Before starting property development company YOO with iconic designer Philippe Starck in 1998, John Hitchcox had already blazed a trail with London loft living when he co-founded the Manhattan Loft Corporation with Harry Handelsman in the early Nineties. YOO now works on large-scale residential and hotel projects in more than 27 countries around the world, from Thailand and India to Russia and Peru, collaborating with designers such as Jade Jagger, Marcel Wanders and Kelly Hoppen. Here, John shares his design secrets and inspirations.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START?
I grew up in a family of creatives – my dad was an architect, my mum was very ‘crafty’ (she grew and made everything we ate and wore) and I went to a Steiner school, which worked well for my profound dyslexia and ‘outside the box’ thinking. I thought about becoming a musical conductor but, at 19, I bought a tiny house for £19,500 in Godstone, Surrey, to renovate; within five years I’d done up 350 more houses in the area.
WHAT CAME NEXT?
Transforming spaces was second nature to me – with my parents, the only day I saw a house finished was the day we moved out to start on another one… I absorbed everything. With Manhattan Loft Corporation, we started out with an old ink factory in Clerkenwell, dividing it up into shells and then helping buyers to make each space unique to them. I’m good at putting walls in the right places!
WHAT DO YOU DO AT YOO?
I call it ‘place making’. We create spaces that bring like-minded people together in well-designed buildings, which combine apartment living with inspiring communal areas for residents to socialise, exercise and entertain.
WHAT’S THE YOO MOOD?
There’s always an element of surprise and humour – bold colours, enlarged graphics and playing with scale. For larger communal areas, we celebrate the space using light, colour, scale and materials to achieve a wow effect. In smaller spaces, we go for a cosy feel, more moody and relaxed.
IS THERE A KEY STARTING POINT?
We create a backdrop of clean lines and a pared-back neutral palette. We love natural woods, especially grey-washed oak flooring from Element7. Vibrantly coloured accessories really pop against walls painted with soft grey and green tones, such as Cotton, Lead and Reseda from Paint & Paper Library.
HOW DO YOU INCLUDE UNEXPECTED TOUCHES?
We use materials in a surprising way – for example, combining a gold-mirrored ceiling above a pool or an oversized carpet made to look like timber. Playful and surreal customised graphics, printed on to drapery, tiles, cushions and even ceilings, are a big part of our style – Surface View’s bespoke printing is great for this. We also have fun changing things around – adding glam mirrored legs to a table tennis or pool table, using coloured glass to cast a glittering glow that makes people look good (Carvart is a favourite source), or parquet flooring in a zigzag herringbone design to transform a headboard. Wall&decò’s Out System wallpaper is fantastic for creating a surreal double take in exterior spaces such as terraces or pool areas.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY OF GETTING THE VIBE OF A NEW LOCATION?
When I arrive somewhere new, I hire a bicycle to get a real sense of a local neighbourhood’s nuances. Philippe once said, ‘I’m always somewhere else, in a dream, John is real-life orientated, on the ground’. We love working with local craftsmen, manufacturers and artists – for instance, our YOO2 hotel in Rio de Janeiro (the first YOO2 hotel, which opened last year) is a vibrant, colourful hotel with details such as graffiti, neon and foliage prints, to reflect the Brazilian way of life.
HOW DO YOU CREATE A WARM, HOMELY LOOK?
Mixing natural materials with graphic accents makes a space relaxing and welcoming, but with enough personality to feel alive. Great touches include statement rugs by Moooi, Floor_Story and Tai Ping (doubling up as fabulous conversation pieces), tiles laid in either blocks of colour or to create patterns such as bold stripes and customising joinery with colour incorporated behind shelving to add an extra layer of interest.
WHAT OTHER TEXTURES DO YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH?
We play with contrasts – dark timbers against cast concrete; natural stone used in oversized pieces (Domus does big-format porcelain versions of expensive stones when budgets are tight); natural linens and cottons from C&C Milano and Elitis teamed with matt, short-pile cotton velvets from Dedar. We bring in pattern via fabrics from Gastón y Daniela and Kvadrat.
AND FOR A BIT OF FUN?
Our go-to favourites include Philippe’s Masters Chair for Kartell both indoors and out, lighting such as Jasper Morrison’s Superloon floor lamp for Flos or Normann Copenhagen’s Bell pendants and Magis’s Puppy stools by Eero Aarnio.
WHAT’S A SIMPLE TRICK TO MAKE A BIG IMPACT?
We love a graphic hit of black and white – anything by Fornasetti, even just one plate or candle can transform a room with an element of wit, humour and surprise. But keep it simple – just one or two pieces are better than overloading a space with too many things fighting for attention.
WHAT’S NEW FOR YOO?
We’ve just completed YOO on the Park in Atlanta, an innovative rental community, and Oh, Quito in Ecuador, Marcel Wanders’s first residential project with YOO, which includes an open-air roof cinema, opened last November. Upcoming projects include yet more residences in Miami’s rejuvenated Brickell district (featuring penthouses with views overlooking Biscayne Bay), a residential and hotel complex in Sri Lanka and a four-tower residential development within a vertical garden in the heart of Panama City.
FINALLY, WHEN YOU NEED A BREAK, WHERE DO YOU ESCAPE TO?
The Lakes by YOO in the Cotswolds, where I have my second home. It’s a magical place – people often come to stay for a holiday and end up buying a house because they never want to leave.