School connections can be integral to professional success. Take British architect Nick Leith-Smith. After completing studies at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architectureand a stint at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, he went on to earn his graduate degree at London’s Architectural Association.
There, his fellow classmate Kristina Blahnik Hulsebus introduced him to her uncle, Manolo Blahnik—a household name even before Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession with his stilettos on Sex and the City. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Upon graduating in 2000, Leith-Smith and Hulsebus stayed local and co-founded Data Nature Associates, which designed its first Manolo Blahnik store in 2004 in Hong Kong. Hulsebus has left, but the firm has since grown to a 12-strong team and changed its name to Nick Leith-Smith. Projects range from ground-up houses and furniture commissions to restaurants and retail concepts for such brands as Kurt Geiger, Harvey Nichols, and Liberty. But Blahnik remains Leith-Smith’s longest-standing client.
Interior Design: Why architecture?
Nick Leith-Smith: I had a lightbulb moment in my early teenage years, when I realized I was fascinated by the environment. Growing up in Hong Kong, I saw the struggle of habitation—people expanding living spaces onto roofs, balconies, anywhere they could. Plus, my dad was a pilot, so I experienced many different places during my formative years.
ID: What did you learn at OMA?
NLS: That if you’ve got bold ideas and a good team you can do anything. It inspired me to set up my own practice.
ID: What’s the secret to your partnership with Manolo Blahnik?
NLS: He is our biggest patron. We’ve created more than 40 stores for him over a 12-year period. In any architect-client relationship, the client is key to achieving a creative project. Manolo is the most cultural and visually astute person I’ve ever worked with, and his brand is very much about him and his ideas. We’re a vehicle for pushing and realizing those.
ID: What’s the process?
NLS: Manolo and I will start with a discussion about the location. What’s interesting about that city’s culture, films, architecture, historical aspects. I then go away, and my team and I create mood boards based on that conversation. The resulting shop is either a fusion or layering of several ideas from that culture or just one detail that becomes an overarching theme. In Moscow, for example, we honed in on the architecture of Russia’s traditional dachas, translating them into a white Corian storefront laser-cut like lace.
ID: Is there a through line in all the stores?
NLS: Yes, they’re similar in that each one is a locally inspired creation. Back when we first began working together, in the early 2000’s, that was a groundbreaking move.
ID: Would you describe the approach as postmodern?
NLS: From an architectural point of view, yes. But if you consider it from a fashion perspective, then historical references are used all the time to create new collections. Manolo follows a similar journey when he designs footwear. He thinks of a culture, a character in a film, or an iconic personality and the shoes are an expression of that. We’ve managed to continue this creative process for his store interiors. It’s quite free and fascinating to approach retail interiors in this manner.
ID: Tell us about a recent store.
NLS: For the Tokyo shop, we liked the idea of creating a new geometry. So we took inspiration from the woodwork and traditional joinery found in Japanese architecture and built the story around that one detail, forming wooden slats into canopies and displays.
ID: Where’s the next boutique opening?
NLS: Geneva, in a beautiful historic building. We’re creating a display-cum-furniture installation inspired by Josef Hoffmann, who Manolo had learned about while studying at the university there. He is enamored of the Viennese Secession.
ID: What’s the restaurant like that you just completed inside the Liberty store?
NLS: We focused on the brand’s arts-and-crafts heritage, which is a celebration of the relationship between the designer and the maker. Everything in the interior, from the tiles to the woodwork to the upholstery, is visibly handmade, honest, and simple— a nod to the maker.
ID: What’s on the horizon for your firm?
NLS: One exciting project is for the young shoe designer Mary Alice Malone. Her brand, Malone Souliers, is opening its first shop in the Middle East, and we’re designing it. Some of our other on-the-boards retail work will really break down the boundaries. You won’t be sure whether a space is a gallery, a shop, or a restaurant.
ID: What do you think about retail right now?
NLS: What’s interesting is how the sectors—retail, hospitality, residential—are becoming more integrated. And leisure, sport, and well-being are in the mix as well. It’s an exciting time.