There are buildings that loom as large as in our imaginations as they do on the skyline. For Bryan O’Sullivan, The Barbican has been that landmark. “Ever since I was a student I’ve been obsessed,” the designer says of the London icon: a cluster of Brutalist beauties by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon that date to the 1960s and ’70s. Visible from far and wide, its three towers transfixed the budding aesthete when he first moved to the city from Ireland. “You can’t miss them,” he notes, still awestruck at their jagged silhouettes. It was there, in the complex’s beloved theater, that he graduated from university, there that he’s reveled in countless live performances, and there, in its galleries, that he’s absorbed exhibition after exhibition. Put simply, O’Sullivan reflects, “the Barbican always pulls me back.”
So when an apartment came up for sale in the western-most tower, he and his husband, James O’Neill, jumped at the opportunity to lay roots amid the concrete. Set on the 39th floor, the unit offered a bird’s-eye perch above the city, looking out toward the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, and Hampstead Heath. “At first I needed some convincing, but when I got there and saw the views I was sold,” recalls O’Neill, a music artist who doubles as the commercial director (and jack-of-all-trades) at O’Sullivan’s eponymous firm. “There is nowhere else in London like it.”
The apartment had only ever been owned by one couple who had renovated the kitchen and baths, sparing O’Sullivan and O’Neill the guilt of disturbing original details. “I’m all for preserving the past, but that 1970s kitchen would not have worked for modern-day life,” notes the designer, who opened up the galley cookspace to create a more loftlike layout. The three existing bedrooms, meanwhile, were rejiggered to form a primary suite with its own bath and dressing room, a smaller guest room, and a cozy TV room. The result, O’Sullivan notes, were “two zones: an elevated entertaining area and a slouchier, cozier space.”
He certainly knows how to set a mood. Prior to opening his own firm, O’Sullivan honed his craft under some of the design world’s leading talents, among them AD100 titans Annabelle Selldorf, Luis Laplace, and Martin Brudnizki, plus the late great hospitality maestro David Collins. Since launching Bryan O’Sullivan Studio 10 years ago, he has built his own name in the hotel world thanks to a chance meeting with Paddy McKillen, at the time the mastermind shepherding the Maybourne Group’s portfolio of legendary properties. McKillen encouraged him to submit ideas for The Berkeley Bar & Terrace in London, ultimately falling in love with O’Sullivan’s vision— a wood-paneled watering hole that braided homages to the Duke of Wellington, Brutalism, and Carlo Scarpa. That commission led to many more: the Red Room speakeasy and adjoining cigar lounge at the Connaught; another bar as well as suites, penthouses, and the newly opened brasserie at Claridge’s; and an array of spaces at the Maybourne Riviera in the South of France. Today there are collaborations in the works in Beverly Hills and beyond.
Expanding on his love of hospitality, O’Sullivan says, “you get to push the boundaries and dig deep into a concept.” He credits that creative passion to his mother and father, who owned a number of bars and restaurants in the Irish town of Kenmare, where he grew up, as well as his maternal grandfather, a hotelier with properties throughout surrounding County Kerry. But today the designer is just as busy with private residential projects, the pace and intimacy of which engage different parts of his brain. “You can take your time developing a world that’s bespoke for the people who live there.”