A sybarite is a devotee of luxury and pleasure. It’s also the perfect name for the studio co-founded by Simon Mitchell and Torquil McIntosh in 2002.
Operating at the forefront of retail and hospitality design, Sybarite expertly navigates these two spheres every day in the creation of extraordinary built environments for some of the world’s biggest brands.
Their most recent undertaking – the SKPS department store in Beijing – is inspired by Mars, as well as earthly concerns. Sybarite knows better than most about how to wield sensory stimuli to maximum effect.
The fact that 60 percent of the build was devoted to experiential excellence, and only 40 percent to retail-proper, should give a clear picture about the handle of the designers’ priorities.
The SKPS project represented a world first, and that’s something Sybarite is suited to. “Ego-death” is a concept at the heart of their philosophy – the best idea wins, no matter who it comes from, and radical thinking underpins every move.
Mitchell reaches for a musical analogy to describe their creative process – a gospel choir. Their personalisation of every design, the treble; underlying structure is the bass, while the collaboration between Sybarite and their client constitutes the “mixing” to finish.
At the age of 13, Mitchell’s childhood dyslexia prompted him to seek out means of expression beyond academia, and he began learning the guitar. Lefthanded, he was obliged to learn the instrument “backwards” (with his right hand) – and unexpectedly, that new skill kickstarted an acceleration in his literacy.
Music was key to his life at the time, and he spent hours poring over his father’s vinyl collection. Fleetwood Mac, ELO, The Eagles and Dire Straits became the soundtrack to Mitchell’s adolescence and formalised his love of sound.
That early interest has framed every creative decision in Mitchell’s life since. Founding Sybarite almost twenty years ago, in a Shepherd’s Bush bedroom, McIntosh and Mitchell understood their collaboration musically even then.
With his business partner’s penchant for Bob Dylan contrasting and complementing Mitchell’s inner Neil Young, those musical preferences have echoed through Sybarite’s design ethos – propelled by difference and dynamic dialogue.
Today, Mitchell splits his time between North Devon and London, filling long hours in the car with podcasts. These span subjects from comedy to Formula 1, but the destinations are characterised by sound just as much as the journey between them.
Diametrically opposed, sonically speaking, Devon and London perhaps provide the same generative tension as Mitchell found in McIntosh. The relative quiet of Devon, and the space it allows for natural sounds – animals, birds and the like – makes it possible for ideas to emerge, while the frenetic pace of London offers their fuel.
Sound also has an important role in the projects Sybarite generates. Take a fitting room, for example: scale and lighting might be the first considerations, but the right musical accompaniment to a retail experience can be even more crucial.
It might go unnoticed, but the right musical accompaniment has the power to entirely change a mood. Music too loud or frantic can kill a sale in seconds, while the right mix of calm and confident can seal the deal.
For Mitchell, comfort, design and audio are in constant conversation. How things feel, or sound, hold enormous sway in our perceptions of the world and its contents, and sonic associations are among the strongest of those prompts. Music’s power to conjure mood and story make it indispensable in any arena where emotional responses are calibrated.
In meditation and yoga, certain practitioners zoom in on the highest and lowest volumes in a given soundscape, and it is in between these two ends of the scale that the person can locate themselves in context – a technique that Mitchell has found particularly effective for personal development, and an apt metaphor for his company’s ethos.
Dylan and Young, Devon and London, tension and release; Sybarite thrives on the both, not the either, as both left and right hand working on the same instrument.