“What makes a building, a project, a person and/or a hotel’s design outstanding,” I ask myself as I weave between some of London’s architectural skyline statements while running embarrassingly late to meet with Jesper Thomsen. It feels like only yesterday we were both sitting down over coffee for the first time discussing the bones of what has now become the Outstanding Property Award London (OPAL).
Fast-forward to today, and I am on the jury – as well as at the helm of a very special media partnership -imminently about to be asked to identify the ‘outstanding’ from the ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unique’ – all of which are buzzwords that are overused and I struggle at the best of times to define. Considering the vast amount of innovative architectural gems that have appeared in cityscapes around the world in recent years, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the entire weight of the industry’s judgement pressing down on my shoulders. It’s an interesting concept becoming a judge, and ironic that what follows is then the feeling – or apprehension at least – of judgement. But it’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone when casting my opinion, as the awards now has significant number of jury members, all of which have been hand-selected to offer different perspectives from all corners of the industry.
By the time I make it to meet Thomsen, I have decided that, for me, something unconventional will be my winner, which is a word that I feel would best describe Thompson’s ambitions for OPAL, along with ‘bold’, ‘courageous’ and ‘about time.’
Hamish Kilburn: What was the aim when setting up OPAL?
Jesper Thomsen: The aim was created out of a passion for creativity in the property industry. We aim to highlight and celebrate the most exceptional design projects in the world, raising their awareness and honoring its creators. Buildings last for decades, sometimes centuries, they tell our history and legacy, where we come from and where we are now. They are fundamental to our existence, so it’s essential that they are well designed and serves humanity in the best way possible.
We seek to reveal projects that are not only highly creative but show useful function, provide better living experiences for its users, and meeting the clients’ expectation. Class-leading projects that demonstrate innovation and embracing new technologies, setting new trends, respecting and protecting the environment, and pushing boundaries of human ingenuity.
OPAL was established with my friend and business partner Hossein Farmani, founder of the Farmani Group of companies, who has vast experience in the design awards industry since 1985. Having worked together in the past, the award feels like a natural progression of our combined experiences.
HK: Can you tell more about your experience in the industry? What’s your story?
JT: I always wanted to become an Architect. Since a young age, I’ve been fascinated by design, and for me, architecture was the ultimate expression of human creativity and design evolution. However, my father was the third-generation owner of a printing and design practice in my native Denmark and got me interested in graphic design. At the time of A-level graduation in Denmark, I wanted to apply for the School of Architecture, but the ministry of education regulating the free admissions had almost no openings for new students due to a slump in that industry.
Instead, after one year as an apprentice in an architectural firm in Paris, I moved to London and began a Masters degree at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which related more to graphic design, I also supplemented my studies with photography. Following graduation, I was a creative director, designing websites for major companies during the dot com boom era. Here I gained considerable experience in digital marketing and branding. After a seven-year itch, I became tired of commercial design, and my love for the arts was calling.
I launched a private art gallery in Londons’ Knightsbridge, including spending one year developing and designing the gallery space. In this process, it felt like all creative aspects came together, and after completion, I would subsequently spend another seven years running the gallery exhibiting artworks by artists such as Damian Hirst and Bill Brandt.
I decided to move on from the gallery business, and fate got me involved in developing a few properties in Londons Knightsbridge, I spent nearly 3 years responsible for all operations, learning hands-on all the disciplines from interiors to architecture, planning, research, 3D modeling, materials, procuring and team management. It was a very creative period but also learning the hard way how complex the creation of properties really is. So my past really covers hugely varied types of creative practices. I’ve learned that creativity, in all its forms, is about ‘seeing’, sensing, letting your imagination unfold, and this can be applied to all its disciplines.
HK: Why is London such a significant destination to base these awards?
JT: London has always been incredibly important for creativity and design in the built environment, spanning from historical landmarks up to today’s groundbreaking contemporary designs. Some of the most famous developers, architectural firms, and interior designers, have a base here and continue to inspire and influence the global property industry. The OPAL Award is open to entries from around the world, and we want to bring outstanding projects to London and celebrate them in our fantastic capital we are so proud of.
“OPAL offers a three-way synergy between our three main entry categories; Property Development, Architecture and Interior Design.” – Jesper Thomsen
HK: What sets OPAL aside from other design awards?
JT: Many awards are confined to a single industry within the property sector; An Architecture Award, is for Architects, by Architects. An interior design award, is for interior designers, by interior designers and so on. OPAL reaches fully across the property sector. It offers a three-way synergy between our three main entry categories; Property Development, Architecture and Interior Design. These industries continuously collaborate to create exciting projects, each bringing their expertise, and combined, they deliver outstanding designs. We are also very proud of our talented jury panel who will evaluate the global entries, they are our backbone and aspiration to those who enter our award.
HK: What other destinations around the globe would you are design hotspots?
JT: It’s incredible how major cities in Asia have become design hotspots. Shanghai for example, really pushes boundaries fuelled by a concentration of industrial partners and strong government support. As the countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games draws closer, the Japanese capital is in the middle of a hotel gold rush. Anything from boutique design hotels to glittering skyscrapers, a raft of new establishments are opening or are in the pipeline. Mexico City is also one to watch after being nominated for World Design Capital last year. I love their particular design language, elegantly fusing original colonial architecture with contemporary.
HK: What’s the number one thing you cannot travel without?
JT: This is an obvious one; my laptop. It’s glued to my fingertips at all times. I travel extensively, and this enables me to run operations and be connected at all times. Oh, and an online back-up of it too.
HK: What is your favourite hotel you have ever stayed in and why?
JT: There are so many. I recently visited Extremadura, a remote and less traveled part of Spain. Here, in the historic town of Cáceres, inside its UNSECO walled city and housed in a beautifully restored 16th-century palace is the stunning hotel Atrio. Striking white minimalist architectural features blends lovingly with the old stone walls and shiny black wooden floors. The surrounding streets have no tourist shops, nor huge crowds with selfie sticks you’d typically find in places of such beauty, just quaint, peaceful alleys defined by sandstone and ivy leaf clad palaces. The rooms and amenities are styled in a fashionable 60s Scandinavian design, Miles Davies’ Blue Note years playing softly in the background, a pleasing opposition to the striking view onto the empty medieval square below. Atrio is also home to a fabulous two-starred Michelin restaurant boasting one of the finest wine cellars in the world. I thoroughly recommend a visit here.
HK: What do you look for in an outstanding property?
JT: What really excites me about a great project is when the original vision of a completed building shines like a star, its purpose is evident to the eyes and the senses. Those projects are likely to be those who have seen mostly green lights during the creation process.
HK: Where’s next on your travel bucket list?
JT: My sights are on Mongolia, away from civilisation and buildings. When I take time off, I grab my camera bag and go shooting landscapes, happy to be off-grid. No place is better for me to clear my mind than to connect with solitary, vast open expanses or wild roaring oceans.
HK: What is your favourite restaurant/bar in London at the moment?
JT: I like Aquavit in St. James. Maybe I’m a bit impartial due to my Scandinavian roots, here you can eat classic dishes such as gravid lax in a beautiful, sumptuous setting. I also like the buzz of The Ned, the physical scale of it is bars, and restaurants area is incredible. I just had a sneak peek of the yet to be launched upstairs bar and restaurant of the Standard Hotel, a funky design offering fantastic views over Londons’ city to one side and the clock tower of St. Pancras to the other, so close it feels glued onto their windows.
HK: What trend do you hope never returns?
JT: Brutalist 60s’ architecture. Its primitive obsession with concrete made an austere generation of buildings where function superseded design, creating discouraging living conditions for its users. I don’t think architects and developers of that time really understood or considered the human factor as part of a design concept, that a building serves to improve peoples lives and its environment, not just a structure to keep you dry from the rain. They are genuine eyesores and should be demolished, and only the best examples should be preserved for the record. I doubt this trend will return anytime soon due to a much better understanding of peoples needs along with technological advancements in the building industry, 3D printing, new materials and simulation methods give designers today far more freedom, flexibility, and individuality to create exciting designs.
Main image credit: OPAL