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My Career: Interior design principal Fionuala Lennon


By Sarah Finnan
19th Oct 2023
My Career: Interior design principal Fionuala Lennon

Interested in art from a young age, Fionuala Lennon fell into interior design sort of by accident… luckily for her, she absolutely loved it. After running her own practice, Fionuala decided to make the move over to Wilson Architecture in 2021 and she hasn’t looked back since. Here she tells us more about her career journey to date.

Did you always want to be an interior designer?
I loved art in school, so I applied for
lots of different art college places. It just happened that I got a place in interior design and, luckily, I really loved it from the start.

In college, I studied… interior design at the College of Marketing and Design in Dublin for four years. We studied interior design, exhibition design, stage set design, furniture and fabric design. It was an extremely creative and eye-opening time for me.

My first real job was… with a German architect, Gustav Sauter, who was a real mentor to me. He was one of the first in Ireland to design interiors on a computer and he was the one who taught me how to detail drawings.

My most formative work experience was… when I was 22 I moved to New York. I worked for five years on various five-star international hotels and large corporate offices. My desk was on the 25th floor overlooking Saks 5th Avenue and the Rockefeller Centre – it felt like a movie set. New York was so inspiring, I loved the galleries in Soho, the edgy East Village and the vibrant international social scene.

The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… to listen closely to the client’s brief and give them what they want but designed in a way that they never expect. Often clients say, “I would never have thought of that” and that’s why I do my job – it’s the best feeling to get that reaction.

A common misconception about what I do is… that interior designers just choose colours and fabrics. Interior design is so much more than that. It’s about creating an atmosphere to suit the activity of the space. This involves playing with light, spacial forms, materials and textures along with integrating the necessary practicalities that are required. There is also a wealth of knowledge required in knowing how to draw and detail things well so that they become what you envision.

My main responsibility in work is to… my role as interior design principal at Wilson Architecture is to lead the Interiors Studio to develop cutting-edge designs and creative solutions. There is a solid team around me – each with their own skillsets – providing a variety of services. Currently, we are designing corporate offices, education interiors, laboratories, a healthcare unit and some hospitality projects.

The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… I ran my own interior design practice for 20 years until 2019 when I started doing some consulting work for Wilson Architecture. Then Covid hit and a lot of my hospitality work dried up. This coupled with my successful working relationship with the team at Wilson, led me to start working full-time with them. It was a risk to make such a big change but I haven’t looked back since. I love working in a larger practice again and dealing with corporate clients.

Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from?
When I moved to Wilson Architecture, all the directors supported me and gave me free rein to evolve the Interiors Studio creatively so that we now have a fantastically varied portfolio of interior designs. They are always there for advice and usually, there’s a bit of craic along with it which I love.

I wake at… 7am or 7:30am if I’m working from home. If I’m travelling for the day to our main office in Cork – which I do regularly – I’m up at 6am.

The first thing I do every morning is… pet my dog Ella! She’s always so happy to see me.

My morning routine is… shower, have breakfast (egg on toast), bring the dog for a quick run around the green, get the Dart into Merrion Square listening to a podcast, catch up with co-workers, check emails and off we go.

I can’t go to work without… my Apple devices, they’re all connected to each other which makes life so easy. I’m an Apple baby!

I travel to work by… foot (one minute to my home office) or Dart if I’m working in the town office. 

On an average workday I… send/answer about 30 emails, do some conceptual designs which my team work with me on, attend Teams/Zoom calls, review team projects, do a little work-related social media, visit a building site, present work to potential clients, prepare proposals, keep an eye on design trends…

The most useful business tool I use every day is… even though I use Todoist – a digital to-do list for my main tasks –I still fall back on my handwritten list. I list what I will do today and then work from 10 down to 1. I think it’s the satisfaction of ticking things off that keeps me on track.

I save time by… picking up the phone and talking to someone directly instead of firing off tonnes of emails.

I rarely get through my working day without… popcorn and a funny video from my colleagues.

The best part of my day is… not knowing what might happen today. In this business, every day is different; you might find a new product that you’re excited about or you might connect with a new or old colleague.

The most challenging part of my day is… stopping for lunch because the work is so all-consuming the day goes really fast and I find it hard to stop.

I know it’s been a good day if… we secure a new project or complete a project with a happy client.

I switch off from work by… my husband is a good cook so we usually eat together with our two daughters and we bring the dog for a walk after. I also play badminton in the winter months which keeps me sane – I’m quite competitive and I enjoy the craic with the other club members.

Before I go to bed, I’ll… mark up our home whiteboard so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing during the week. It’s a big help.

After a long work week, I destress by… having a nice candle-lit bath with Epsom salts.

The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… in personal terms, I’m very proud of both my daughters who are happy in their current life choices. In design terms, I am most proud of our home which myself and my husband, Donal Hickey, self-built in 2007. It is a wonderful retreat and a happy place to come home to. By design, the natural daylight follows you around the house as the day progresses to the space you are in. It has a very convivial living room around which our daily lives revolve. It has a separate office which was where I worked when I had my own practice and it is now where I set up on the days I work from home. It is a lovely sunlit double-height space with a mezzanine. The nice thing is that the girls like to use the office to study in so we are sometimes all working together.

If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… try to get an internship to see if you like the creative design world before committing to it. It is hard work and sometimes long hours. To develop your visual awareness, visit lots of interiors and get inspired. Open House (which happened earlier this month) is a great way to get into buildings and see interiors that you normally wouldn’t have access to.

The newly-finished Logitech offices in Cork

I’ve just finished working on… over the last year, Wilson’s Interiors Studio has completed the offices of Logitech in Cork and many of the custom fit-outs at Penrose Dock including Grant Thornton, Ibec and Netgear. Post-Covid, we introduced new ways of working to most of these fit-outs which meant fewer rows of desks and more casual living room-style collaboration spaces. Our number one priority is to make the environment attractive to employees to draw them back to the office. At the moment I’m working on the second phase of Pepsico’s R&D offices where we are creating different neighbourhoods with a variety of atmospheres that support creativity. The look we are going for is soft industrial mixed with a biophilic theme. The buzzword for offices now is biophilia – it is a human-centred approach aimed at improving our connection with nature and natural processes. Irish people spend 90% of their time indoors, so if we can bring that connection to the workplace with planting and natural materials, then we can ultimately improve our wellbeing, reduce stress and improve our productivity.