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interview

Television programmes such as the BBC's Changing Roomsmay be scorned by professional designers and architects. But as the young design partnership Blustin Heath Design, based near Brick Lane in east London, has discovered, they are taken extremely serious

How did the partnership start?

Oliver Heath: We both studied architecture at Oxford Brookes and then went to the Bartlett.

Five years ago we built this warehouse flat, before the area had become trendy. And though we're not partners in the biblical sense, we would meet over breakfast to discuss ideas. I was into set design, installations and interactive exhibitions. I did two galleries at the National Maritime Museum and had started making interactive films for galleries. Then I won the BBC Young Designer of the Year Award with an interiors scheme for the Brighton Marina.

Suddenly the work started to come in.

Nikki Blustin: Oliver was asked to take part in BBC 2's Homefront and from that we got a commission to do textured glass for Pilkington's.

It was then that we set up Blustin Heath Design.

OH: It's coming off the rollers as we speak - like a red hot river - thousands of kilometres of it - it's amazing. Working with Pilkington's gave us a chance to get involved in market research. We were able to examine British public taste and discover how people were influenced.

NB: We're aware of changing trends in London but the majority of the population is not in London and has very different tastes.

OH: From Pilkington's we learned there were certain things that were influencing the British sense of taste and design, including programmes such as Changing Rooms.Itcan't be ignored, even though people may hate it. It has eight-and-a-half million viewers. You can't think this isn't going to affect viewers' perception of design and designers.

How did you get involved in the programme?

OH: We were becoming frustrated that they were churning out the same designs each week.

So I went to the production company Endemol and told them they needed some new designers. I thought someone with an architectural training should infiltrate the programme. It's important that professionals are media-friendly.

Aren't your peers highly critical of the results produced by the programmes?

OH: People scorn the programme because of its mass media appeal and they associate it with garish colour schemes. But you have to remember that there is a strong format - two days and a budget of £500, within which you have to make a transformation. It wouldn't be fun if people always did white spaces with minimal fittings. What is exciting is that you turn over a lot of ideas. It encourages you to think about objects around you and how you can manipulate them to produce something bigger than the individual piece.

NB: In nearly every interior we design we double up its functioning; tables say, that contain shelving, or stools that could be tables.

We're lucky in having a workshop where we can assemble prototypes and try them out.

OH: One of the strengths of the programme is that it has encouraged people to think about design at different levels - scale, colours, shape, texture, circulation. I always ask people to think about the scale beyond the room, to think about the orientation. So you go from the outside, to the room, to the furniture, the details, the texture that you feel under your feet. It's quite difficult to get this over on television because very often they do a quick pan of the outside of the house and that's it.

Has television changed the way you work?

OH: The programmes are a sort of 3D sketchbook which we will draw on in the future. It is an amazing opportunity at this stage in our careers.

Have you reservations about the impact of these type of programmes?

NB: They promote work on a budget, so people believe they can get a lot for very little; they ignore labour costs, which is not very profitable for us as designers.

OH: As a designer you have a responsibility to promote environmental concerns and it's essential that we point out that it's better to use organic materials than MDF. Changing Rooms is not highbrow but it's popular and a powerful communicative tool. Other people are influencing design through television, like Max Hutchinson and Piers Gough, who are coming in at the 'big guns' end of the architectural scale in a very intelligent and experienced way.

Has television exposure made a big difference to the work of the practice?

OH: It is opening up lots of avenues in terms of writing and working with manufacturers.

What are you working on now?

OH: Designing a boat, doing barn conversions and night clubs and we also have pieces of furniture and ideas that we're looking to promote. Every design we do we tend to say 'what you really need here is a . . . let's make one'. Like this multifunctional suspended table.

NB: We've worked out a specification for one to be used with a motor. We have a website where people can commission custom-built furniture.

It's also a showcase for new ideas.

OH: In the end I think the most important thing is that we enjoy what we're doing. I'm not going to work for 30 or 40 years and not enjoy what I do, because work plays a massive part in my life.

If we come up with an idea and we can make it and it makes us laugh, that's great.

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