How do you test out these types of juxtaposition?
You have to touch the materials. It can’t just be two-dimensional, because you just don’t get the real feeling of things. So we will start every project with sketches, mood boards and spatial layouts, but very quickly after that, we do a full samples presentation with many more samples than we’re going to use, just to really gauge the client’s initial reaction. Immediately, when someone can pick something up and touch it, they either love it or they hate it. And then, even before construction or manufacturing begins on anything, we would bring the final material selection to the site with the drawings and we’d do a full review of it again in each room with the natural light from that room. We do more and more visualizations now, but although they can be so realistic, with a render, you’re still not getting the depth.
You’ve also designed private clinics and restaurants. How do the commercial projects you’re doing influence your residential design and vice versa?
It all influences each other. I love the mix as well; it’s really important that we do both and don’t get pigeonholed into one. For me, with commercial, it hinges on a concept more obviously than a home would. From a design perspective, that’s really fun, because you almost don’t have to be governed. Yes, you need to abide by the functional requirements, but you don’t need to be governed by any traditional comforting element that your home would. But what informs our residential work is the materiality, allowing us to broaden our thinking on that. Stainless steel, terrazzo stone, mixing things in an unexpected way, even if that’s in joinery and things like it. Again, it doesn’t have to be as methodical and prescriptive as people think. There are options.
Another project I want to celebrate is the Bolton Coach House. Obviously, the actual existing building was so special, but I love how you emphasized the linearity of the rooms with the long, pink couch and the long, blue-tiled table that extends from indoors to out.
Bolton Coach House is probably one of my more special ones — for me, personally. The clients really trusted us again and gave us the freedom when it came to the actual spatial configuration. So where that pink sofa banquette is, that was going to be a bathroom, and you weren’t going to be able to access that vault. And the levels weren’t going to be emphasized anywhere.
Instead, I wanted to move the toilet to the middle of the extension, which seemed strange, but it allowed us to create this two-tiered space with that banquette — you can almost fall into that seating from the top bench — and to make it this playful interjection that emphasizes the architecture, which is quite raw and industrial. And I really wanted that balance to be achieved by the softness and the scale as well. The red light we chose is clashing with the pink, but it almost looks like a child’s toy set into what is quite a raw period building. And we used mirrors to make it look endless and a lot more dramatic.
Did the pandemic force you to change your design approach and relationships with clients?
It made people appreciate the importance of home more. A lot of our clients would be very busy, but the pandemic forced everyone to sit still and really inhabit the spaces that they are in. And those spaces were put under a lot more pressure than they would’ve ever experienced. They would need to be multi-functional, need to offer different experiences to try and keep people sane during lockdown. Ultimately, it made people appreciate their home more — they wanted it to be a reflection of themselves, and they want it to function at its highest level. With that, I think people appreciate design more. And suddenly, all those clutter rooms — no one wants to do that anymore. They want everything to be well-considered.
The Dublin-based doyenne of interior design reveals the secrets of her many successes.