The Big Interview: Ampersand’s Jackie Fisken

Jackie Fisken’s feeling for interior décor stems from her childhood. At an early age she began to observe that some people’s houses “just felt good when you walked into them, there was something about them”. This puzzled the young Fisken. “All interior designers sell the same product, but I wanted to find out why some people’s houses just had that good vibe.”

Jackie Fisken’s feeling for interior décor stems from her childhood. At an early age she began to observe that some people’s houses “just felt good when you walked into them, there was something about them”. This puzzled the young Fisken. “All interior designers sell the same product, but I wanted to find out why some people’s houses just had that good vibe.”

Fisken is now at the helm of design studio Ampersand. Located in vibrantly decorated premises in Dublin Street in Edinburgh’s New Town, it specialises in interior design and architecture, as well as bespoke furniture, and creates “luxurious, liveable and individual” interiors for private residential and commercial projects, which comprise 75 per cent and 25 per cent of its workload respectively.

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This year Ampersand is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a revamp of its own, and Fisken said on unveiling the new branding recently that it deserved its “own moment to shine” as it looks ahead to its next quarter-century.

The design director is keen to stress that the company – among the oldest in its field under the same management in the Scottish capital – has prospered without imposing a particular house or signature style.

“To me, any designer should be able to design in any style,” she says. “You’re either a good designer or you’re not. Rather than churning out the same thing in different variants for clients… it’s much more interesting to be able to design in lots of different styles. It’s great when a client comes in and they start talking about what it is they want to achieve or they’ve got ideas.”

Project bills can reach in excess of £500,000 for whole-house refurbishments, and in Scotland commissions have included a Perthshire fishing lodge converted into a high-end second home, and a technicolour Georgian townhouse with a tented cinema in the attic.

Edinburgh’s demographic has changed considerably since Ampersand started, with an influx of creative-minded entrepreneurs, for example, among clients who overall have become bolder in their tastes.

On the commercial side, its portfolio of work includes Stockbridge wine and sherry bar Goya23 and the whisky bar at Cannonball House next to Edinburgh Castle for restaurateurs Victor and Carina Contini.

Ampersand will consider growing its commercial order book depending on the market, says Fisken. Residential work “is the heart and soul of our business just because that’s how we evolved, but we enjoy the commercial jobs,” she explains, as they offer scope for more “out-there” designs.

She also believes that Ampersand is unlike those peers who define themselves as Scottish interior design firms. “Our roots are in Scotland and they always will be, but I think we’re every bit as good as any other company.”

Adding weight to her opinion, Ampersand’s reach extends overseas to locations including France, Portugal, the US, Barbados and Thailand. Indeed, Fisken’s husband, co-director Callum, believes Scotland should be world-renowned for its design, following in the footsteps of its pioneering work in other fields.

Scottish design is the focus of an exhibition opening in September at the V&A Dundee, and among the 300 or so exhibits are Hunter wellies and snap40, a wearable device that monitors a hospital patient’s vital signs and alerts medics in the event of a problem.

When Fisken started out, interior design mainly revolved around soft furnishings and decoration, she says, but it has become much more wide-reaching and multidisciplined, with Ampersand now employing architects and interior architects, for example.

“It has become a highly professionalised industry requiring comprehensive and detailed expertise to creatively manage every aspect of sometimes very large projects. In tandem, clients’ expectations have grown to reflect a more global outlook in relation to the experience they have become accustomed to when they travel, entertain and invest in bespoke products – from cars to fashion.”

The firm therefore feels the need to constantly evolve amid a wealth of free and rapidly expanding digital resources available to potential customers.

“Clients have a much greater expectation now – the bar is much higher. People see what they can get.” There has been a move away from copying trends in favour of authenticity and character, she adds.

Another trend that has had an impact on Ampersand’s work is the way homeowners are increasingly channelling their scarce cash into home improvements rather than selling up – aiming to boost their property’s sale price further down the line. Recent data from the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association found that UK homeowners are moving house 50 per cent less often than 30 years ago, upping sticks after nearly 20 years on average.

Fisken’s pursuit of a career in interior design wasn’t straightforward. From the beginning she faced objections from her mother, who dismissed her calling as “painting and decorating”. As a result, Fisken studied English literature in Aberdeen,before taking an apprenticeship with an Edinburgh business.

She has worked with Ampersand since its inception, buying the firm in 1993 after its original partnership broke up. She admits to being “slightly intimidated” by taking on such a big responsibility at such a young age.

But working from home for a couple of years when her children were young provided the opportunity to “completely reinvent” the venture, she says.

Ampersand now comprises a team of six, who are all designers, except for husband Callum. Fisken ranks among the 500,000 individual members of the British Institute of Interior Design (BIID) and is a BIID-registered interior designer,

Fisken believes a project is not about product, “it’s about how things are put together and the atmosphere you create”, and working out what the client wants requires learning to ask the right questions. “Even people whose tastes you guess have quirks, and it’s just making sure that you deliver to that brief.”

Tact is also an important asset when determining, “which bits are important to whom, and just making sure that the person who’s paying the bills is as happy as the person who’s coming and spending the money,” Fisken observes wryly.

Although creativity is of the essence for Ampersand, the company never loses sight of its commercial raison d’être. “We will always be about the design, but if there isn’t a business backing to that, it wouldn’t thrive,” says Fisken, noting the effort needed to finish on budget and on time. “People think it’s a question of throwing fabrics together, and actually it’s so much more than that.”

To enhance its offering, Ampersand has recently developed its own bespoke furniture range, called Fisk, that last August unveiled its first collection of 12 pieces “based on the everyday, often overlooked details of our architectural and cultural surroundings”.

These included a rug inspired by the grilles under the windows of the Bank of Scotland building on the Mound, and a cabinet inspired by architect James Gillespie Graham’s Randolph Crescent, Ainslie Place and Moray Place, also in Edinburgh.

Fisken is bullish about her prospects. “You’re always having to change, and you’re always having to move forward and adapt – I think it’s exciting. We’ve never gone bust, we rode out the recession, I think we’ve evolved over the years to make sure that we are at the forefront of what it is possible to do.”

She adds: “We would like to be one of the best companies in the country. I think we are but I would like that to be demonstrable. It’s just to keep always moving forward, to be as inspiring with our design as we can possibly be and to deliver fabulous homes for our clients. I’d like to take us to the next level.”