The Spirit and Vision Behind the Varana Store

William Russell needs little introduction. A partner of the design firm Pentagram, his twenty years’ architectural experience has meant he’s worked with clients across the globe from Alexander McQueen to Christian Louboutin, Margaret Howell to Lloyds of London, Coutts to Tate Gallery.

William takes the interview at his offices in Pentagram, a creative open-planned space filled with a quiet buzz. He’s taller than expected, with a kind and humble demeanour. He walks in with his small dog Rollo bounding enthusiastically by his side. “I bring him to work with me,” he says. “He gets to meet everyone. He loves it.” 

Sujata Keshavan, co-founder and Creative Director of Varana, first approached William Russell with the vision for the Varana store. The process started with phone calls between Sujata in India and William in the UK, and then face-to-face meetings. The impression is of a meeting of two creative minds that worked in harmony. “The conversation was easy with Sujata,” William says. “We made sketches and talked about ideas for the space. These ideas were of a warm but minimalist store, a serene space that combined a living room feel with a gallery. How did William take the vision and turn it into a design process?

“It’s an intuitive thing,” he says, pouring coffee into a cup, “nonlinear. I start with the spirit of the vision. Ideas come from many areas and coalesce into something coherent – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Which one was it with Varana? “Quick,” he replies confidently. “Partly because Sujata approached me with a good brief that was very clear on how she wanted to use the space – what she wanted and what she didn’t want.”

What Sujata wanted in her brief was a warm but timeless room, blending gallery minimalism with the cosy feel of a home. She wanted a seating arrangement like a drawing room in each floor, with a feel that emanated serenity. The colour scheme should be largely monochromatic with a creamy-beige colour palette being used, evoking a luxury store without being intimidating. What she didn’t want was a generic space with too many reflective or hard-edged surfaces. This also included an aesthetic that was too strongly Indian in its patterns and fixtures.

Where does he get his inspiration from? “I don’t know.” He laughs and pauses for a moment. “I suppose I get inspiration from everywhere. Movie set designs. Renaissance paintings. I do a lot of travelling mainly through work, so I take inspiration from places I go. It’s about building up a library in your head and joining the dots. For the Varana space, there was a church or monastery in Florence where they’d wrapped the stone from the floor up to the walls – that flowing feel gave me inspiration. In the store we used an oak floor with a coat of oil on it to make it blend into the French limestone walls, so everything feels quite continuous.”

Did he have the Varana logo in mind, the idea of water flowing across time? “Not consciously!” he says, his face lighting up. “But subconsciously, probably yes.”How much did he consider the Varana clothes when designing the store? “I always think the product should be the hero. The store design should come secondary to that. But the store can also have a real personality and communicate thoughts even subconsciously about what the brand is and that’s quite a key thing actually. The subconscious flowing of the space. For Varana we used as limited palette as we could get away with – stone, wood, white. But then we had some stand out pieces like the solid brass, hexagonal rails that give the store a richness, in a restrained way.”

The building for Varana was originally a much darker Alexander McQueen store with narrow walls and steps that climbed from the basement to the first floor with a raw concrete finish. William and Sujata decided early on that the stairs had to go because they weren’t in-keeping with Varana’s airy vision and took up a lot of space. Instead, they transformed the fire exit stairs that spiralled up the building into a main staircase. “The lowness of the ceiling was a challenge,” William adds, sipping his coffee. “The space is like a Georgian townhouse, narrow in width and deep. We put lighting detail on the sides of the walls to give it space. But it needed something in the depth of the store that would pull people through, so there’d be a sense of arrival when you get there.”

That’s when William suggested what Sujata calls ‘a stroke of genius’ – a skylight at the end of the building, framed by a big tree. Was the process straightforward? “No!” he replies enthusiastically with a chuckle. He explains how the team had to bend and alter the metal framework of the building’s ceiling in order to fit the skylight. But was it worth it? He smiles. “Absolutely. What you gain from it and placing a tree at the end is magical. For me the moment of quiet joy in the Varana store is the skylight. And the beautiful bronze pot upstairs which is an extraordinary object really, a traditional Indian piece that gives a moment of strangeness but fits in with the room beautifully.”