In the Studio With — Friendship and skill exchange are at the heart of Manchester’s multidisciplinary collective The Engine House

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

As an extended group of friends, The Engine House collective have created their ideal working space; one where collaboration and exchange are constant, inspiration and input flow freely between various projects and tools and processes are shared in a supportive, open environment. Set in a three-story Victorian mill in Manchester, their multidisciplinary studio is a hard-working, fun-loving mix of 14 people and 12 businesses, ranging from graphic designers and illustrators to an upholsterer and a prop stylist. As part of the wider Islington Mills studios, neighbouring businesses include a bed and breakfast, live-music venue and gallery. Communal endeavours are at the core of Engine House’s ethos, whether creating joint pop-up shops, hosting screenings and fundraising events, DJing for each other or sharing the important task of ordering in the annual batch of 1,200 tea bags.

The Engine House




Salford, Manchester


14 individuals, including 12 businesses

Social Media

Inside The Engine House


Before moving into the Engine House together last January 2016, we were all friends working from separate studio spaces within Islington Mill. We were supporting each other’s work and borrowing equipment, and we already had a great love for the place and its ethos. A big part of the reason we moved in together was to gain space, share tools and skills and have more autonomy over our workspace. Before that we all had pretty ropey, cold, damp studio spaces elsewhere in Manchester.

We all work in some form of image making or visual communication. This includes illustration, graphic design and visual arts, but also textiles, furniture design and upholstery, prop and fashion styling, ceramics, education and social engagement. We have an interesting mix of commercial and non-commercial, university-educated and self-taught people, so our approach is often very DIY, collaborative, hands-on and a mash-up of physical and digital work. There’s no formal structure to the studio as we are all self-employed, or semi-self-employed. Everyone looks after the space, and each of us contributes different things to the gang.

“All our practices have evolved – we’ve merged resources, and we’ve each been inspired to try new processes or work in new ways.”

Since sharing the space, all our practices have evolved – we’ve merged resources, and we’ve each been inspired to try new processes or work with each other in new ways on projects that would have been much more difficult before. Sharing ideas and tools happens casually when you are working side by side, and this opens up your work to the nature of chance and coincidence. We’ve also been approached specifically as a collective to work on projects, combining all of our skills to create new work.

Inside The Engine House

Mark Edwards

Inside The Engine House

Inside The Engine House

Inside The Engine House

Inside The Engine House

Inside The Engine House


The Work

In the past year we have worked together on lots of different projects. We’ve done Secret 7” artwork, a group show at Clerkenwell Design Week as ‘One of One’, a pop-up shop selling one-of-a-kind pieces, organised a Halloween screening of Ghostwatch and created Mystery Tubes (collating a lucky-dip of experimental, spare or rejected artworks for sale to help raise money for a new Islington Mill roof). We’ve also set up The Engine House Print Shop, and quite a few of us have contributed artwork to local brewery Cloudwater’s beer labels, as Textbook (run by Vicky Carr, John Newton and Chris Shearston) and do all their design work.

In the next few months, we’re excited to collaborate on Sounds From the Other City music festival again (a branding and decorating the festival, for which we host a bar and a stage from inside the studio), a cross-disciplinary educational project called Unit X with Manchester School of Art, and an audiovisual installation for Manchester After Hours at the Museum of Science and Industry. We started off working on smaller projects together, but as time has gone on we are attempting bigger and more ambitious work. It’s also nice to see individual members’ successes, such as DR.ME’s [Mark Edwards] book Cut That Out being published, Mariel [Osborn] launching the COVET Interiors online shop, Aliyah’s new jewellery venture, and Steve’s cycling zine TCOD taking off.

“We’ve also been approached specifically as a collective to work on projects, combining all of our skills to create new work.”

A postcard set created by The Engine House collective

Selling studio prints

Mark Edwards (DR.ME) preparing for an event at The Engine House


The Team

In terms of numbers, we’re pretty full! And as our collective is primarily a shared studio space, we don’t actively look for people to join, unless someone decides to leave. When forming the collective, we discussed wanting to share a space with people we trust, get along with and have a creative practice, but also people who come into work every day. We wanted to maintain a busy, fun studio culture. We also have a wider group of friends known as ‘The Engine House & Friends’ – our frequent collaborators, such as Stina Puotinen, John Powell-Jones and Rivca Burns.

It’s hard to say which of us has the most unusual job role, because all of us wear so many hats or are simultaneously involved in lots of different projects. Most people seem to have two or three ‘jobs’ on average. This seems pretty standard for creative freelancers. The weirdest jobs we do, furthest away from our actual jobs, are probably the bits of part-time work, including carpark attending, working at a blood bank, invigilating artwork in a garage, baking cakes or taking money on the door of a gig.

Mark Endwards (DR.ME) and Steve Hockett

Prop maker and set stylist Mariel Osborn

Inside The Engine House

Artist Paul Hallows

The Engine House collective on their first birthday


The Culture

We are about 20 minutes’ walk from Manchester’s Northern Quarter, on the doorstep of Salford University, the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library, and loads of great cafes and pubs. Although we are separate to the main Mill building now, we still use the common room for cooking and meeting, and go to monthly pot-luck dinners with the other residents.

We have music playing all the time in the Engine House, even weekends. Everyone takes a turn DJing as we have pretty eclectic and differing tastes. On a Friday we have a retro hour, and we rarely need an excuse to open a few beers. We recently had a big studio Christmas party, and an Engine House First Birthday party to celebrate our first year together, which were both really fun.

“None of us pictured ourselves ordering 144 toilet rolls, industrial size bags of tea or huge quantities of q-tips for the Risograph.”

The Engine House’s surrounding buildings

After initially planning to rip out the kitchen on the ground floor to make more space, we now really love having it here and we cook and eat together regularly. We have fortnightly Friday-morning meetings followed by a home-cooked group lunch. In summer months we sit outside in Islington Mill’s courtyard, and we have regular ‘build days’ to improve the space, which are for painting, building storage, cleaning and installing new equipment or furniture. None of us pictured ourselves ordering 144 toilet rolls, industrial size bags of tea (1,200 lasts 14 people a year, apparently) or huge quantities of baby wipes and q-tips for the Risograph.

Not long after moving in, we started using Slack, and now we don’t know how we’d get by without it. We use it for everything – there’s a ‘bants’ thread, ‘housekeeping’ thread and ‘crit’ thread. For us, our entire lifestyle is work-is-play/play-is-work, but that’s not to say it’s easy. In the words of L. P. Jacks: “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Charlie Hitchen
Collection: In the Studio With
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Photography, Illustration
Mentions: The Engine House, Mariel Orborn, Paul Hallows, Steve Hockett, Vicky Carr, Mark Edwards

Creative Lives from The Engine House

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