In the Studio With — “Lovely big windows was a winner, lots of light is key to any good work place!”
This article was published as part of our soft launch in 2016.
Having met at Chelsea College or Arts while studying graphic design Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner set up the aptly named studio Isabel + Helen soon after. Describing themselves as a creative partnership specialising in set design and interactive installations they have built an impressive client list to include the likes of Selfridges, Nike, Victoria & Albert Museum, Puma, The RIBA and Red Bull Music Academy. We visit them in their south London studio to see where it all comes together…
Isabel + Helen
Address: V22 Studios, Peckham
Staff: 2 + freelance
Hours: Typically 9.30am till 6.30pm (often there are late nights and very early mornings for retail installs or larger builds)
We setup the studio about three years ago. Initially we took on jobs on a part-time basis but have been operating full-time from our studio in Peckham for the last year and a half. We started out designing and building installations for institutions such at the V&A which gave us great freedom to explore 3D design. As we have grown, we have started working on more commercial projects, such as creating window displays and sets for fashion shoots. The mixture of work has always been varied and it’s what keeps things interesting – it doesn’t feel like work most days.
There are just two full time members of staff, ourselves (Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner). We have a team of designers, builders and assistants that we employ on a freelance basis depending on the projects we have on. It makes for a really fluid work environment where every week is different to the next. It also means we get to work with a variety of people, each with their own unique skills set – from architects to carpenters.
What is important about the working environment?
A place and enough space to make mess if we need to!
What was it about this space that made it right?
Having enough room for a workshop and a quieter desk area was really important to us when looking for a space. Also the lovely big windows was a winner, as lots of light is key to any good work place! - the ladder up onto the roof was a definite deal breaker.
What’s the best thing about the studio?
We love the communal aspect. We share with other designers/makers and the building itself is full of different people all doing exciting things. There’s lots of illustrators and photographers who are always popping by for a cup of tea and it’s great to collaborate with them.
How would you talk about the studio culture?
It is a space where you are free to dabble – we often build quick prototypes of ideas to test whether they will be successful or not, having the workshop give us the opportunity to design by making or vice versa. Most of the time the studio has a relaxed atmosphere. We normally listen to the radio when we’re building, or our friend Dan who shares the space with us, often takes on the roll of studio DJ. He’s recently got back from South America so there’s been lots of latino going on. We’re out in the sticks so for lunch we make grilled cheese sandwiches and salads for who ever is in on that particular day or go to the local Millwall cafe which does a fantastic fry up! There’s also an ice-cream van that visits most days and now knows to park up outside our window.
What do you look for when recruiting and adding the team?
Enthusiastic, hard-working and passionate about what they do!
Are there any self initiated studio projects projects?
We often collaborate with photographers and do personal projects when we get time. These are not necessarily for a client but more just to broaden our portfolio and try out new approaches. Pick Me Up was a really exciting personal project for us a couple of months back, we exhibited a series of automated instruments in the exhibition at Somerset House. It was great to work with a completely open brief and spend time exploring different kinetic possibilities to create sounds.
Photography by Jake Green
I’m pretty lucky as live quite close to the studio meaning it only takes a 15 minute cycle in the mornings. A great way to start the day and it means i'm wide awake when i get to work. Usually we start the day with a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal before spending the first hour replying to emails and working out the jobs for the day. From then on the jobs can vary wildly from sketching ideas to building them in the workshop, from learning about a new material to wiring a mechanism. Every job usually requires a different skill set meaning we are always learning a new way of working and frequently watching youtube tutorials.
The mornings are always the most productive and then after lunch the afternoon flies by in a moment and before we know it, it's 8pm. We often have to work into the evenings but this comes part in parcel with being a new studio. At the moment we have to take on many roles such as designer, project manager, producer and often builder. We try to hire in freelancers where possible to take on the different specialisms required. Luckily this is becoming more and more frequent as we grow meaning we can concentrate on the jobs we enjoy the most such as the art direction and design of a job.
Towards the end of a project the late nights often become a little later and when it comes to installing a commission, our routine can change massively. Sometimes when installing retail spaces our 'day' will start at 10pm, working through the night to coincide with opening hours. This tends to be tiring but pretty exciting at the same time! A lack of routine can be a bit of a pain but it ensures our job stays exciting, making everyday unique so it is very rarely boring.
My journey to the studio usually takes about an hour and involves getting the overground followed by a longish walk or a short cycle. Once arriving at the studio the first thing we do is put the kettle on. Then Isabel and I sit down to reply to emails and compile a list of everything that needs doing that day. Depending on what projects we are working on, the day can pan out in many different ways. Some mornings will consist of sketching out initial ideas for a project or prototyping mechanical sculptures in the workshop. Whilst other days can be spent ensuring that we are up to date with our receipts and the logistical sides of running a business such as chasing an unpaid invoice or tending to an expenses spreadsheet. As we grow as a studio we hope to employ people more specialist to help with these different roles, such as project managers/producers but for now we carry out these different aspects of the job with help from part-time assistants.
Photoshoots are another element of our job that happen about once a week or so. This means getting up super early and loading the set into the van ready for call time which is usually around 8am. Spending a day on set can be quite hectic but it’s always good to get out of the studio and have a change of scenery.
Afternoons in the studio fly by really fast and often include compiling our ideas into presentation decks ready to send over to the client for the end of the day. However if we are in the production stage of a job then there’s likely to be a trip to B & Q and a visit to the metal works down the road to seek some technical help on one thing or another. We try and organise meetings for the end of the day to save time travelling back and forth. This could be a briefing from a client, a site visit or a meet up with a photographer to discuss ideas. We usually finish around 7pm but sometimes we end up working late into the evening if we are on a tight deadline or have a night time install.