When British interior designer Graham Collins first visited Barcelona to attend a birthday party in 2004 he immediately fell for the city and decided he wanted to live there. “The years go by but it’s still the same thing that sets this city apart,” he says. “You have an urban environment at the seaside. Europe has very few cities which offer that. Even on a winter’s day you can go down to the beach and enjoy a drink listening to a DJ. It’s very chilled out.”
Collins, 49, moved his interior design business from London to Spain’s second-largest city and adapted it to cater for overseas property buyers keen to create their perfect Barcelona bolt-hole. Despite the recession, business remains good: cut-price properties after the crash are still candidates for a makeover.
“When the slump came, it was dramatic,” says Collins. “Mentally, people became paralysed. Even if they had money, they didn’t spend it. The economy came to a grinding halt.”
Evidence of the prolonged downturn is everywhere in Barcelona: almost empty restaurants and closed shops, some boarded up. “There are now more chain stores than before and it is obvious that people here don’t dress as well as they did,” says Collins. But cycling has taken off. “It happened about five years ago. This is a flat city with few rainy days and so it’s ideal for bikes. The explosion in cycling has redefined how people live here.”
Collins’ first winter in the Catalan capital – the clear, dry days notwithstanding – was also the coldest of his life. “The problem is that most apartments have no central heating. Now I always recommend that people put in radiators and use a boiler to fire them,” says Collins, who moved into interior design after starting out as a builder’s apprentice in Leeds.
“Also, local people seem to prefer dark living spaces. I often advise clients to turn the layout of their apartment around so that the sunny side becomes the main living area, sometimes making the window a focal point, in the absence of a hearth, which is a rarity here.”
Over time, Collins has come to recognise some fundamental differences between interior design in Britain and Spain. “In this country it is viewed as an option only for the very wealthy. It’s similar to the view many people held in Britain 30 years ago. Unlike in the UK, the US and Australia, there are no television programmes popularising home design. It is much less mainstream; you’ll find great design in restaurants and hotels but not often in people’s homes.”
If Catalans are resistant to change in their personal living spaces, the same charge cannot be levelled at the city as a whole. Barcelona’s seafront, long considered dangerous and seedy, was given a wholesale overhaul ahead of the 1992 Olympics, with a new marina, hotels, housing (originally, some was built as accommodation for the Olympic athletes) and beaches built partly on reclaimed land.
Collins lives in El Born, a gentrified, mainly residential section of the city to the east of Las Ramblas – the wide central avenue where locals traditionally take an early evening stroll. The entrance to his apartment building is through a heavy wooden door, pockmarked by the thuds made by countless visitors over the ages, that is four metres high but just 45cm wide. It is a reminder that this section of the city, now about 500 metres from the shore, was once a fishermen’s quarter. “The door had to be high enough for the fishing rod and tackle to pass through,” says Collins.
Much later, Picasso is said to have had a connection with the building. “There are documents showing that for a time Picasso rented a unit on the top floor and used it as a studio. Rumour has it that he also painted the walls of the stairwell but – if he did – his work was ripped out long ago,” says Collins.
His stairwell aside, Collins likes the fact that many building materials are recycled in the city, particularly the colourful, ubiquitous hydraulic tiles, some of them 100 years old, which can be sanded and given a new lease of life. “In London they were used sparingly, often just in entrance halls, but in Barcelona whole apartments here were decorated with them. There are second-hand builders’ merchants here where you can buy hydraulic tiles to incorporate in new interior designs.”
The Catalans – generally considered industrious if rather strait-laced by other Spaniards – let their hair down at festival time. “My favourite is La Mercè in the autumn,” says Collins. “Locals dress up as devils and carry torches through the streets with people joining in and dancing underneath what looks like a carpet of fire and smoke.”
Barcelona’s generally less hectic lifestyle, compared with London, is a fundamental draw for Collins. “It gives me more time to think and to get inspired. Barcelona doesn’t have that relentless energy of London, but it’s a great place to get your thoughts together and develop new ideas.”
When such new ideas require a permit or contact with the city authorities, it is common to call on the services of a gestor. “He is a kind of all-purpose fixer you pay to help you get things done administratively. It would be difficult to help people buy homes and make significant renovations without using one.”
Collins, who lives with his Cuban partner Daniel, is making gradual progress with both Catalan and Spanish, neither of which he spoke before settling in Barcelona. “At the beginning I was thrown in at the deep end. I learnt my first Spanish with South American builders, who worked here in large numbers before the [housing] crash. One of the first words I learnt was the Spanish for ‘screwdriver’.” He describes his knowledge of Catalan as “passive”. “I can read a bit, and it’s embarrassing not to speak it properly, but I do plan to learn.” Even in times of cutbacks, free, publicly-funded language classes are offered to everyone.
Meanwhile, the city and the rest of Catalonia is gearing up for a public consultation – not, officially, a referendum – on autonomy from Spain. The Catalan flag is ubiquitous in Barcelona, draped over dozens of balconies on every street. “As things stand, there’s no excuse for not learning Catalan,” says Collins.
Collins’ verdict . . .
● Snow is very rare in the winter and summers are warm in Barcelona
● Varied and dynamic dining scene
● Easy access to great beaches
● Petty crime and bag-snatching
● Prolonged economic slump
● Erratic service in shops and restaurants
What you can buy for . . .
€100,000 A 45 sq metre, one-bedroom apartment in need of renovation in El Born district
€1m A three-bedroom, 161 sq metre apartment in the Eixample district in a building with a concierge
€5m A four-storey, six-bedroom house in residential Pedralbes with 550 sq metres of living space, and a pool and tennis court shared with four other homes