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From Shabby Chic to London's Finest!

After leaving her job as a business consultant eight years ago, Petra Arko began her career in interior design. From working with some of London's best designers to finding a niche in the market for her studio - Bergman & Mar - Petra tells us a little more about her design story so far.

Read time 8 minutes

Petra Arko and a recent Bergman & Mar project.
Petra Arko and a recent Bergman & Mar project.

First of all, tell us a little about yourself and your studio Bergman & Mar?

Where do I begin? Well, I was born in Slovenia, a tiny little country in the South of Europe. I left when I was 21 to go and study to become a business consultant in Australia. I continued to do that when I moved to England until around eight or nine years ago when I decided to change my career completely.

I had always been interested in interior design but, coming from a country with a population of only around 2 million people, a career in the industry never seemed feasible. One beautiful day, a friend came to me and said: "My girlfriend's going to start an interior design studio". I pretty much leapt at the opportunity straight away; it's been a dream ever since.

So, you mentioned you had an interest in interior design but had you had any industry experience beforehand?

I like to think I had designed for myself, and I certainly had a great passion for furniture in general. But no, no 'real' experience. If anything, a considerable lack of it!

Before I started the job my house was full of 'shabby chic', fake french furniture. I thought it looked great at the time... now it's been relocated to my garage!
Bergman and Mar's Covent Garden residential project is shortlisted for the International Design & Architecture Awards 2019.
Bergman and Mar's Covent Garden residential project is shortlisted for the International Design & Architecture Awards 2019.

It's interesting how things change! What are the standout learnings you've made so far as an interior designer?

So many! This career has been an enormous learning curve for me ever since I started. Perhaps the most significant learning I've made is that every problem has a solution. When things go wrong, or something happens with a project or a client, I've come to realise that it's not the end of the world. In fact, I now think of the issues I encounter as obstacles in my path I have to step over or navigate a new way around.

I think this has been an excellent lesson for running a business as well as for designing itself. Mistakes, obstacles, whatever they might be, they're just a part of life. They're not there to destroy your chances, but to teach you new, better ways of moving forward!

I think running your own business means that you have to get used to making mistakes.
Chiswick apartment designed by Bergman & Mar.
Chiswick apartment designed by Bergman & Mar.

Your design studio, Bergman & Mar, is renowned for its fantastic work with London's property developers. Can you elaborate a little on how this specialism came about?

I guess it came about because I've always had a great passion for furniture and furnishings, instead of necessarily the interior architecture side of things. As a result, I've always specialised more in FF&E - it's what I like the most.

When I worked with Sophie Ashby at Spring and Mercer, my role was to find luxury furnishings for the projects we worked on together. From then on, it just kind of continued this way. When I started Bergman & Mar, I noticed there was a bit of a niche in the market for furnishing the apartments of property developers, those which already had quite determined interior architecture. I saw this and just went with it, it felt natural to me, and it allows me to do what I enjoy the most; finding furniture!

When it comes to furnishing the projects for property developers, have you noticed any particular trends in the market right now?

I'm not sure if it's necessarily a trend but, recently, I've noticed that our clients are no longer looking for super high-end, 'luxury' interiors. A move away from creating spaces that feel slightly out of touch with society towards schemes that look a lot more approachable, that actually feel liveable instead. I think my clients at least, seem to be placing much more emphasis on practicality.

People still desire unique pieces, though, and they always want high quality, but this just comes in a slightly different form now. For a lot of people, it's essential to find those niche suppliers and products that nobody has discovered before. I love this development, as it has allowed us to work with more emerging, honest suppliers and help them grow their businesses too. That's really important to me.

We haven't done our job if we have just run to the nearest retail store and furnished an apartment from there. Our job is to find our client something unique and special, something not everybody has.

Other than finding unique pieces for clients, what inspires your interior projects?

I think, first and foremost, the brief and the client. We don't necessarily have a 'house style', so each project is inspired by its own context.

It's important to say that, where we find inspiration for a project also depends a lot on budget. A project with a budget of £10,000 will be inspired quite differently to one of £300,000.

Even though every project is bespoke to the client, do you think you have any signature design trait that identifies you no matter what?

Yes. I don't think you can escape those! My overarching rule is that interiors should always be useful and practical, and they have to make sense. Because of that, I definitely have a few features which I always encourage my clients to invest in. You'll often spot a feature armchair or a timeless sofa, for example, in Bergman & Mar's projects.

When I was growing up in Slovenia, we never had a sofa as there wasn't really enough space. It was my childhood dream for us to have a big, comfy sofa in the house... maybe that's why they usually pop up in my projects today!

A London apartment, featuring a timeless sofa and statement armchair.
A London apartment, featuring a timeless sofa and statement armchair.

What would you say is your proudest design moment to date?

That's a hard one, but I think I'd say our recent project, The Makers Apartment. It was almost like everything we value and believe in came together for it!

For the project, we had to create a London show apartment for Pocket Living, using furnishings and accessories from London and UK based artisans. We worked with over 67 different suppliers for the project and every single piece - from the lighting to bars of soap on display - had been created just for that apartment. Olivia Aspinall helped us to design a coffee table, Sebastian Cox made furnishings, and many others dedicated beautiful pieces to bring the space to life.

Everyone involved showed such a massive spirit of generosity, giving their time and energy into making the project a success. It was a wonderful, collaborative project.

More broadly speaking, what do you think are the most critical factors affecting the future of the design industry right now?

Firstly, the environmental impact of what we do. Moving forward, designers are going to need to start considering everything from a sustainable perspective. From the materials we use, to how far we transport them, and then how long we actually use them in our homes! Although it's tempting to buy "fast furniture" - I know I've certainly done it myself - we must start encouraging people to invest in things that really last.

Secondly, I think the design industry is going to become more digital. Not only is furniture becoming more easily accessible online, but visualisation, artificial intelligence and 3D technologies will also be used more and more. I know that some people worry this will send designers out of business. But do I think that? No, not really. I think it will probably help clients to visualise what a space will look like and that might help designers to actually win business. I think it's an exciting moment to be in design!

If we want our clients to invest in items that cost a lot more than 'fast furniture', we need to find a way to show them how it feels in that space and why it's worth the money.
The balcony of a Kings Cross apartment, designed by Bergman & Mar.
The balcony of a Kings Cross apartment, designed by Bergman & Mar.

Lastly, what advice would you give to designers just starting out?

My personal advice would be to go and work for other studios before starting out for yourself. I know I didn't do it myself, but I think it's essential to learn from other people and make mistakes while they're still there to help you! When you're working for a known studio, you'll also have more opportunity to build a portfolio of diverse projects. These experiences will be precious if you ever decide to venture out on your own!

Quickfire round...

Where is your happy place?

Home with my family.

If you weren't a designer, what would you be doing?


Where is your favourite place for design inspiration?


What would your dream project be?

A small boutique hotel chain.

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