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New practice Fettle Studio: ‘It’s an emotional rollercoaster for any start-up’

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The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at those who have recently decided to go it alone

Practice name Fettle Studio

Based Clay Collective, Hackney Downs, east London

Founded June 2018

Main people Lydia Johnson, architect and ceramic artist

Where have you come from?
Before setting up on my own, I spent a very enjoyable four years at Mae Architects, working on estate regeneration, social housing and community projects.

Prior to moving to London for my Part 2 at Westminster, I spent two years at Nash Partnership in Bath, which set some great foundations for me, not only in urban design and conservation, but also client contact and community engagement.

Since my first work experience at an architect’s practice when I was 14, I’ve worked at five different architectural firms through education and beyond, which has given me a great breadth of design experience and appreciation of practice management. My Part 1 was a joint honours degree in Architecture and Planning at UWE in Bristol, which provided a fantastic grounding in technical and context driven design, and a great city to start off in.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
I founded Fettle Studio to provide a more flexible balance between my two creative passions – architecture and ceramics – and to open myself up to new opportunities. I’d been doing private work alongside architectural practice, which I think has been important in building a portfolio, making contacts and establishing myself as a business person, as well as a designer and maker.

My first Fettle Studio project had been in the pipeline for about three years – the extension and refurbishment of Sudbury Neighbourhood Centre, which received planning approval in November (pictured below).

Fettlestudio sudbury 01 007 3d lounge sq

Fettlestudio sudbury 01 007 3d lounge sq

I really enjoy these worthwhile, community projects. They don’t need to shout loudly, but can make a huge difference to a lot of local people through good strategic design, careful management of resources and a sensitive approach to materiality. Other projects this year include a couple of private home extensions and loft conversions, and a commission for Penoyre and Prasad to design and fabricate ceramic façade samples for their new building at Brunel University.

What are your ambitions?
My projects today are a mix of architectural work, and ceramic design and production. I enjoy the creative influence and balance that is shared between both disciplines. In architecture, I relish the challenges of complex sites, collaboration and responsibility. But a worthwhile project can often be years in the making.

With clay, on the other hand, I can work autonomously, at the smallest of scales, get really hands-on and messy, and it’s ok if it goes wrong. It’s very fulfilling and healthy to learn a craft, and to develop a passion or even obsession over it. It can be completely life-changing.

I am still developing as an architect, as well as the director of a new business, so I want to make sure I set solid foundations in my own approach and skills, before growing too quickly. Having been immersed in urban design and estate regeneration for many years, it has been a fascinating and empowering experience to return to the small scale, work directly with end users, and to take those projects forward methodically, step by step.

I still love the complexity and challenge of housing and mixed-use developments, so, with a small team around me in the future, I’m keen to pursue small housing schemes, as well as more arts and community sector projects.

Fettle Studio is teaching me more about the kind of architect I am, and want to become

Fettle Studio is teaching me more about the kind of architect I am and want to become, and I look forward to welcoming greater project and collaborative opportunities, both in architecture and ceramics, where I can help others through design and making.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
In setting up my own practice, the business side of things has seemed to come quite naturally, and I have had a number of valuable contacts to call on in terms of progressing projects and finding work. When the chance to leave conventional practice arrived for me, I took the opportunity and have loved the autonomy and flexibility this has provided.

But the biggest challenge to running my own practice has been adjusting to work without the benefits of a team around me, be it the shared knowledge or the opportunity to review ideas together.

Any start-up will go through somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster at the beginning, particularly if you’re on your own, swinging between excitement and despair, seemingly weekly. However, as I have found, the best way to gain confidence and experience is to just go for it: get out and about, call on people who can help and talk things through, find out first hand, and use every asset at your disposal.

I’ve been trying to discover my own approach to architectural practice before work takes over

In these early days, I’ve been trying to discover my own approach to architectural practice and set up templates and standards, before work takes over. I enjoy working through ideas in a mix of mediums and scales. As I say to students, if you’re stuck, change medium – make, sketch, CAD, then make again. CAD is a fantastic tool and I’m a bit of an ArchiCAD geek. But we need to maintain a healthy balance between all our tools, and the projects will be fuller for it.

And, importantly, allow ideas to mull. Many competitions and designs are approached at racing speed to produce material, but it’s a waste if the idea hasn’t been allowed to mature. With each new project, I try to give it time at the beginning to digest all the supporting information, visit the site, take photographs and make sketches. Then put it down and do something else. Believe in your ability to develop an idea through passive means. Give it time in your mind – when you put pen to paper again, the concept will be more substantial and ready to be represented.

Fettlestudio antepavilion dsc 0232 fettleedit

Antepavilion competition entry

Antepavilion competition entry

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
I dread the standard ‘what’s your favourite building’ question. I prefer to seek earlier references which have stood the test of time, and let local character, typologies and materials drive a scheme. My choice of precedents, if any, are always driven by the project at hand, but my all time favourite is the work of Alvar and Aino Aalto. For my Masters dissertation, I toured southern Finland and investigated the tactile perception of Aalto’s brickwork planes, as experienced from different viewpoints. It’s a thesis that keeps reappearing in my project work, and underpins my shortlisted design for the Antepavilion this year.

How are you marketing yourselves?
Mainly through word of mouth and social media. I try to stay active in both the ceramics and architecture scenes, so you’ll find me at various markets around London. The next one is the Independent Ceramics Market at Rich Mix in May. I enjoy being involved with a number of architecture schools as a guest tutor from time to time, and often attend RIBA London group events and socials.

Back in September, I was a speaker at the RIBA Archipreneurialists Pecha Kucha talk, focusing on the alternative disciplines our skills and creativity can be applied to, and the role of architect as entrepreneur.

The word ‘fettle’ has two meanings. Firstly, to be in ‘fine fettle’ is to be in good condition. Secondly, ‘to fettle’ is to tidy up the edges of pottery (or metal). This manifests itself very nicely in my approach to both architecture and ceramics – pursuing a clear concept, that is technically refined, and well executed.

Fettle studio lydia johnson ceramics tessellating cups 4 crop

Fettle studio lydia johnson ceramics tessellating cups 4 crop

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