Francis Sultana: The AD100 designer on his favourite projects

Ellen Millard

7 May 2021

Since founding his eponymous practice in 2009, Francis Sultana has become one of the world's most sought-after interior designers, amassing a high-net worth clientele that spans the globe. As he sets to work on a new hotel project in Capri, he discusses his inspirations, design pet peeves and love of art.

7 May 2021 | Ellen Millard

If ever there was an argument for letting your children watch too much TV, Francis Sultana is it. It was shows such as Dallas and Dynasty that inspired the interior designer's very first project, his aunt’s house in Gozo, Malta, which he designed, rather remarkably, when he was just seven years old. “I was already being influenced by interior design as a little boy,” Sultana recalls. “Malta was very heavily socialist at the time and we didn’t have very much; those TV series were like opening a window into a world of success. I always say to my friends now, be careful what you let your children watch because they could end up like me.”

Something tells me they wouldn’t be too upset if that were the case. An AD100 designer who founded his eponymous studio 12 years ago, Sultana has become one of the foremost interior designers for the super rich, creating homes and superyachts for clients such as Madonna and Annie Lennox, as well as commercial spaces for brands including jeweller Fawaz Gruosi.

When he’s not orchestrating projects in New York, France and the UK, he’s designing his furniture collection, which is updated annually and starts from £4,000 for lighting, or curating exhibitions at David Gill Gallery, whose eponymous founder is his partner in life and work. His role as the gallery’s artistic director allows him to feed his passion for art, which is intrinsically woven into his interior design and informed by his positions on the boards of the Design Museum, the Serpentine Gallery and PAD London.

Projects in the pipeline include the Hotel La Palma in Capri, which is due to open in 2022, and several furniture and accessory collaborations in the UK and France, the details of which are yet to be revealed. In between meetings, we caught up over Zoom to discuss his influences, his favourite projects and keeping his clients’ spiralling creativity in check.

When did you know you wanted to be an interior designer?

Since I was six years old, probably earlier. I always wanted to do this. Working first of all with David Gill Gallery and 20th century and contemporary furniture designs allowed me to delve into that world and have a better knowledge about it. Then, when the time was right, I set up a practice on my own. I think when people look at my work they think that the legacy of it is a lot longer than it actually is, because it has only been 12 years. We’ve worked very hard to build up something that’s of value, and I’m not really interested in the general trends. I’m interested in what I feel are my inspirations and my influences, and it will always remain as that.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?

The reality is that, in this industry, everybody had to find a way to do their work. We’ve been able to continue with our residential projects, and because people have spent so much time at home, it’s suddenly created this influx of enquiries from existing clients and new clients, so that’s kept us all really very busy. Now we’re working on a new book that will come out in 2022, and this year we’re bringing out three furniture collections at the same time. I’m currently working on a superyacht that needs to be ready by 1 June, and I’m working on a couple of homes, mostly in New York. We’re also starting to work on setting up for a new hotel project.

What’s been your favourite project to date?

My favourites are almost always the most recent projects. In the UK last year, I worked on a beautiful country house in Herefordshire, which was a stunning project – it’s location, the architecture, the scale. The clients allowed me to create a contemporary version of a William Chambers-style interior but using great designers. It was like something out of a Jane Austen film; it was just very romantic and very beautiful, what you expect an English country house to be, and the detailing was just perfect.

My other favourite project from last year was another country house on the outskirts of Cannes. The client wanted something very Cote d’Azure but 1950s Riviera chic, which is one of my favourite periods. He wanted something that was reminiscent of a high society movie with Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire, with a beautiful pool, umbrellas with fringing – I even designed the branding of the house, the embroidery on the towels and the pillows. The detailing was just to die for, and the client was so in love with the project. We got it ready against all odds on the 22 December. I promised him, come hell or high water, COVID or no COVID, he was going to have this house for Christmas, and he did.

How much influence do your clients have over the design?

My clients always have a lot to say for themselves. Too much. All the houses I do are not about me, they’re about the people who live in them, and they all have their own mind and their own collections. I’m not their interior designer or their decorator, I’m their editor; I’m there to make sure it all comes together and it works. But I always say to them, I’m the editor-in-chief – don’t forget that. My final word goes. Sometimes they get too creative for their own good, but most of the time I have to say their influence is quite profound on my work, hence why a lot of my furniture collections have been named after certain women who I’ve done homes for, and who have influenced me. They have had a big effect on me, and they continue to have a big effect on me.

The dining room in the Herefordshire country home

Have you received any unusual requests from your clients?

Far too many. One of the most unusual requests was for an outdoor kitchen – that would outdo any indoor kitchen – in a house in the south of France. I’ve never seen a budget like it. This family love their food and they have great chefs. There were rotisseries, pizza ovens, an aisle where guests can sit while chefs are cooking, and all outside – it’s phenomenal. I’ve also had requests to make something tiny and jewel like, like a guest loo that was built to look like something from a Venetian palazzo in the Boltons. You close the mirrored door and you find yourself in a carved marble columned room with a Murano basin and white gold, all in an amazing, tiny space. The detailing is phenomenal and you actually feel like you could be in a contemporary Venetian palazzo toilet.

How does art inspire your design?

I love collecting art, so I suppose that’s a big catalyst. Contemporary art is a reflection of our society today so it’s really important, and creative people seem to all feed off each other. A lot of my clients are really good art collectors. They collect because they’re so impassioned by it, it’s not about the trophy. Some of my clients are big corporates but you’d be surprised that they’re interested in fabrics and what the colourways are going to be. People would be so shocked if they knew some of the people I’ve worked for, and the WhatsApps that come in. They are creative souls at the end of the day; they may be in oil or they may be in finance, but actually what gives them joy is creativity, and it’s a hobby.

The Fawaz Gruosi store on Berkeley Square

Who is your greatest influence?

I can only look back at people who’ve done what I’ve done in their career. One that comes to mind is Jean-Michel Frank, the French decorator who worked with artists like I do. Jean-Michel Frank had a most wonderful rise in his career and a very tragic suicide during the Second World War. His work was forgotten for many years and then was resurrected in the 1980s by people like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. They were true collectors, and how they created their homes had a great influence on me. I see myself as a bit of a collector and I see myself as a bit of an interior designer, so marrying those two situations is quite interesting.

What is your design pet peeve?

I don’t like when people copy each other; there’s really no need for it. At the end of the day, I think people get too heavily influenced by what they see, and they get influenced by design that’s happening right now and will not last long. It doesn’t have the look of something that’s going to endure for more than a decade. I don’t really care if I’m considered to be really ‘in’ or a top designer, I’m not hyped up and it’s never what I wanted. I plod along in my way and I know I’m creating my history, which maybe in 50 years time some students will look back at, like I did when I was in my teens, and that will be my joy.

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2-4 King Street, SW1Y, francissultana.com