In 1983 he formed the group NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) with a group of former students and began to work as self-employed; two years later he collaborated with Doug Branson (born in 1951).
Nigel Coates became known for his fluid and lively graphic style and the overt theatricality of his designs. His proposals for the redevelopment of London were shown in two exhibitions: ArkAlbion (1984), with drawings of new development areas such as County Hall and the Isle of Dogs, and Ecstacity (1992), with computer simulations and video clips.
In the renovation (1980) of his own flat in London he juxtaposed the original, ornate late 19th-century interior with "found" furniture and decorative objects. The publication of this project brought Coates to the attention of Japanese clients who were looking for fashionable Western designers, and he carried out some projects in Japan that became increasingly theatrical: the Parco Café Bongo (1986) juxtaposes classical English furniture with an imitation aeroplane wing mounted on the ceiling.
His radical approach was dissipated in later British works, such as a series of London shops: one for Katharine Hamnett in Sloane Street (1988) has a shopfront formed of aquaria, and one for Jigsaw in Knightsbridge (1992) has its shopfront formed of a two-storey copper column in the shape of a phallus.
Coates has designed and built interiors, exhibitions and buildings worldwide. His buildings in Japan include the Wall, Noah’s Ark and the Art Silo, and in Britain, the National Centre for Popular Music and the Geffrye Museum, London.
He is also a productive designer of lighting and furniture, with links to Alessi, Ceramica Bardelli, Frag, Fratelli Boffi, Poltronova, Slamp and Varaschin. Examples of his work can be found in museum collections around the world including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Cooper Hewitt.
He has been Professor of Architecture at the Royal College of Art since 1995.