School look shake-up

Sunday Times, 10.05.15, Brighton College is shaking up the stuffy public school image with its cool interior design. It gives its students an edge. HMC member school Brighton College features.

The legendary privations of boarding school are the stuff of vintage children’s stories. But while hard beds, cold baths and draughty dorms seem oddly romantic within fictional confines, they are still a sobering reality for many boarders craving the comforts of home.

Brighton College on the Sussex coast has proved that it doesn’t have to be this way. When parents drop off their children at its sleek new boarding houses, they often joke that they’d like to move in themselves. Here, you won’t find mismatched Argos and Ikea furniture characteristic of so many independent schools. Instead, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a private members’ club.

When Richard Cairns was appointed headmaster of Brighton College in 2006, he decided to rip up the rulebook. “The school looked like a 1970s nursing home and was very staid and grim,” he says. Adamant that he wanted modern and forward-looking spaces that reflected the school’s vibrant educational ethos, he embarked on an ambitious building programme, commissioning the cutting-edge architects Allies and Morrison to build a girls’ boarding house, state-of-the-art cafe and staff common room. He didn’t stop there.

“It seemed ridiculous that we were spending £5m on new buildings and nothing on furnishings. So I argued that if we spent 1% of the value of the buildings on the interiors, we could make them special.”

Far from channelling his inner Hogwarts, however, Cairns wanted to throw out the conventional public-school lexicon. “Schools like ours are rooted in tradition, but education should be about looking forwards, and I wanted to give the school a cool Brighton edge,” he says.

Recognising that he needed a design team that specialised in robust interiors for high footfall, he turned to David Davies and Stuart Baron, the duo behind DD/SB Design, the London-based consultancy that created the British Airways Galleries Lounge at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. “I think they initially thought this project was a little small-scale for them, but David came to visit and fell in love with the concept,” Cairns says. From the start Davies and Baron allowed the children to have their say in the process; they have since become designers in residence and hold regular workshops with pupils.

The school is just a few blocks from the sea, and there’s no doubting the coastal inspiration in the design. Walls are painted in breezy duck-egg blues, canvas-sail whites and pebble shades. Custom-made pieces from British companies such as Tom Dixon, Morgan and Davison Highley have been upholstered in bold deckchair stripes and zingy blues. The jaunty seaside theme is echoed in distressed tables and mirrors, fairground-style wall lights from Philip Oakley Illuminations, and Scabetti sculptural light installations featuring shoals of delicate bone-china fish.

Practicality has not been sacrificed in the quest for quirkiness. In New House, the girls’ dorms are simple and functional, while the IT suite, with banks of computer screens and bar stools, feels like a sleek internet cafe. Down the corridor, the gleaming white fitted kitchen is dominated by a family-sized kitchen table and benches handcrafted by Country Ways Oak in the Sussex Weald.

Across the quad, the revamped boys’ common room in Headmaster’s House resembles a gentlemen’s club. The fireplace feature wall is lined with Andrew Martin’s trompe l’oeil library wallpaper. Ribbed leather sofas evocative of vintage rugby balls and a teardrop chandelier from the Brighton boutique Papillon add to the gothic charm of this grade II listed Gilbert Scott building. But the kids don’t get all the perks. The staff common room is surely the most attractive in the country.

DD/SB’s crowning achievement, though, is the vast cafe and meeting space in the Simon Smith building, where funky leather sofas emblazoned with Union Jacks jostle with angel-wing armchairs and oak refectory tables. Overhead, oversized copper and silver domed lights by Tom Dixon — affectionately christened “glitter balls” — add a touch of disco. “When the glitter balls arrived, our maintenance man said we couldn’t possibly put them up,” Cairns grins.

Behind the jollity, however, lies serious intent. Davies tried to create a homely, residential feel — so important for first-time boarders. All too often, he says, school revamps look piecemeal, characterless and sterile. “Education is on the cusp of exciting change, and we are rethinking the way we design spaces to live and learn in.”

Leah Hamblett, headmistress of the lower school, says happy children work harder. “Our results rely on children being comfortable,” she says. Cairns takes it even further. “I want pupils to be individuals. And when they come here and see quirky furniture, I’m saying, subliminally, that that’s the sort of pupil I want.”

Of course, not everyone is a fan of the makeover. “Independent schools are incredibly conservative and when some of my visiting colleagues see fish lamps and glitter balls they think it’s a bit out there,” Cairns says.

Since Cairns’s arrival, applications have risen by 181%. This is largely down to its dazzling academic record: Brighton College has achieved the best GCSE and A-level results of any co-ed in England. “When prospective pupils walk into our cafe, they go ‘wow’. The investment return on those glitter balls has been huge.”

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