Globe-trotting British designer Katharine Pooley talks about how her move into luxury interior design was sparked in Singapore, and how her years in banking gave her the discipline and skills to build an international business.

(Apr 15): Award-winning British designer Katharine Pooley has travelled to almost every country on the planet. She has a thirst for adventure while on holiday, having crossed the Sahara on horseback and ridden a dog-sled to the North Pole. However, it is tiny Singapore, where she lived for three years, that is among her favourite places in the world.

Pooley loves the city state’s greenery and gastronomy, but what makes it special is the fact that it was here that she made the leap from banking to interior design (ID). Since then, she has built up a portfolio that ranges from villas in the Middle East to a boutique hotel in China. Her client list includes the super rich and celebrities such as Janet Jackson and Richard Branson.

Today, Pooley runs a 47-strong design studio out of London but still travels extensively as she has no less than 42 projects at the moment, mostly in locations far from the UK such as Qatar and Hong Kong. She was in Singapore at end-March as part of a working visit in Asia that included Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Shanghai.

“Seventy five to eighty per cent of my work is overseas, which is a good thing. Because with Brexit ongoing, the [interior design] world in the UK does suffer,” she tells Options in an interview at the Ambassador Suite at The Four Seasons. Pooley has just wrapped up her largest project to date, a 500,000 sq ft hotel in Shaoxing, which lies 200km south of Shanghai. The hotel is located trackside at the Zhejiang Circuit, a motorsport destination, and the owner wanted a modern and masculine feel for the interiors. That allowed Pooley to experiment with contemporary, edgy furnishings as well as immersive touches such as race track lines along the ceilings and floors.

Working in East Asia is second nature to Pooley, who spent 14 years in Hong Kong carving out a career in the field of human resources and business consulting. She arrived in the territory as a headhunter for Drake International, a Canadian-based firm that helps companies manage their human capital. After six years, she moved to Morgan Stanley, where she was in charge of the global bank’s staffing for eight years. “Hong Kong is my second home,” she says. Currently, Pooley has several big-ticket design contracts there, including a mansion in Discovery Bay, a commercial building in Causeway Bay and two properties on The Peak. “It’s booming,” she says of Hong Kong.

At home in the Gulf Greater China may be a sweet spot for Pooley but it is luxury addresses in the Middle East that have propelled the brand since its inception 15 years ago. Pooley has extensive business in the region and she currently has an office in Doha, Qatar, which serves as her international base, as well as smaller franchises in Dubai and Kuwait. “I feel very relaxed in the Middle East,” says Pooley.

Middle Eastern residences, such as this villa in Doha, make up the bulk of Pooley’s overseas business

One reason is that she has been travelling to the region since childhood, visiting her mother who has lived in Bahrain for the last 42 years. Her familiarity with the region, its cultural sensitivities and its lifestyle preferences has helped her forge long-standing relationships with property owners there. Pooley estimates that the Middle East makes up about 65% of her overseas business today.

She has an international aesthetic, gained from her exposure to the different design and décor elements in the countries she visits. Interiors that harmonise different cultures are a Pooley trademark. Her years in Hong Kong opened her eyes to the fusion of East and West, while discoveries in different cultures such as gemstones from Myanmar or handcrafted ceramics in Iran have given her the ability to create exotic décor pairings. Her touch can be seen in abodes as diverse as a six-storey redeco rated townhouse in central London’s Mayfair, a cliff-edge home in Cape Town and a show-stopping villa on Dubai’s Palm Islands.

For Pooley, luxury design is about being bespoke. While many clients, especially those in the Middle East, want their homes fitted out in high-end brands such as Fendi or Hermès, she says it is getting easier to source once-exclusive items. The Maison & Objet Fair, a biannual trade fair previously accessible only to those in the lifestyle, decoration and décor businesses, is now open to the public, she points out. As such, to create unique interiors for her clients, she includes special touches such as incorporating vellum, a fine material made from calf skin, into furniture.

Travel in her blood
Wanderlust appears to be in her DNA. Her father Robert served in the Royal Air Force and was an intrepid traveller. “He would think nothing of getting into his car and driving from Europe to, say, Nepal,” she recalls. Pooley got her wings early: As a baby, her father would take her into his Cessna for a flight. Now in his eighties and still working — he has a business supplying military swords globally — Robert remains a source of entrepreneurial inspiration as well as exotic expeditions.

“I have a travel face-off with Dad each year,” says Pooley, laughing. “He’s done a lot of extreme travel. But I’ve been to more countries.” On top of their bucket list is a trip to the Pitcairn Islands, a group of volcanic islands near Easter Island that are the most remote British overseas territory in the South Pacific Ocean.

Exploring new places and cultures has long been a central theme in Pooley’s life. Design was not her first choice of career. Inspired by the BBC’s chief news correspondent Kate Adie, who reported from war-torn zones, she pursued French and journalism at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquees in Lyon, France. Her first job was an internship with Reuters in Bahrain.

On her return to the UK, she took a job with Drake International, which threw her into the world of people management, performance metrics and corporate trouble shooting. It was a “fantastic job” that took her not just to Hong Kong but all over the globe. “It was very hard work but I learnt a lot,” she says.

Following that, Pooley worked with Morgan Stanley. While in Hong Kong, she was set up on a blind date with former British professional tennis player Daniel Voyce. After their marriage, Pooley left banking and moved to Singapore in 2002, where Voyce lived.

The couple settled into a sprawling colonial-era house on Chatsworth Road with their four dogs. It proved to be a pivotal chapter for Pooley. They bought four properties on four continents and from her black-and-white home in Singapore, Pooley began dressing up the residences. In the process, she discovered a knack for the trade, from dealing with contractors and budgeting to finding suppliers of unique home furnishings.

Hard work and EQ
In 2004, the couple returned to the UK and Pooley set up a boutique in central London showcasing luxury objets d’art and furniture sourced from the many craftsmen, souks and lifestyle shops she had unearthed on her trips. Soon, friends and associates began to request for her bespoke services, and she evolved from a one-woman design outfit into a team of designers and interior architects that handled project management, architecture and interior design, right down to the smallest accessories.

The London boutique showcases homeware sourced and designed by Pooley

Aside from homes, Pooley has also designed the VIP and Royal suites at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 and restored the derelict Forter Castle in Scotland, which her father bought. Over the years, she has picked up several industry awards and built a loyal following, with repeat customers making up 90% of her commissions. This has not come merely from having a good eye; Pooley believes her time in the corporate world has helped.

Pooley restored the interior of Forter Castle in Scotland

“Running an ID business is not just about hanging curtains,” she says. “You’ve got to be great at accounts; you’ve got to work out the finances.” Clients do not just want to talk about fabrics and wallpaper. They often ask her for advice on budgets, among other things. The demanding world of global investment banking also prepared her for the sheer effort needed to build a business. “Banking taught me about hard work, about discipline,” she notes.

That ethic drives Pooley to be handson with every project her firm takes on, even if it means she is on the road virtually every month. “It’s my name above the door,” she notes. It helps that Pooley can get by with just four to six hours of sleep a night and has learnt to cope with jet lag, despite not being able to sleep on planes. “Don’t go to sleep when you land,” she advises. “Just drive through it.”

Pooley also put to good use the skills picked up “dealing with intelligent people who can be snappy and demanding” during her years in banking and HR. “Running a business is also about public relations,” she states. Aside from the EQ needed to deal with clients and suppliers, Pooley knows the value of putting a face to the brand and can regularly be found speaking at industry shows such as Decorex. With two children aged seven and nine, travel these days is less hair-raising. “I used to jump out of airplanes and fly helicopters,” she recalls. Now, holidays are typically a child-friendly beach vacation in Mauritius or skiing at Christmas. However, the adventurer in her has not totally vanished. In October, she is taking her sons on a voyage to the Arctic to see the polar bears.

And, despite recently having knee replacement surgery, Pooley also plans to do a 100-mile trek across South Africa later this year. In between, there will be the overseas trips to monitor projects, including one in Singapore where she is decorating an apartment at the St Regis Villas for a repeat client. “I’d really like to do more in Singapore,” she says of the place where her design journey began.

Sunita Sue Leng was an associate editor with The Edge Singapore