Stories

This is a space for designers, makers and those engaged with the circular economy to share their stories. Here we explore their working practices and some of the challenges and opportunities for engaging with the circular economy and developing sustainable practices. 

If you would like to share your story, please get in touch hello@varioustudios.com

Maker Story: Julian Leedham

All images: ©Julian Leedham

Julian Leedham is a designer/maker based in London, UK, specialising in furniture and product design. In 2017 he founded Varioustudios, a collaborative creative studio and platform.

Tell us about your work

I would say that I have four strings to my bow, maybe 5, which constitute my working practice:

1. I design and make bespoke furniture for private clients.
2. I fabricate pieces for other studios and businesses.
3. I design and make my own pieces.
4. I founded and run Various Studios.
5. I manage the day-to-day running of my shared studio/workshop.

Most of these aspects have grown naturally since graduating and they all come together in my practice rather than being separate areas, but it’s sometimes easier to think of them this way.

Eco, Green, Environmental, Sustainable, Ethical and Circular all have been buzz words through the years, do you identify with any of them, and why?

To some degree I relate to them all, but the one that seems to resonate most of all is; ethical. Mainly because, I think the rest are all a matter of ethics. Being sustainable, circular or green is, as I see it, a similar pursuit undertaken through a sense of ethical morality. That said, as concepts, systems or principles I don’t believe in attaching myself to one of them, not because I don’t believe in them, but doing good shouldn’t be an act that one needs recognition for, the act should be good enough.

What motivates you? Is it about creative expression, sustainable practice, an ethical debate, or an economic opportunity? (or a combination)

This is tricky, I think it’s all of the above. I’d love to say that I do what I do for completely ethical reasons, but I can’t, I’m simply not 100% carbon neutral, energy efficient or sustainable, to be so would probably mean not making anything! Although I need to earn a living, I come from quite an artistic family, so the journey is the goal. Art for art’s sake, in my eyes, is an indulgence. Earning a living, for most, is simply the way the world works. Design these days seems to marry these two aspects quite well, almost perfectly for me, I get to be artistic whilst still earning a living.

How does this manifest in your business/practice? Can you tell us about a particular project (past or present) that encapsulates this?

I suppose in some small way I try and make every design a combination of aesthetics and function. I do love a nice painting on a wall, but furniture innately must have a function, otherwise it’s simply art. So in this regard I try and make my pieces as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Currently I’m working on a project that uses branches as the main material. My aim is twofold: to utilize a part of the tree that is often overlooked, discarded or destroyed whilst using the natural forms of the branches to create a range of stools and side tables. Of course I want the outcome to be aesthetically pleasing, but it also needs to be functional. But behind both of these ideals is the hope that I can design and create a more sustainable product.

What are or have been your main challenges?

For my branches project, one of the first hurdles I had to overcome was where to source my branches. Luckily I happen to know a very nice guy named Sebastian Cox who has allowed me to have some branches from some recently felled trees. However this is a bit of a first, normally hunting down suppliers or finding someone to help with an aspect of a particular project is the trickiest thing.

Support, guidance and help can be important, who has helped you and where would you like extra support?

I believe that running an idea past someone is a vital step in the design process, so I pester people a lot! On a day-to-day level my partner, my mother and studio buddies probably listen to all the random ideas I have, I suppose they’re sort of my go to sounding board. I think having people to talk to is really important. I’m sure I could get by without asking people for help. I’m sure I could find the website and telephone numbers I need to push a project forward, it’s always better if a friend already has this knowledge. Of course in return I happily do the same for them.

How do you interact with your local area and local organisations/individuals in relation to your creative practice?

Who I interact with very much depends on the nature of the project. With the branches project, I’ve sourced tools and equipment from various UK suppliers. During lockdown my walks out doubled up as opportunities to pick up sticks from local parks for making little models. I’m currently planning a trip to Kent woodland to gather branches to begin prototyping (I’ll get friends to help with this). If after prototyping I’m happy with the outcome then I’ll begin pushing this project to the next stage, which might involve further
collaboration and seeking funding and/or an exhibition a lot further down the line. Every step in a project like this requires a lot of research, in all instances this research will be web based but like I said before, I’ll also pester people who know about such things.

What are your goals for your creative practice?

Currently my bread and butter comes from creating bespoke pieces for other studios and clients, perhaps in the future I’d like to step away from this a little and spend more time developing my own designs. But realistically this is a see-saw, balance is probably key. It might also be nice to have my own studio, but then I also enjoy having people to discuss ideas and techniques with and just generally talk with.

What opportunities do you see for creatives to engage more with the circular economy/design?

The term ‘Spaceship Earth’ conceived by Richard Buckminster Fuller really resonates with me, I think it epitomises the current circular economy drive. If you see the world, our home, as a giant ball surrounded by the vastness of space, what happens when we use up all our natural resources, pollute our oceans, destroy our atmosphere? I’m not suggesting that we all need to live frugal lives, but consumerism at our current level really isn’t sustainable and makes very little sense. We need products that can feed back into the system, for our energy to be renewable, for manufacturing processes to, if not better the environment, be better for it. The world is full of opportunities however it’s a lot of hard work to grab hold of them and make them real. We need a critical mass of people to pick up the mantle.

Maker Story: Little Hands Design

All images: ©Little Hands Design

Little Hands Design is a charity that provides hands-on sustainability and climate change education through fashion and textiles. Designer Georgie Rees tells their story here.

What is Little Hands Design?

We are a team of designers and we teach children how to sew from scratch, how to upcycle, how to repair, but we also engage them with the wider topics around sustainability and climate change. We link it with fashion textiles to show them what their individual action can actually do and be on a bigger scale.

Little Hands was set up in 2001 by Astrid Jacoby and we are now based at the London School of Mosaic which is an amazing hub of creatives. Our main activity is running courses for 8-18 year olds, with school, Saturday and holiday clubs. We also run adult courses and do charitable work with a refugee charity and state schools. With the school courses we try to emphasise that sustainable fashion and textiles can become a job, especially when we are working with children from under-privileged backgrounds, to open their eyes that those careers are possible.

Each week of the course addresses an environmental or social issue, such as treating waste as a resource. It’s about getting people thinking about how they’re making and how it can marry up. Sustainability is a core element to the sewing and our teaching. It’s about showing that if you learn these skills you can be sustainable. Another point of learning how to sew is that you can then be individual, you don’t have to stick to the trends of what’s going on, you can make what suits you and express yourself, which is part of mental health and well-being. Although when we design the projects, we do pick up on what else is out there so it feels relevant for the children.

How did you get involved?

I have a background in fashion and became disillusioned with the industry and how wasteful it was. I tried to change it from the inside, but it is very hard to convince the people at the top that this is a problem we need to address now – they worry about the bottom line. I decided I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, so I left the industry and joined Little Hands as a teacher. I’ve now moved into a senior management role.

What materials do you use and where are they from?

We mostly use donations of fashion and textile industry waste, usually offcuts, samples and test fabrics. We are fortunate that lots of people want to donate – individuals and organisations that want to give back to their local area, help the community build and grow, and support children’s mental health and wellbeing too.

We work with what we have, depending on what’s been donated. For example, we recently received a donation of Pinatext, a material made from waste pineapple fibres. We’ve been quite lucky in that a lot of people do approach us with donations, but we’ve also developed relationships with certain large brands. I’m looking for more people I can approach to see if they have materials they want to donate, or if they want to collaborate and show their support for environmental causes.

What are the challenges you face and how do you address them?

Sometimes it’s a challenge to work out how we can use different waste materials and create projects that will get the children excited about using them. I think you learn by handling lots of different materials what they are actually appropriate for, thinking of the qualities of the material and asking why you would make something with that material. We see it as a design challenge for us and the students as well. Part of our teaching is about design, and working with what you’ve got, and how can you make it exciting. I think that is the new role of designers, to see a problem and use what they have, making it something that people want to buy or use.

We had to move our courses online due to Covid-19, which was really challenging because it happened in such a short space of time! We also needed to work out how to teach something that is very analogue in a digital format. But it has been successful and it’s something that we are going to carry on in the future alongside physical teaching. We can reach further afield too – we had someone join from America, which was incredible. For our students, getting positive feedback from someone in another part of the world was an amazing confidence boost for them.

How can more people engage in sustainability?

I think it’s about making sustainability part of the everyday, because everyone’s very busy and it’s a lot to suddenly blame people for damaging the planet! It’s about education, awareness raising and making it easy for people to change their habits.

For me, if I can get one student to change their mindset when they’re consuming, to question what they’re buying and why they’re buying it, I think that is a great achievement. And also making them realise they have a Voice to advocate change, be agents of change and that there is power in youth activism. Even if they don’t carry on sewing but they’ve got more awareness of what goes into products and where they’re coming from. I never know where our students are going to end up, they might end up in a powerful position. If a course at Little Hands gets them to think about how a company is run, or just be a bit more sustainable, I like to think of being helpful in that way.

Also, I think everyone should have some level of sewing skills or appreciate that someone could mend something for them rather than throwing it away. I think it’s a combination of lots of little actions that hopefully ends up as a bigger action or impact.

What’s next for Little Hands?

Little hands turns 20 next year and we’re planning on publishing a book which will be a mixture of projects and stories from students addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and making then accessible for children and not overbearing. I think there’s been a lot of pressure put on children at school to have to solve the climate crisis! It’s about trying to make it positive, showing they have the power to do something through their everyday action.

If you’d like to learn more about Little Hands Design, donate, or get involved, please visit their website.

Maker Story: Tanvi Kant

All images: ©Tanvi Kant

Tanvi Kant is a maker based in London. She creates fine handcrafted jewellery that prolong the life of textiles, alongside collage & fine art giclée prints that play with visual imagery and colour.

Tell us more about your creative practice?

I make jewellery but recently I’ve started working with collage. Mostly it’s about working with materials that are really abundant in my life, literally under my roof. I’ve got boxes and boxes of different coloured fabrics from saris. Colours are second nature to me and I always wanted to be an artist. I love 2D and drawing, illustrating and painting, but also working with different materials. I feel like jewellery chose me rather than the other way around. I’m fascinated with the making process, but I also love its sculptural qualities. After a break of several years from making I’ve relaunched in the last few weeks and I’m focusing on developing the collage and prints which I hope will allow me to scale up my practice. This has been a challenge
to me in terms of my jewellery making as the intensive making processes of each individual piece are not something I could keep up longer-term. The techniques I work with, although simple, are repetitive for long periods of time and eventually caused discomfort to my wrists.

I’ve always wanted to have a social element to my practice, it’s like two sides of the same coin. One side is the making for me, which I need for my own enjoyment, and the other is the social aspect of my work, sharing those skills. I’ve had wonderful experiences running workshops alongside exhibitions and in residential care homes, engaging with people through making and my work. I’ve always been interested in people’s experiences and stories. I think that connects with all the stories behind the materials themselves. Everyone has a story about textiles, because we all wear clothes!

Working with social enterprises and charities can be a good way to engage as well. I used to work with a social enterprise that supported survivors of human trafficking in London and a women’s charity, the work we did there was about showing the potential for dignified work and bridging that aspiration. Recently I got in touch with Little Hands Design, a fashion and textiles school and charity educating all ages in making skills that engage people in actions that consider our environment. They also support intergenerational learning experiences, and raising self-esteem through creative activities. I’m really interested in these intersections, it’s not just about making great products, it’s also about our collective efforts to educate ourselves.

Why do you use sari material?

I have a love hate relationship with Indian clothes! I grew up in Leicester, in a really close-knit South Asian community and you had to wear Indian clothes at the weekends or to weddings and all sorts. It was often uncomfortable wearing the Indian suits and saris and I wanted to wear jeans! But I’d keep getting them as gifts that didn’t always suit my own tastes so there was a tension there. Eventually, by my mid-teens my friends and I grew a real love for dressing up in our Indian outfits and all the jewellery. It became a joy on the occasions that gave us the opportunity to dress-up. I miss it now and feel a sense of loss that has led me to revisit this part of my identity. The first time I started working with saris was in 2005. I had my mum’s sari silk sari with me at university. I really loved the hand rolled silk edging and started picking the fibres from the hem.

In terms of making with sari fabrics, I guess I look at them as just another material, for me it’s the colour and the texture and the weight of it. They also capture a lot of personal and collective histories. I think there’s more surprise and challenge creatively to work with something that you’ve already got rather than new materials. There’s a practical aspect too – I wanted to be able to move wherever I wanted, not anchored to a workshop. And it was always at the back of my mind, that whatever I work with needs to be affordable. So it made sense that I would use materials that I can source easily. We also have tailors in Leicester and many of the pieces of fabric that I’m using working with are actually the off cuts from the tailors. Now I have to tell my mum to stop giving me them because there are too many!

Would you call your practice sustainable?

I feel like sustainability is embedded in my practice in that I’m reusing material, but I don’t know if I can be 100% because I haven’t figured out exactly what people do at the end of life, so I don’t feel like I can really say I am. I did have a client from years ago enquiring if I would buy back a piece as they were no longer able to wear it. It was quite a statement piece, I guess they felt it still held a high value, in the end they decided to pass it down to their daughter. If you are creating work that people can’t discard so easily this would be evidence of emotional durability and this is part of embedding sustainability, but it requires the owner or wearer to act this way, I can’t design into my work how people will feel about it, like Kate Fletcher states.

Working with ethical and sustainable materials can also be difficult in terms of pricing. When I started working with precious stones I bought some really lovely fair trade gemstones, but the premiums are so high that I saw people found it hard to get their heads around the price The pieces are quite understated and the primary material is modest, so it’s understandable many people can’t match the price points with them, but to me this means the audience that appreciates the inherent value in the work needs to be found! There are also aesthetic and technical challenges. I use global organic textile standard cotton for binding, but sometimes I want to add more sparkle which they don’t do! I have worked with fine real gold and silver wrapped embroidery thread from Japan or more easily sourced metallic threads. The origin of the metals can’t be authenticated so there is another unknown, plus synthetics can also add sparkle but are polyester-based.

What support have you received in developing your practice?

When I was growing up I used to write to creative organisations about their work and sometimes they’d send me exhibition catalogues. I wouldn’t have been making at that time, I would have been painting and drawing, but it showed me the range of possibilities that careers in art and design can offer. You need practical help too. My friends from home would help me carry my bulky, and often large, art works back and forth from art college.

My tutors at university and college were great, and at my secondary school. I think just being recognised for something you enjoy and you’re good at helps any child. Although it hasn’t all been positive, I’ve been told I don’t ‘have the ideas for fine art’, and that I’m ‘not much of a maker’, but you just have to be tenacious. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I also had a keen interest in protecting the environment and animals in my teens that stayed with me. I even changed my university degree before my final year started because I was still searching for this common ground in terms of responsibly sourced materials and processes, with my peers, tutors and technicians.

The biggest support network came when I did New Designers in 2005 and I won the Association for Contemporary Jewellers Award. I still have contact with the network I met as a consequence of that event, some became my peers and also put me up for different shows and opportunities. I’ve put a lot of effort into being engaged socially and online, keeping in touch with people by email and sending them newsletters. I made myself be remembered.

What are your goals for the future?

I would like to start up my workshops again, and look into online workshops. It’s challenging though as I’m not always working with familiar or step-by-step techniques and demonstrating to people about keeping tension with both of their hands is quite hard to translate online. Plus I tend to help many people with threading their needles!

With the growing awareness of social issues around the world, I also feel I need to be more visible. I feel it’s important to have an authentic presence and send out a positive message. I’m also trying to strengthen my connection with my family and wider community, and learn from the stories they have to tell.

If you would like to learn more about Tanvi’s work, please visit her website or follow her on social media.

Maker Story: Luisa Rodriguez

All images: ©Luisa Rodriguez / Studio Improviso

Luisa Rodriguez has a background in Architecture and Fine Arts and creates site-specific art installations, enhancing spaces through the use of repurposed materials. She set up her practice, Studio Improviso, in 2019.

Tell us about your practice

I’m interested in space and materiality and I strive to bring both of those things together in my practice. Recently I’ve been focusing on making artworks that are site specific responses to the place where it’s going to be and that’s where, for instance, my art practice meets my architectural interest.

Conceptually, my art has roots in my cultural background, I’m from Honduras where resourcefulness and making use of what is available is really important. I’m expanding that idea more through my interest in materials and sustainability. A key part of my practice is about repurposing materials, taking material that wasn’t intended to be used, or wasn’t meant to be in a certain place. So recontextualizing the material, giving it a second purpose and in that process beautifying it and turning it into a piece of art in order to start a conversation.

I want my artwork to challenge the system and form a social commentary. I’m deeply concerned with lifestyle choices and current patterns of consumerism. I like to think that my work brings that to the table and in some way is trying to mitigate the problematic use of resources, or those that are not being considered.

Where do you the source materials to repurpose?

When considering materials for my projects I look for convenience in terms of whether it’s local to me or local to the site. I am interested in materials that are readily available and very local rather than transporting things from one place to the other over long distances, unless it’s absolutely justifiable. I wouldn’t, for instance, be interested in repurposing materials from the Netherlands for a project in the UK, or using a natural resource outside of its country of origin, because that’s not sustainable. What makes a sustainable material in one location isn’t necessarily sustainable when you take it out of the place where it’s abundant.

Lately, I have also been interested in small to medium scale material developers, particularly those who are reprocessing waste materials. These are materials that I would like to experiment and develop projects with.

Can you tell us about how you’ve done this in your artwork?

For a project in Italy I used big steel cans that were being thrown away by restaurants to make an installation. Initially it was a practice of going around asking for stuff, collecting these steel cans and carrying them around and then processing them, that became part of the project. I cleaned, cut, folded and flattened them out and then eventually stitched them together into a brick-work pattern. It was an installation but it also acted as a screen.

For another project, a mural, I sourced paint from a local recycling centre and my current project is repurposing wood off-cuts to make a wall installation for a cinema.

Does this come with any challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges in my practice of repurposing is that the processing of the materials becomes the main part of the project, and it takes enormous amounts of time and research. That’s something I’m still working on.

I’m always striving for my work to be architectural but working with sustainable materials can be a challenge on a bigger scale – the bigger it is, the more materials and time you need. Also, you often need more credibility and experience. I think that’s where collaborating and bringing more people into the making helps, because you need expertise in areas and you’re required to follow regulations.

Who do you go to for support?

My closest friends are artists, and it’s always useful to get feedback from them. In architecture I have certain contacts that I can go to with questions, but it’s more difficult to establish relationships there, so I’m currently working on building up my contact base in that field. My startup, Studio Improviso, was supported by the University of the Arts and I have some support from the Prince’s Trust. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to advance faster than I’m able to get support. I’m still looking for mentorship and for grants or maybe an incubator where there’s a strong community of designers.

What are your goals for your practice?

I’ve always been interested in small and medium scale forms of architecture, so I don’t see myself as a big company. I’d like to focus on an area, maybe London and the surrounding area for now, and later replicate the model somewhere else, but always staying true to my purpose. Currently for the business, I want to build up a customer base of interior designers and architects. I have the ability to speak the languages of both art and architecture, so it’s about making the most of that. I would latter on look into expanding that customer base.

How can more people engage with sustainability?

I think it’s about people understanding what the problem is and building up awareness that there are more environmentally friendly and ethical ways in which materials and products can be sourced, produced and purchased. Environmental sustainability and fair trade, for instance, are interconnected, tackling just one of them is not enough, you have to do them together.

I think part of that is about educating the consumer on the different products that they can acquire and the breakdown of what of what is behind those products, so they can make an informed decision on what they are buying, and ultimately demand better products.

If you’d like to learn more about Luisa’s work, please visit her website or follow her on social media.

London Design Festival 2019: Matteo Pacella

All images: ©Varioustudios

Matteo’s work aims to understand the surrounding, whose stability and equilibrium are explained in the mutual relations between forces and form, matter and surfaces, proportions and growth or, precisely, in their balances. 

Shelf Portrait

Inspired by the work of renaissance masters, Matteo explores the analogy between cornice and facial profile, setting his own proportion in plaster moulding.

Shelf portrait is a project based on the theory of profiles initiated by Francesco di Giorgio (15th century) in the ‘Saluzziano Code’. The study suggests a superimposition of a cornice over a man’s head: the gola corresponds to the crown of the head, the corona or gocciolatoio fits the forehead, the echino is situated over the nose, the scotia sits between the nose and mouth and the cimatio ends up at the chin.

Man in Shelf Portrait, like Di Giorgio, is both example and the rule, a microcosm of the conditions creating perfection in this world.

www.matteopacella.com

London Design Festival 2019: Nicholas Marschner

All images: ©Varioustudios

Nicholas Marschner’s work depicts an intertwining of material observation and opportunism.

The work is characterised in re-imagining pre-existing forms and scenarios, of which could be seen as perhaps banal and immediate. Nicholas lives and works in London.

Reverence

A series of metallurgically coated glass mirrors, which embody a series of complex reactions and penumbras.

www.nicholasmarschner.com/

London Design Festival 2019: Lucy Winn

All images: ©Varioustudios

Challenging the manufacturing process rather than the outcome is where Lucy focuses her design. She is particularly fascinated by tradition but defies the sentimentality of keeping it precious and sacred. Through experiment and manipulation, she aims to explore new ways of using these skills.

Roots

Inspired by the current revival of the Arts and Crafts movement, Roots explores, through the medium of needlework, how craft can and must evolve in order to survive.

Using skills passed down from the generations before her, Lucy defies the sentimentality and preciousness of tradition by breaking it apart and revealing the imperfections behind the carefully crafted outer layer.

While holding onto her roots, which can be seen through the interpretation of traditional Welsh print, this collection extracts from the past and challenges how traditional can be reimagined.

www.lucywinndesign.com/

London Design Festival 2019: Julian Leedham

All images: ©Varioustudios

The act of creation requires destruction, so where is the value in making? If a plastic duck requires oil to be sucked from the earth, factories to refine and produce it, just so it can float in a bath for 2 years before floating in an ocean for 498 years. What value does it bring?

MPH1901

Thinking about value gave rise to PINN, a vessel for growth. Allowing for the cultivation and propagation of a variety of plants, herbs and vegetables. 

Once nurtured they can be moved indoors, potted and displayed upon HOOP, a unit designed to house an array of plants or MESH, a smaller entity designed to support plant growth.

Eventually what was propagated can propagate once again in an endless circle of Growth and Form.

Glass work designed by Julian Leedham made by Emma Baker.

www.julianleedham.co.uk

London Design Festival 2019: Philippine Hamen

All images: ©Varioustudios

Philippine Hamen’s work covers product, furniture and interior design, intertwining it with the diverse influences of literature, architecture and ergonomics. In parallel of her designer/maker practice conducted from her studio in south-east London, she is pursuing a MA of Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Arts with a research focusing on the semiology of objects.

Powders

Powders is a collection of powder coated finishes obtained by mixing different powders together in order to restore a chromatic complexity to industrial products.

The metallic surfaces coated with the mixes of powder take on as models the complex natural textures of sand, moss and rust. The fourth piece presents a blue surface that could never exist in nature.

The powder mixes have been applied to the simple, almost pure, volumes of generic and anonymous steel tableware.