In the first of a BD Magazine series, an experienced interiors architect shares tips and tactics with a young firm

Architecture is born out of creative conversations between clients and designers. But sometimes practices talk to the same clients over and over, the conversation retreading old ground. Or if the right clients aren’t listening in the first place, the conversation can become a dialogue with the press.

But what if practices could converse with each other, sharing ideas on communicating with clients in a way that produces great architecture, great publicity and healthy fees? That’s the idea behind Masterclass, a new series of articles in BD Magazine.

Each issue of BD Magazine takes one sector as its theme, and each Masterclass will explore the specific challenges of working in that sector. A practice that has experienced success in that specialism will be introduced to a firm that wants to make it their own.

In the conversational give and take between the two practices, there will be tips, warnings and stealable ideas. And, just as in a gossipy conversation with a friend, there is the reassurance that comes from knowing your practice isn’t alone.

For the interiors masterclass, Graeme Williamson of Block Architecture has been paired with nascent practice Eightbyfour.

We made a name for ourselves doing interiors, and now we want to do architecture

One of the V&A’s choices for the “40 under 40” exhibition last year, eight-year-old Block has spread its talents across the residential, arts and commercial sectors. But it came to prominence with restaurant and bar interiors where personality and originality shone through the quirky finishes and furniture.

The practice later moved into public works with the refurbishment of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and is currently pitching for a project at the V&A.

“We made a name for ourselves doing interiors, and now we want to do architecture. It’s kind of ironic we’re having this discussion at a time when we’re trying to get more buildings under our belt,” says Williamson, who set up the practice with his wife, Zoe.

Eightbyfour, likewise, is a professional and personal partnership, between Bríd Carr and Theo Michell. Carr is a qualified architect, but Michell’s degrees are in geography and urbanism — the practice says designs that flow from these dual sources tend to be more robust and rounded. It also has an enviable record in competitions and has been placed three times in four open competitions, including the Landmark East contest. Eightbyfour currently has six residential clients.

The practice was established in 2001 but two months ago Carr gave up her freelance career to concentrate on it full-time. This coincided with the firm’s big break in interiors — the commission to create a new interiors and branding identity for Sofra, a small London chain of Turkish restaurants. The role includes the fit-out of a new-build shell near the Tower of London, the scene of our photos.

There is an excitement and a freshness about interiors — you can explore ideas on a shorter timescale

Unsurprisingly, Carr and Michell do not want to focus solely on interiors. However, the relatively fast turnaround of projects and higher percentage fees appeal to a young practice.

“It’s difficult to say we want to be an interiors architect, inevitably we can and want to do built work as well,” says Carr.

“But there is an excitement and a freshness about interiors — you can explore ideas on a shorter timescale.”

Eightbyfour has clearly managed to start its own creative conversations with clients. But, apart from Sofra, which kind of clients should the practice be addressing, how many should be in the same sector, and should they all even be in the UK? There are also areas where the practice feels it could be expressing itself more comfortably and fluently: on its website for instance, or through its marketing literature.

Masterclass has at least some of the answers.

Inside track on interiors

Eightbyfour partners put their questions on the interiors sector to Graeme Williamson of Block Architecture

Growing the business

Bríd Carr: We see ourselves as a small operation, but we would like to get bigger. And ideally, we’d like to work not just in London but France and Ireland. What is the best way to build a practice?
Graeme Williamson: It’s difficult to generalise, but I’d say that specialising [in interiors] and trying to grow at the same time is at best inadvisable and at worst disastrous. If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, and then that work dries up or the project stalls, you have a problem. If you try to spread too thin, you end up getting rushed help in and then have to spend all your time supervising. My best advice would be to keep it small and tight. If you’re offered a job in France, think carefully about the contractual risk, the structure and how you’ll implement it.

BC: At this stage, should we turn down residential commissions to concentrate on higher-profile interiors work?
GW: Residential can be an economic burden; the jobs often get spun out and you might be on 75% fees before it gets on site. Interiors projects are generally quicker turnaround with higher fees in comparison. You can work out this [Sofra] interior in eight to 12 weeks, and do the design in six. There’s a temporal sensitivity that’s quite exhilarating, but it depends on a higher degree of organisational skill in the practice.

BC: As well as bars and restaurants, we’d be interested in galleries, museums. How can you start getting shortlisted?
GW: We got put on the shortlist for Oxford by the director because he’d seen a piece on a residential project we’d done in a Sunday supplement — residential can often be fertile ground for other work.

Improving the practice brochure

BC: I work on the graphic side as I’m much more visually based, and Theo works on the text. I think it’s important for a firm to have a graphic style.
GW: Absolutely. You can tell a Fat brochure is a Fat brochure by the way the graphics work, and you can tell a Niall McLaughlin rendering is a Niall McLaughlin rendering…

BC: Because it’s all misty!
GW: Because it’s all misty! But I think the photographs in your brochure definitely need work. Your projects are interesting, but the way they come across is very flat. You need big images, with depth. People want to be able to feel they’re in the picture. We’ve used the same photographer since we started. It’s about having a recognisable language to the way you get things across.
It’s important to develop that so people know who you are when they see something in BD. If I were a client coming to the first meeting with you, I’d find it difficult to see what kind of work you’re interested in doing.

Press and publicity

Theo Michell: At this stage, I don’t think we’ve had a need for marketing ourselves — there’s enough work from personal referrals. But maybe it’s something we need to look at.
GW: There isn’t a best way to market yourselves. It’s a combination of things:
Chinese whispers, personal recommendations backed up by someone seeing something published. The idea of a marketing campaign makes me want to throw up!
It reduces architecture to the level of a product.

BC: We want to become known in the press and have small things published in BD.
GW: Yes, but we’ve had jobs through things published in the specialist trade press, like Retail Monthly, or Bars & Restaurants, or Theme. As an architect it’s maybe not the way you want to go, but it’s effective.

TM: That’s a good point. We’re interested in building a profile in the press, but we know it’s unlikely the next client will be an avid reader of BD.
GW: Profile is an elusive thing. In a way you have to think of the practice profile as something that has a life of its own, a kind of ghost creation. It needs to be fed and taken care of; sometimes it needs attention, sometimes you can let it have a rest.

BC: Do you think it’s acceptable to contact people I’ve met through past projects, given that then I had the back-up of a larger firm?
GW: Client organisations are often interested in smaller firms; they like the personal touch and smaller fees! And yes, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with people. We’ve got four or five databases on people we’ve met through retail projects, or arts projects, or residential work.

Getting the website right

TM: These days, so many people ask for your website. But do you go for something Flash-based, or downloadable pdf documents that are easy to update? Some Flash sites are great – we like yours.
GW: Our site was done five years ago as a freebie for a customer we did an interior for. They did a good £5,000-£10,000 of work for us. It’s a bit gimmicky and fancy for my taste now. It needs to be overhauled because we’re a different firm now, and everyone’s a bit blind to all- singing and dancing sites. Listing projects and clients on a PDF might be the way to go.

BC: It has to appeal to clients, and the architectural world. You almost need two sites.
GW: But we tend not to get new projects through the website, so bear that in mind.

Communicating with clients

BC: How do you communicate design ideas to a client?
GW: We’ve gone through tons of ways but we’re now using models and clients are bowled over by them. Life can be lost in a render, a model looks a bit more alive but it takes double the time. Some of the sketches in your brochure were really good; people respond to that because it makes them feel the design is still in development. If it’s too final, it makes them feel you’ve licked the scheme. We’ve lost jobs by doing slick, highly worked-out renders.

TM: How have you found working with commercial clients on interiors, where they have their own ideas about what it should look like?
GW: Clients can come with a very loaded brief: they want this, they want that, they want brand placement. It can be harder to control the project. One thing is to try to make everything seem like it’s their idea. And not everything’s set in stone. The idea is to make them feel excited about change, and make them feel they’re comfortable taking the risk with you. Everyone likes to gamble, to have a flutter.

BC: Sofra has quite a lot of potential as a project. We’re looking at the branding and the interiors; the company’s looking for some fresh ideas. So hopefully it’s not over-determined and we can give them some new thoughts.
GW: If it’s a client that’s done it all hundreds of times before, that’s tricky. But if it’s a company in transition, it’s easier. You’ve got your own ideas and you’re doing your own thing, and I wouldn’t suggest anything on that. Except on how the work comes across, and how it’s represented graphically. And nurture that “ghost”!