Ben Kelly: "The Interior Is the Artwork!"


Ben Kelly is a London-based interior designer and the owner of a renowned interior design practice BKD (Ben Kelly Design). He is best known for creating the ground-breaking interior for Manchester’s notorious nightclub Haçienda. His extensive portfolio includes many private and public interiors in retail, leisure, museum, gallery and office sectors. Kelly’s holistic approach to materials, textures, finishes and colours linked with innovative spatial and structural solutions result in highly considered and site-specific arrangements. We caught up with the designer to find out about his student days at the Royal College of Art, his view on the relationship between art and interiors and even managed to find out about his dream interior job!

You graduated from Royal College of Art in 1974. What was it like being an art/design student in those days and what was the art scene like?


The Haçienda, Manchester. Ben Kelly Design, 1982.

It was a very exciting time. Being a student at the Royal College of Art meant that I had come to live in London from the north of England. Lots of things were happening in art, design, fashion and music. Within the first 4 weeks of arriving in London in 1971 I discovered Malcolm McLaren's and Vivienne Westwood’s shop “Let it Rock” on Kings Road. This eventually led to working with Malcolm and Vivienne on a number of different projects including working with the Sex Pistols. In the same 4 weeks I saw the full catalogue of Kenneth Anger films and a really important exhibition at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. As a student at the Royal College of Art I had access to amazing tutors and interesting people in other departments at the college.

Which artists had the biggest influence on your work and/or your outlook on life?

Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp have been the two main influences. I have retained a constant interest in Marcel Duchamp to an extent, which has almost become obsessive! He has influenced and formed my approach to my work at BKD and how I see things in life generally.

Gymbox Bank, London. Ben Kelly Design, 2008.

You have created many interiors for leisure, retail, museum, gallery and office sectors. What do you consider to be the most important elements in interior design?

This is a very difficult one to answer! The client, the brief, the budget, the site – all combine to influence the job. When it comes to the creative element of a project I would say that it is the spatial aspect of the design, which has to come first. This is developed through the plan. Materials, colour, lighting, etc, etc all combine to make the bigger picture. There is no one element that is the most important. I would say it is all about ‘attitude’ and ‘approach’.

What about the relationship between interiors and artworks? Is that important?

I don’t believe in creating an interior and then placing an artwork within the interior – unless it is absolutely appropriate. I think the interior is the artwork! I enjoy collaborating with artists to develop the interior. I am obviously influenced by the work of many artists in my own work. This is a natural process.


Gymbox Covent Garden, London. Ben Kelly Design, 2006.

Which contemporary artists are you interested in? Do you collect contemporary art?

Too many to mention! I have a number of artist friends who I respect – Fiona Banner, DJ Simpson, Bridget Smith for example. I think that they are all fantastic.

As well as creating interiors for the public sector you have completed some private commissions as well. Do you prefer working on public or private interiors?

Definitely public interiors. I used to do lots of private commissions mainly for friends many years ago. It can lead to difficulties with friendships. I do not enjoy these! It has always been my ambition to work in the public sector. I want to affect peoples lives with the interiors we create.

What would you say are the main tendencies in contemporary interior design? What do clients want?

I have no idea!! We do what we do and all the others do what they do. I am concerned that interior design has become totally commercially driven and has been hijacked by large agencies and large architectural practices. Interior design has become homogenized and bland. Everything looks the same.

If you had to create your dream interior what would it look like?

A mash up between Andy Warhol's original Silver Studio, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, Adolf Loos’ Kärntner Bar in Vienna and Frank Gehry’s house in LA!

Thank you for your time!

Images courtesy of Ben Kelly Design.


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