This London Design Firm Breathes New Life into Salvaged Decor

CEO Khai Intela
December 12, 2021 Elevating the unwanted is the philosophy that drives Retrouvius, a London-based interior design firm founded by Maria Speake and Adam Hills over 30 years ago. Their unique approach involves rescuing architectural details,...

December 12, 2021

Elevating the unwanted is the philosophy that drives Retrouvius, a London-based interior design firm founded by Maria Speake and Adam Hills over 30 years ago. Their unique approach involves rescuing architectural details, furniture, and objects from derelict buildings and transforming them into imaginative and emotional interiors. By breathing new life into these salvaged items, Retrouvius creates spaces that are both captivating and unexpected.

A Second Life for Forgotten Treasures

Retrouvius, derived from the French word "retrouvé" meaning "found" or "regained," takes great pleasure in repurposing decorative elements with a rich history. Maria Speake, the creative force behind the design arm of the business, has a passion for salvaging items that others may overlook. She finds joy in turning the unwanted into something interesting and unusual.

One example of this creative process is incorporating Art Deco-style terrazzo columns from a disused Liverpool department store into her own home. Speake also transformed the red leather covers of Victorian-era art portfolios, acquired in bulk from the British Library, into a unique wall treatment. These salvaged treasures not only add character to the spaces they inhabit but also captivate with their stories and narratives.

Rescued by Design

Although Retrouvius is now highly sought after, Speake recalls that using salvaged items as decor was not always an easy sell. However, she soon discovered that clients were drawn to the story and history behind the materials. Speake shares, "I would say to a client, 'Oh, yes, this teak has come from Queen Charlotte's Hospital, and it was originally the outside of a balcony, and now it's this amazing cantilever dining table!' And that was quite interesting because I started realizing how they were drawn to the story and the narrative of the material and where it came from."

Inspiration from Clients and Beyond

When it comes to finding inspiration, Speake believes that listening to clients is key. She sees herself as a conduit for their visions of their homes, using her design expertise to bring their dreams to life. While materials and objects can also spark her creativity, Speake finds that the true magic happens when she combines her clients' desires with her own imaginative ideas.

In terms of furniture designers, Speake holds Carlo Mollino and Martino Gamper in high regard. Mollino's ability to rethink design processes and materials and Gamper's talent for reinterpreting found objects resonates with her creative sensibilities. Both designers have embraced innovative approaches, resulting in stunning and sculptural pieces.

Artistic Inspirations

The world of art also influences Speake's designs. Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi's paintings, with their calm and architectural qualities, captivate Speake. His focus on light within architectural spaces creates a sense of tranquility. Jenny Saville, an artist Speake encountered during her time at the Glasgow School of Art, explores female identity and the human form through her powerful and thought-provoking works.

Celebrating Playfulness and Cruder Buildings

When it comes to design periods and styles, Speake prefers the charm of medieval and vernacular architecture over neoclassical aesthetics. She appreciates the asymmetry and playfulness found in buildings that reflect their origins. Speake recalls a memorable building in Scandinavia with a seaweed roof, describing it as an enormous and fantastical Afro atop a tiny house. It is these unexpected and whimsical touches that truly capture her imagination.

Finding Personal Style

When asked about her personal style icon, Speake draws inspiration from a combination of Vita Sackville-West, Tilda Swinton, and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. These three figures embody confidence, individuality, and a sense of understated Englishness. Speake admires their ability to project a strong sense of self and their distinct fashion choices.

Emotional Connections to Architecture

Two historic buildings hold great emotional significance for Speake. The Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, resonates with her on a profound level, despite suffering from two devastating fires. Speake cherishes fragments of the building, constructing a personal altar from the broken pieces and remnants. Kelmscott Manor, a romantic house in West Oxfordshire designed by William Morris, is another favorite. Its recent restoration has brought new life to this cherished historic gem.

Dreaming of Calmness and Italian Wonders

When it comes to choosing a dream location, Speake leans towards the tranquility of a small Greek island. However, for all other aspects of life, she admits that Italy holds a special place in her heart. While she wishes for a more original answer, she cannot deny the allure of the Italian lifestyle and culture.

The Future of Design: How Things Come Apart

In considering underappreciated design ideas, Speake emphasizes the importance of understanding how things come apart, rather than solely focusing on their assembly. This forward-thinking approach allows for more sustainable design practices. Traditional and vernacular building methods of the past embraced the idea of reuse, ensuring that materials could be easily dismantled and relocated.

The Success of Retrouvius: A Stroke of Luck

One remarkable aspect of Retrouvius' journey is the fact that Speake and Hills founded the firm while still students. Their passion, creativity, and a stroke of luck led them to build a successful business centered around rescuing and repurposing salvaged items.

As Maria Speake continues to breathe new life into forgotten treasures, Retrouvius remains a shining example of innovative design. Through their unique approach, they have elevated salvaged decor to new heights, proving that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places.

Living room of Maria Speake and Adam Hills In the duo's living room, a pair of Poul Kjærholm chairs flank a vintage coffee table. On the wall, a brass Warren Platner light fixture is mounted next to the 17th-century Belgian tapestry. Photo by Theo Tennant

An apartment in the BBC TELEVISION CENTRE A retro vibe dominates this apartment in the BBC Television Centre, courtesy of pieces like the 1970s Czech glass pendant lamps and 1960s black lacquer Lella and Massimo Vignelli sofas and chairs. Photo by Michael Sinclair

A vintage brass FIREPLACE SURROUND makes the hearth the focal point of the living room in a London PIED-À-TERRE CARLO MOLLINO chairs complement the client Left: A vintage brass fireplace surround makes the hearth the focal point of the living room in a London pied-à-terre. A George Nakashima coffee table and a 1972 Tommaso Cimini Daphine floor lamp accompany the 1970s Jorge Zalszupin sofa. Right: CARLO MOLLINO chairs complement the client's own Italian marble table. Salvaged oak-parquet panels add a graphic touch on walls throughout the space. Photos by Michael Sinclair

As Maria Speake and Adam Hills continue their remarkable journey, Retrouvius stands as a testament to the power of creativity and the allure of salvaged decor. Their ability to transform forgotten treasures into cherished design elements is truly awe-inspiring. By celebrating the beauty in discarded objects, they have redefined the possibilities of interior design and enriched the lives of those who experience their creations.