Monique and Staffan Tollgård are the entrepreneurial, creative, motivational and spiritual driving forces behind luxury London interior design firm Tollgård Design Group—an award-winning design studio best characterised by its hybrid luxury-meets-relaxed aesthetic.
Though they can’t celebrate right now (“Parties seem very unimportant. We will certainly be celebrating with an even bigger party when the world returns to normal again.”), the duo are hitting a major milestone this year—15 years in the business. We caught up with the LuxDeco 100 top interior designers as they continue to work from home to chat about all that they’ve accomplished.
Tell us a little about the beginnings of Tollgård Design Group.
Staffan: Tollgård Design Group had very humble beginnings. When I started the company I was just six months out of design school and working from the attic of the first home we refurbished together, with our miniature Schnauzer Grace for company. I used to walk Monique to the station as a way of leaving ‘home’ then returning to the ‘office’ to start my working day. It was the house project that was the catalyst for my move into the design world, in fact.
Monique and I met in our twenties on a London film set—Monique was an actress and I was the First Assistant Director, on a low budget feature film. We joke that while our film careers didn’t last, our marriage goes from strength to strength. After we refurbished our home together in Brook Green I started to think seriously about a career change to design. I took a year sabbatical to study at the renowned Inchbald School of Design. A few years later, Monique jumped ship from making documentaries to study at Inchbald and joined the company.
You lead your studio together as a husband and wife team—who runs what?
Staffan: Tollgård Design Group has always been a genuine family-run business. As the company has grown the roles are split with Monique looking after the design studio and projects while I take more of a leading role with the design stores, our curation of the products and product design. As partners in life and work there is constant overlap. We marvel at people who can leave work behind when they go home—we have never managed that. Of course, now in the Covid-19 era no one can; the home/work barrier is truly broken.
What is this 'Red Thread' you often talk about?
Staffan: “Röda Tråden” or the Red Thread is a phrase used across Northern Europe. I was really surprised when I used it the first time and Monique leapt on it, saying she hadn’t heard it before. It’s used to describe the guiding principle of creative endeavour, whether it be a piece of art, literature or music. The familiar thread—or trail of breadcrumbs—scattered through the work by the maker that takes you back to the heart of the piece.
Once I’d described it to Monique, she realised that it’s what we are always looking for in each project we undertake. It’s the design DNA that we strive to find and then express in each project. Within the client, architecture and environment are clues to a distinctive and powerful narrative: a unique red thread that we use to tell a new story using the language of design. Our Red Thread that runs through all our endeavours is a love of storytelling and a strong, shared belief that thoughtful, responsible and collaborative design can and should make people’s lives better.
I guess the shortest answer: it’s the why. Why is this important? Why are we telling this story? Why do we care.
And 'Functional Sculpture'?
Staffan: As a Scandinavian designer I am functionalist to my very core. My wife jokes that if I’m not being useful I’m just not happy. So function, to me, is king. Functional sculpture is when a piece of design is beautiful—and thus useful—even when it’s not working. My first light for Contardi is called ‘Belle’ and the double meaning tells the story of functional sculpture perfectly: when the classic bell shape is lit it’s both beautiful and functional. When not lit it remains a decorative object with an almost sacred appeal; it’s the shape of a church bell so it taps into something quite spiritual—for me functional sculpture at its most pure.
Monique, how has your firm developed over the years?
Monique: Staffan and I have very different life and work approaches. His mantra is a fairly gung-ho ‘Why not?’ yelled as he leaps from opportunity to opportunity, not looking behind him or even down to see if there are cracks or precipices in his way. This attitude is shared, I’m told, by serial entrepreneurs. Mine is much more cautious—perhaps shaped by a mother that could extrapolate death from any given situation. I was told a lot growing up that ‘That’s how people get killed’. My mom would be referring to something as mundane as a child walking with their hands in their pockets on a tar road. So, I’m a lot more cautious—more ‘How, why, when?’ than ‘Why not?’ Our practice has been shaped by these two forces: one always forging forward, the other trying to perfect the path and pick out the obstacles in the way.
I see this in the fact that we have grown steadily, but never exponentially. We’ve never had to fire people because we needed to expand then contract quickly. We’ve morphed from a business offering only design services, to one that now has four key departments, with people at the top of their game leading them. A beautiful flagship design store and two stores in the Design Centre at Chelsea Harbour (though in the post Covid-19 world, we need to keep our fingers crossed); a small but perfectly shaped design studio that brings its residential focus and know-how into all sizes and shapes of homes and, increasingly, commercial spaces when our clients are looking for a more ‘resi-mercial’ feel.
And what remains the same?
Monique: Our passion for design has stayed the same. Running a design studio is 24/7 and we still get excited by the same things that excited us back when we started. We are usually exhausted but delighted when we install or photograph a finished project, and there is a genuine sense of joy when a happy client says thank you. While the balance of form and function is at the head of our practice, you might say the heart of our work is about how to create spaces and opportunities for family time and personal growth.
Staffan’s powers of curation have grown ever stronger over the years; when he travels now for work he is liable to bring home a whole new brand rather than a chair or two as he did in the early years. His passion for discovering pieces of functional sculpture—current or future classics—hasn’t diminished, and he still approaches every design fair with unwavering energy and enthusiasm.
What have been the most special projects to you?
Monique: A project called Fanø is very close to our hearts. We were asked to create a second home for a family in Denmark, somewhere to get ‘off the grid’ and enjoy family life without the persistent intrusion of the 24/7 outside world. The project is special as it resonates closely with our own personal design style and because of the architect we were privileged to work with. The villa was designed by Denmark’s most famous architect, Knud Holscher whose projects include Copenhagen Airport and the Bahrain National Museum. The Fanø Summer House was Holscher’s final project before he retired from design. The poetic sand dunes and seascape of Fanø flow effortlessly into the interiors through our use of a neutral, textured interior palette, successfully blurring the line between the two.
Another favourite project—a polar opposite in many ways—is the Amman Villa. Set against the backdrop of a busy Jordanian city this contemporary villa also tells a vivid story of a young family making the most of family life. The architect here is Raёd Abillama, a Lebanese architect whose building uses vernacular materials in an unconventional and dramatic way. Both these buildings represent highlights in our design journey—working with exceptional architects and wonderful clients in new and engaging physical environments.
And what are you yet to achieve in your design career?
Monique: Our ambition is to see more of the world and to work with architects in new environments. We would love to design a home in Japan, one of our favourite countries. We are increasingly obsessed with how design can improve family life, so a boutique hotel in a corner of the world that allows families to get closer to nature and spend time together would be a perfect intersection of our interests and experience on a larger, more commercial scale. We’ve realised that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Staffan says he will never retire, so we’ve got a lot of time ahead for some more design milestones. Right now we’re trying to enjoy where we are.