Advice for students – discussing careers in interior architecture and interior design
AVA: If someone with no previous knowledge of interior architecture wanted to learn more, where should they start? Who should they focus on? Which figures have made the greatest impact on interior architectural design as a whole?
GB: I would say start with our books! The history of interiors is a narrative that has many strands. Its history is documented by people but also companies. There are too many to list but some interesting ones are John & Robert Adam, Sir John Soane, Pierre Chareau, Charles and Ray Eames, Carlo Mollino, Joe Colombo, Carlo Scarpa, Gordon Matta-Clark, George Ranalli, Ben Kelly, Andree Putmann, Diller and Scofidio, Casson Mann, Klein Dytham, Bourellec Brothers, LAND Design Studio, DROOG. The list is endless.
SS: Every library and bookshop has a number of basic guides to the subject, start with those, then actually visit some buildings. In your locality is always best. Pevsner has a series of books on the Buildings of England, with this as a guide, have a look at the key buildings in your immediate area.
Basics Interior Architecture 01: Form + Structure (shortlisted for the R.I.B.A. Interior Design book of the year in 2007)
AVA: What first made you interested in architecture/interior architecture/interior design?
GB: In my secondary school I had a great art teacher, Philip Steadman, and a brilliant design tutor, Paul Hewitt. Both of them inspired our class. Even the difficult pupils (and there were plenty of those) were excited by these classes. Philip encouraged me to apply to the London College of Furniture to do a B-TEC in Interior Design. It was a 2-year foundation, specialising in year two in Interiors. I joined at 16 when I left school and so I didn’t do A-Levels. I was the first of my family to ever go to college. At the time, this was the mid-eighties; L.C.F. had an annexe in Limehouse, East London, right at the end of Commercial road. It was a great place to be as the London Docklands were still a huge wasteland, and a great source of inspiration and also salvage. The course was a hothouse of endeavour and quite an interesting mix of very good staff, painters, designers, sculptors, and students. Part of the experience was to embrace all of the arts. Many memorable moments included Miles Davies at the Festival Hall, Lindsay Kemp at Sadlers Wells. Trips to the Royal Opera House and taking in many great exhibitions: Corbusier at the Hayward in 1987 still stands out. This was quite an eye-opener for a young chap from the outer suburbs of SE London. As I went through the course I realised that I was mostly drawn to the spatial and environmental arts and that I enjoyed the rigours of solving design problems, yet I didn’t think Architecture, with its emphasis on new build and on the time it took to get things built, was as interesting as making temporal, spatial designs. Therefore I opted to design interiors.
SS: My first degree was in Furniture Design and after that I worked for a travelling theatre company for a couple of years. From these experiences I began to find the design and control of interior space fascinating, so when the opportunity to embark upon an MA in Interior Design arose, I grabbed it.
AVA: What was your first job in the field of interior architecture? How did you get to where you are today?
GB: I graduated in 1990 from my first degree. This was in the teeth of a bad recession so it was very difficult to get work, unfortunately a familiar story for my students today. Because of this we had to be industrious and also very ingenious. My first job was working for an architecture firm, mainly working in the design of private housing developments. They were terrible but this paid the rent and I learnt how large corporate housing projects were conceived and built and I learnt about how a design office worked. In the evenings friends and I got together and entered competitions, and tried anything to get projects off the ground. I think that this approach characterised my generation of designers, as it will the students of today, that we were determined to survive and work in the field we had chosen to study and which we were passionate about. I switched to an interior design company for a few years, working mainly in retail and leisure spaces. It was a difficult time in the industry, so I decided to go back to university after three years. I did a Masters degree that was a two-year full time course back then. I was awarded a bursary to do this and it kick-started my interest in research and teaching that is still with me today.
SS: I completed an MA in Interior Design, and then immediately started work for a well-known Manchester practice: Stephenson Mills Architects. It was a very exciting time, the practice were known as designers of high quality architecture and interiors and consequently had a lot of work on. Perhaps it could be described as a “Baptism of Fire”, I was just expected to know what to do and get on with it. But, when you are young, long hours and a lot of pressure is both exciting and glamorous.
I worked in practice for about ten years; for Stephenson Mills, then for Stephenson Bell, but during this time I was also involved with teaching on the interior design/architecture courses; at the universities in Cardiff, Leeds and in Manchester.
The Manchester School of Architecture seemed to appreciate my diverse background and offered me a full-time job, which is where I have been ever since.
I am now the Director of the ‘Continuity in Architecture’ College at MSA. The College runs programmes at post-graduate level, for the design of new buildings and public spaces within the historic city and interventions within existing structures. The emphasis is on the importance of place and the idea that the design of architecture can be influenced by the experience and analysis of particular situations. We discuss: sustainability, urban design, interventions within the urban fabric, public space, creative re-use of buildings, strategies for public art, interior architecture, interior design and installation art.
AVA: In terms of your career, what is your proudest achievement?
GB: Two things really: Receiving a distinction for my Masters and a commendation for my written thesis, which was a bit of a personal achievement for someone who was quite un-academic at school, and then in 2005 the publication of our first book – Rereadings.
SS: When in practice I was part of the team that designed the cafe in the Manchester City Art Gallery (unfortunately now replaced). When that opened, I really felt as if I’d achieved something and created an interior of quality. As far as writing goes, Rereadings was my first proper book to be published, it was a long time in development, but when it was published I was undoubtedly very proud.
AVA: Can you describe the relationship between architecture, interior architecture and interior design? What are the differences between these roles for practitioners and how do they all work together?
GB: In theory, and in my view, the relationship between Interiors and architecture is that they are obviously built environment disciplines, but it is our processes that are slightly different. Interiors are about reuse. Most interior projects, whether the lines on a page or reworking an existing building, are about transforming something that already exists. The relationship between them in practice is really not that distinct in that designers work together, no matter what their background. It’s about who can do the job that is needed for the project. If you need to know a particular thing about say a structure, you talk to the engineer in the office. If you want to discuss the building then talk to the architect designing the job. If it is the interior then try the designer and so on.
SS: Architecture, interior architecture and interior design all deal with the constructed response to the built environment. Urban design and installation art could also be added to this list. Factors such as scale, use and materials may separate the subjects, but they can also connect them.
AVA: Do you both lecture on all the topics covered in your books or do you each have your own specialities?
GB: Personally speaking yes, I do lecture on many of the topics in the books that I have done. At various times we have both talked about our work all over the world, from workshops in the Far East, to Europe and the U.S. I don’t really have a speciality in that I am interested in all areas of interior and built environment art & design.
SS: Although Graeme teaches in a School of Design and I lecture in a School of Architecture we do both tend to lecture on similar things. I may cover more architectural approaches, but I think our partnership is successful because we are both extremely interested in the design of the built environment.
AVA: What advice would you give to a young person, possibly with a degree in interior architecture, who is struggling to find a job? Is interior architecture a field in which a formal qualification is necessary before you can get any practical experience?
GB: In answer to part two of your question, yes, you need a degree qualification in order to get a job in practice. There are some courses that suggest that you can train to be a designer and that you do not need a degree in the subject. I would avoid these courses, as they do not offer the rigours of a degree and the creativity that they offer in all aspects of interior architecture/ design. If you are struggling to find a job it might be a number of things – your folio, your training, your experience, or the fact that there is just no work to be had at the moment! My advice might be based on a number of things, it depends on the person. It might entail reworking the job-chasing procedure, portfolio or sharpening the interview technique. Consider a Masters degree if perhaps the person wants to carry on into other areas of design. Get together with colleagues in an attempt to make your own work happen. You could volunteer in offices but this can end in people being taken advantage of which is not recommended.
SS: I would suggest that they get whatever experience they can. Help out, offer advice, enter competitions; just keep at it. Some of my ex-students who are struggling to find permanent work support themselves with a non-related day job, and complete competitions in their spare time. This helps with the continued expansion of their portfolio while also ensuring that they are fully aware of any developments in the field.
AVA: What are the most useful resources for students of interior architecture and design?
GB: Many different things are still very important for designers of space. Seeing a real space in the flesh as opposed to its mediated form is still crucially important. The mediated versions of what we see in magazines and books are quite different to the real thing. That being said, as long as you understand that, that’s fine. Various websites for quick and easy access for ideas and information, I personally like BLDBLOG. I read a lot of magazines but find the level of critique in many of them to be very poor. I still think books are very important, for long term reflection and thoughts, and I collect them avidly…although finding time to read them is another matter…
SS: Books and journals do offer a great resource for students. They enable the student to create a wide vocabulary and collection of influential buildings and spaces. The internet can support this. However, I think that the best method of truly understanding a space is to actually visit it. A book can act as an introduction, then this can be reinforced by first-hand observation.
AVA: What are the best events/shows to look out for if you are interested in pursuing a career in interior architecture?
GB: I am currently the director of a group called Interior Educators (IE). Our website is www.interioreducators.co.uk. We hold an annual show at the Truman Brewery in London where the students of the 30 interiors courses that we represent all show their work. It is in July every year. If you want to take a degree in interiors, and this is a pre-requisite for the industry, then come and see the work and find a course that you would like to study on.
SS: The end of year student exhibitions are excellent. They always show a wide range of approaches and solutions while showing a diverse collection of abilities and strengths. All architecture and design courses hold them and it is well worth making the effort to get around a few.
AVA: Is there a sense in which interior architecture/design cannot be taught – is it something that you must naturally have a talent for?
GB: Not necessarily although I personally feel that there is a certain sensibility attached to being an interior architect/designer. I feel that it is a requirement to be interested in working with what is already existing and being willing to transform that into something else. I liken it to sampling, collage, using found objects etc. Duchamp was a great interior designer; it is just that he wasn’t ever described in that way.
SS: I think that all architects and designers must firstly be interested in the subject; passion is the most important attribute. Secondly the designer should be able to think in three-dimensions; to be able to intellectually consider the space or object that they are designing. This is something that comes with practise, as is the ability to communicate or draw their intentions.
AVA: Do you ever find yourselves inspired by the ideas of your students? And have any of them ever gone on to design something which you feel you had a part in (or that you would have liked to design yourselves!)?
GB: I am often inspired by my student’s enthusiasm and ideas. One of the reasons I like teaching is that I also learn a lot from the students and their discussions in tutorials (well some of them!). I like to think that I have offered students an opportunity on the course that I direct to express their creativity to the best of their ability. If that means that I have had a part in their professional lives after University then I would be happy with that thought…
SS: What is most inspiring about students is their enthusiasm and their energy. They have a fantastic ability to take in ideas and develop them. The students who are best to work with are not always the most talented, but the ones who are most interested. It is a marvellous moment when they start to tell me things, rather than retelling me things that we have already discussed. This makes me proud of what they have achieved.
Many thanks to Graeme and Sally for participating! Their books for AVA are all available to purchase at a discount from our website.