Confession– last December I cancelled plans because I didn’t want to miss an episode of The Great Interior Design Challenge, so to say I was excited to interview Sophie Robinson is an understatement. Working alongside Daniel Hopwood as a judge on the show, her years of experience shone through as she helped find the best amateur interior designers. Down to earth, relaxed and more than happy to share her story, Sophie is one lady who has been there, done that and created the glossy magazine interiors shoot. After a successful career at BBC Good Homes Magazine, Sophie decided to take her skills freelance and has since contributed to the likes of Ideal Home, Homes and Gardens and House Beautiful. With a client list including Capital Radio, B&Q and Madame Tussards, limiting my interview to ten questions was a challenge of design in itself.
How did you get to where you are today, have you always been interested in interior design?
I have always been passionate about design and art and furthered this by taking an Art Foundation course after my A Levels. This helped me get accepted onto my degree course; a BA Hons in 3D Design at the University of Brighton. After this I was lucky, as a friend’s mum was a top interior stylist and offered me a job as her assistant. I just loved the whole photo shoot process, creating jaw-droppingly beautiful interior schemes and then packing them all away to do another one. It was fast paced and exciting, with really nice lunches!
From there I began assisting on interior magazines until a job opened up for a junior stylist on BBC Good Homes magazine. I worked my way up the magazine for five years, which was a real apprenticeship. I left in 2005 to work freelance and since then my career has diversified further, giving me chances to work across a wide range of media; magazines, TV, exhibitions, catalogues and events. Being self employed is really exciting as you can accept many different opportunities.
Did you receive any formal training in interior design?
I studied to be a product and furniture designer. I learnt everything I know about interior design by working on a top interiors magazine. My career is an interior stylist rather than a designer, although after 20 years in the business I know all there is to know about putting room schemes together. Being a professional interior designer does require specific training as there are technical skills involved with construction.
What is the best part of your job?
The first thing I love about my job is the creative element. I love working with colour, pattern and design – it feeds my soul. The second thing I love is that no two days are the same. Being freelance means I get to work on a variety of projects from publishing, styling, photo shoots, interior design projects and of course TV shows like The Great Interior Design Challenge.
What is the hardest part?
I would be lying if I said it was easy or glamorous. The job is demanding and challenging and often involves long working days, late nights or weekends. You also need to have a good pair of trainers as you’re often on your feet all day, with a mobile tucked under one ear, unpacking boxes. I struggle juggling the job with having a family, as my work often takes me away from home for up to a few days at a time. However, before I had my son, I loved the long hours as you are always working with great fun people who are motivated and good at what they do.
When recreating a room, where do you get your inspiration from?
Often I’m given a brief for a shoot from a magazine and will need to research the look, so the internet is amazing for that. I used to keep a huge library of magazines and books, but I can now find so much online. I use Pinterest to save my favourite images into an easy to use database. I am also influenced by what is on trend and use Twitter to keep up to date with the latest design news.
You’ve touched on it briefly, but how did you get into the media side of your work?
After going freelance, I got asked to see the executive producer of ITV’s ’60 Minute Makeover’, as they were looking to recruit new designers. I took my portfolio (which I clearly remember she had no interest in looking at) and got the job! I worked on the show as an on-screen designer for five years on and off. Consequently, all my TV roles have come through people I already know – it’s a small industry and it’s essential to be nice, work hard and make the right impression.
Let’s talk about The Great Interior Design Challenge, what did you look for when choosing the winners?
The challenge faced by the designers is enormous and I’m sure a lot of people watching don’t fully appreciate it. With a small amount of time to prepare then execute the design, not to mention the tight budget, means the designers who do well are organised, resourceful and creative. Unless they have amazing project management skills and can think on their feet they don’t get past go! When you get to the final rounds you know that everyone has those essential attributes nailed, so that’s when you start to look for the magic. Daniel Hopwood and I have both been in the design business for a long time and what gets us excited is when we see something new or reinterpreted in a new and interesting way. I believe good design should innovate, excite and produce new solutions to old problems.
What is the most common mistake you see people make when it comes to interior design?
I think one of the most common mistakes is not going far enough – people can be too timid. Daniel is famous for declaring ‘it’s only paint’ and I agree. Rather than wallpaper one wall, why not do the whole room? Don’t just have two little cushions on the sofa; smother it in a riot of clashing colours and patterns. I think interiors should be fun, expressive and ultimately individual. Not in a try hard way, but in a way that makes a room feel special, personal and a home to the family that live there. However I appreciate that this is all easy for someone with my experience to say, as you learn through doing design. It’s for this reason that Daniel and I are running one day master class courses to impart some of our knowledge on what it takes to achieve a successful scheme, from the spatial planning to colour scheming and styling.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Making it in the design industry requires a lot of grit and determination and then some luck. Saying that you can make your own luck by working hard, being nice and making friends wherever you go. When I use assistants on photo shoots, it’s the ones that smile and are eager to work hard and learn that are asked back. You need a certain amount of humility at the beginning, with the balance of not being too cocky and yet not too shy. Ask lots of questions, email someone if they offer their address, but don’t call them when they’re busy. Don’t give up and aim to work with the best people in the industry. Be passionate about whatever you do. As regards to a career in TV, I got into it as an expert in my field, so if there is no TV work, I still have a job which is the perfect balance. What’s hot news today is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, so you have to be adept at moving on.
Final question, what is your house like?
If Sophie has inspired you to put down that magazine and learn how to create the same magic in your own home, why not take a look at the interior design courses listed on our site? With plenty of options available, we are sure you will find exactly what you need to get you started.