When architects take on the interiors of a project, too, the results can be incredibly satisfying in their sense of completeness. For Julie Palma Engels of the Brussels practice Studio P Architects, “what we design outside needs to be as important as what we design inside. To us, one cannot live without the other.” Materials and finishes harmonise with the envelope of the building, and attention to detail means that the practical and the beautiful are as one; the studio also likes to work with landscape designers, “to integrate our architecture into its surrounding in the best possible way,” says Palma Engels.
The architect is known for her work in the residential sector, but her career didn’t start off that way. She set up her studio in 2010, when she had just moved from Chicago to New York City; with a recession in full swing, she had stopped looking for roles at the large architecture firms that had until then sustained her (having previously worked for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on large corporate projects) and ended up doing something on a slightly smaller scale. “I took a sabbatical year and started working on my sister’s house,” she says. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I will forever be grateful for the trust they gave me. Suddenly, clients started to call to ask me to do their house, and that’s how Studio P LLC was born.”
A move back to her native Belgium in 2015 saw the business rebranded as Studio P Architects, and the start of a run of incredible private houses in Brussels and beyond. She now runs a team of nine, including freelancers, who work across both architecture and interior design. “Today I get to do so many more things than when I was alone in my kitchen and that is thanks to my wonderful multidisciplinary team. Each has his or her own strengths and they complement each other,” says Palma Engels. The large materials library is run by interior designer Louise Jaussaud, who meets new suppliers and keeps everyone up to date on the latest products and innovations.
The practice’s willingness to seek out new things springs from its design ethos: “We do not like to copy and paste from one project to another; we take pride in always pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone. We go for uniqueness,” says Palma Engels. Her own home certainly lives up to this: an art deco house in the Rhode-St-Genese neighbourhood south of Brussels, it combines restored original features, such as a cast-iron front door and oak parquet flooring, with modern interventions including a sinuous helical staircase and a marble-clad kitchen and bathroom.
When it comes to sourcing, Palma Engels says that she looks all over the world for suppliers, using social media to track down interesting firms. Working in the luxury market, however, it’s also important to see and touch the products in person, to assess their quality and for clients to get a feel for what they like: “We go with clients to showrooms and really help them in the process of choosing materials. It’s better than a catalogue.”
The studio works closely with its clients from the beginning. A typical workflow, says Palma Engels, would see a kick-off meeting to understand their needs, from which a programme emerges that frames how the spaces will be organised and used. “The next step is for us to create a moodboard that we will present to the client, and when that’s approved, we start designing the project,” says Palma Engels. “For some projects we skip the moodboard, because the clients give us carte blanche within the design” – and It says a lot about the success of her practice that she is trusted enough for this to happen.
Studio P’s favourite space to design is the kitchen..
The advantages of having your architect also work on your interiors is never more apparent than in Studio P’s kitchen designs, which are architectural in their approach – that is, they focus on how the whole room flows and functions, not just the cabinetry. “We love designing kitchens,” says Palma Engels. “We always ask clients how they live and try to cater as much to their needs. A good design always needs be practical.”
That said, she also says that she loves to create a statement with the kitchen, achieved through elements such as unusual materials, interesting lighting or showpiece appliances. For Studio P’s Residence VF project, a residential renovation in Brussels, the island, worktops and splashback are made from incredibly striking marble from Il Granito, its opulence tempered by plain white cabinetry, minimal lighting sourced from 100%Light and walls in All White by Farrow & Ball; the green veining of the marble is picked up in the velvet chairs of the adjacent dining area. When it comes to the must-haves that she tries to include in every kitchen, Palma Engels says it’s all about “asculptural Island [and a] huge fridge with ice-cube production. Plus, never forget a good spice rack.”