British interior designer puts a fresh spin on Catalan homes

ab272286-5b42-4498-9572-3cebc359a6ab(By Nick Foster/FT) When British interior designer Graham Collins first visited Barcelona to attend a birthday party in 2004 he immediately fell for the city and decided he wanted to live there.
“The years go by but it’s still the same thing that sets this city apart,” he says. “ You have an urban environment at the seaside. Europe has very few cities which offer that. Even on a winter’s day you can go down to the beach and enjoy a drink listening to a DJ. It’s very chilled out.”

‘You’ll find great design in restaurants and hotels in Barcelona but not often in people’s homes. It is much less mainstream’

Collins, 49, moved his interior design business from London to Spain’s second-largest city and adapted it to cater for overseas property buyers keen to create their perfect Barcelona bolt-hole. Despite the recession, business remains good: cut-price properties after the crash are still candidates for a makeover.

“When the slump came, it was dramatic,” says Collins. “Mentally, people became paralysed. Even if they had money, they didn’t spend it. The economy came to a grinding halt.”

Evidence of the prolonged downturn is everywhere in Barcelona: almost empty restaurants and closed shops, some boarded up. “There are now more chain stores than before and it is obvious that people here don’t dress as well as they did,” says Collins. But cycling has taken off. “It happened about five years ago. This is a flat city with few rainy days and so it’s ideal for bikes. The explosion in cycling has redefined how people live here.”

Much later, Picasso is said to have had a connection with the building. “There are documents showing that for a time Picasso rented a unit on the top floor and used it as a studio. Rumour has it that he also painted the walls of the stairwell but – if he did – his work was ripped out long ago,” says Collins.

His stairwell aside, Collins likes the fact that many building materials are recycled in the city, particularly the colourful, ubiquitous hydraulic tiles, some of them 100 years old, which can be sanded and given a new lease of life. “In London they were used sparingly, often just in entrance halls, but in Barcelona whole apartments here were decorated with them. There are second-hand builders’ merchants here where you can buy hydraulic tiles to incorporate in new interior designs.”

The Catalans – generally considered industrious if rather strait-laced by other Spaniards – let their hair down at festival time. “My favourite is La Mercè in the autumn,” says Collins. “Locals dress up as devils and carry torches through the streets with people joining in and dancing underneath what looks like a carpet of fire and smoke.”

Barcelona’s generally less hectic lifestyle, compared with London, is a fundamental draw for Collins. “It gives me more time to think and to get inspired. Barcelona doesn’t have that relentless energy of London, but it’s a great place to get your thoughts together and develop new ideas.”

When such new ideas require a permit or contact with the city authorities, it is common to call on the services of a gestor. “He is a kind of all-purpose fixer you pay to help you get things done administratively. It would be difficult to help people buy homes and make significant renovations without using one.”

Collins, who lives with his Cuban partner Daniel, is making gradual progress with both Catalan and Spanish, neither of which he spoke before settling in Barcelona. “At the beginning I was thrown in at the deep end. I learnt my first Spanish with South American builders, who worked here in large numbers before the [housing] crash. One of the first words I learnt was the Spanish for ‘screwdriver’.” He describes his knowledge of Catalan as “passive”. “I can read a bit, and it’s embarrassing not to speak it properly, but I do plan to learn.” Even in times of cutbacks, free, publicly-funded language classes are offered to everyone.

Meanwhile, the city and the rest of Catalonia is gearing up for a public consultation – not, officially, a referendum – on autonomy from Spain. The Catalan flag is ubiquitous in Barcelona, draped over dozens of balconies on every street. “As things stand, there’s no excuse for not learning Catalan,” says Collins.

Read the full post on FT

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