WELL, SOME INTERVIEWS ARE PROBABLY BEST LEFT TO SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES…BALLS OF STEEL FROM RIBA, MYSTERIES IN LEADENHALL INSPIRED BY DREAMS, A BEACH HUT THAT SOMEHOW MANAGES TO COMBINE CHIC AND ARTY WITH ‘KISS ME QUICK’, COFFEE TABLES INSPIRED BY CAKE, AND POP-UP SKATING RINKS IN LONDON’S KINGS CROSS. LONDON-BASED TAREK MERLIN AND JULIA FEIX HAVE SPECTACULAR IMAGINATIONS, SO READ ON TO TAKE A WANDER THROUGH THEIR CREATIVE WONDERLAND…
But first, a little factual background on this most dynamic of duos. Both joined Will Alsop’s studio in Battersea in 2001. Tarek went on to work on some high profile projects with Will, including the ‘Palestra’ office building and Queen Mary University’s ‘Blizard Building’, later moving on to work as Senior Architect at yoo, a high-end interior design studio co-founded by John Hitchcox and Philippe Starck.
Julia worked with Will’s ‘BIG Architecture’ team on major regeneration projects such as the Bradford Masterplan, then going on to work at Buckley Gray Yeoman as Senior Architect. And all the time, in the background, Will was helping to facilitate their future success…more on that later.
And, of course, we’re extremely pleased to have Tarek onboard as a judge on our exciting Emerging Interior Practice of the Year category in this year’s WIN Awards. He explains what will impress him…
Tarek, what appealed to you about this category, and what will you be looking for in the submissions?
Tarek: Thank you, I’m delighted to be involved actually - we love to see new work and it’s hugely rewarding to help celebrate emerging talent.
I think what’s important is that the work has a strong attitude, something with guts and a sense of individuality. A clarity of vision is always something I look for. I love it when there’s a strong single idea, but, it has to be well executed, and taken through the project at a detailed level.
Equally, we like to see that the designer has worked with their client in a meaningful, collaborative way, and really understood their needs, desires and wants.
At the current time, what do you think are some of the greatest challenges to smaller practices gaining the recognition they deserve?
Julia: The vicious circle probably every small/young practice finds itself entangled in is the lack of confidence a client has in you due to the lack of funds in your account. And without a client willing to give you a project in a higher fee category, you won’t ever be able to aquire those funds and therefore your account history won’t pass the minimum threshold required by most PQQs [pre-qualification questionnaires]. This is, and has been, the hardest challenge to crack.
Tarek: Yes, convincing clients to take that leap with you, is one of the key issues a small practice faces. We have been very lucky with our clients, and had lots of amazing adventures together.
And Julia, cutting straight to the chase, you’ve been quoted as saying: “Balls of steel should be available as free issue from the RIBA.” We’d love to know what prompted that particular comment?
Architecture is a difficult business to be in. Not only as a small business and as a woman, but also from a professional angle. There is a lot of risk involved, especially when you try and wander off the beaten track. Introducing the use of new techniques or new materials is not always met with the same amount of enthusiasm as the “safe pair of hands”, “tried and tested” approach… So don’t get me wrong – the balls of steel are meant for our clients – mine were set up, installed and activated a long time ago!
As a practice, you have said that you pride yourselves on being able to look backwards and forwards simultaneously when considering a project. This must be a real selling point for you when you come to do sensitive refurbishments such as at the Peacock Theatre – a space shared by the London School of Economics and Sadler’s Wells - and at the famous Garrick Club in London. Taking these historically significant institutions, how has this ability contributed to the success of the projects?
Tarek: Yes, we always look for clues in the background of any project, to see how these might echo back into the work. There’s always something interesting in the site’s history, the back-story of the clients themselves, that can be woven in - even in a very subtle way. The idea is to create something that is distinctly contemporary yet at the same time somehow strangely familiar.
You’ve also been involved in a number of projects relating to the transformation of London’s Kings Cross. Can you tell us a little about them and the impact they had when they were unveiled?
Julia: Our Gasholder #8 project, a design for a competition to come up with a playful idea for one of the remaining gasholders in the King’s Cross masterplan, was the beginning of our relationship with the developer, Argent. They loved our presentation and thought our idea was brilliant, if a little bonkers. We didn’t win the commission, but parted with a promise that we’d work together on something else in the future.
We stayed in touch and Argent then approached us some time later to come up with an idea to activate one of the spaces around the corner from the now very successful, Granary Square. So we came up with the idea of a temporary ‘pop-up’ roller rink, combined with music events and street food. It was the perfect people magnet for the summer. The project was a complete success – it generated over £200,000 in PR value and, thanks to a brilliant PR and social media campaign, reached over 330 million people!
Tarek: Yes, the amazing thing was taking this beautiful but forgotten industrial space and watching it come to life. It sounds cheesy but there was a huge joy in watching people flooding into the space, laughing and enjoying themselves roller skating around this thing we had created.
And now, for something completely different (far from the hustle and bustle of central London) you’ve created a state-of-the-art beach hut in the small seaside town of Mablethorpe on the UK’s east coast. Can either or both of you explain a little about what makes ‘Eyes Wide sHut’ at once modern, surreal and sleek but still cheeky enough to give a ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ to a little traditional seaside naughtiness?
Tarek: The beach hut in Mablethorpe will always be close to our heart as it was our first built project. Such a beautiful location. We definitely wanted to invoke that sense of nostalgia of a typical British seaside holiday, which was the thinking behind the big picture-postcard elevation.
At the same time, we aimed to create a touch of the surreal - that idea of privacy in puclic - the two-way mirrored film on the glass lets you see out, but poeple can’t see in.
Someone actually said at the opening “Ooh, you could get up to all sorts in there!” which really made us chuckle.
Moving on to your studios…you relocated to The Sunday Painter – an art gallery – in Peckham in south London in February earlier this year. Why did you choose to base your London studio there?
Julia: We both live pretty close and, as a creative studio, Peckham feels like a good place to be at the moment. We also liked the space, and the fact that it’s combined with an art gallery only adds to the fun. The exhibitions usually run between 2 and 4 weeks and inbetween shows we sometimes rent the space for special occasions. We are planning to have a summer party there this year – to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Come!
Tarek: I love the connection to the art gallery. It’s so interesting to see the new exhbitions going up before they’re open to the public. It’s a wonderful distraction, and often really inspiring to our work. Yes, you have to come to our summer party!
And in 2013, you opened a satellite office in São Paulo, Brazil, now headed up by you, Julia. What was the motivation behind that, and how did you come to speak Portuguese as well as Spanish, English and German?
Julia: I was born and raised in Germany. As part of my degree I spent a year studying and working in Madrid and I learned to speak Spanish then. I came to London 15 years ago. In 2013 my partner was offered a 3-year assignment in São Paulo and so it made sense for F&M to set up the little satellite office over there. We spent that time in Brazil, and over there you won’t get anywhere fast without Portuguese…so I did a crash course and developed it further with a teacher over there. My Spanish helped a lot, and I love learning new languages.
What’s next in the pipeline for Feix & Merlin?
Julia: We’re working on a number of interiors projects - high-end hotel and residential projects - as well as a boxing gym start-up and a chiropractor’s clinic. We’re building a 1,500 sq ft visitor centre/café in the Olympic park in Stratford, and we’re working with Hackney Walk on the fit out of a stretch of railway arches in Hackney. A busy summer…
Tarek: we’ve just started on a new member’s club in Soho as well which is going to be amazing. Yes, a very exciting summer!
Winding back the clock to 2001 when you both went to work for Will Alsop, was that the first time you had met?
Tarek: Yes, that was a wonderful period for both of us. Will is an incredibly inspiring and charming man, and we learnt a lot from our experience working with him. He always taught us to enjoy our work, and remind ourselves of the joy and delight in what we do.
Julia: Yes, he’s been one of our biggest supporters and we are still very close friends.
You both moved on to other practices, so how did your paths cross again, ultimately leading to the setting up of Feix & Merlin in 2006, and what made you go into practice together?
Julia: Actually, we set up F&M whilst still working at Alsop. Will was always very supportive of us doing our own thing on the side and even let us work from his office. He trusted us to not abuse his generosity and we never did. I always loved his approach of trying to include young, progressive practices in bigger frameworks and projects. Architecture is a very competitive industry, sometimes unnecessarily so… it’s refreshing to have a more inclusive approach.
Tarek: Yes we have had a wonderful adventure so far, working for some incredibly inspiring and talented people along the way. All these working relationships we’ve had, they have all helped inform who we are, and our approach to design.
As well as architecture and interiors, the practice now incorporates F&M Products and F&M Branding. Who gets to dream up the wonderful names in these ranges, like Le Chateau Gateaux (a coffee table based on traditional plaster ceiling cornices) and the Mr Darcy Sofa (speaks for itself)? How would a typical brainstorming session work to arrive at these ideas – if there is such a thing as typical?
Julia: Brainstorming at F&M is always fun. Especially if we need a name, we sometimes involve friends. We once named a project after a dream my partner had. It was called “The MysTREE of Leadenhall” – it still makes me laugh. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what that was all about!
We have always felt that your experience of a space is holistic, and it starts with brand identity. It all started when we had the opportunity to develop brand identity with one of our clients, alongside the interior architecture, and found it hugely satisfying to begin with that approach. The two are so intrinsically linked for us, it makes the whole project that much more engaging and satisfying.
Tarek: We love working at different scales, from larger scale masterplans to individual buildings, to interiors, brand indentity design, and now product design. There’s something hugely satisfying about resolving design issues at the smaller scale, like a chair or a light.
The products can sometimes name themselves; the pendants for example – the Wentworth – it has this shape about it that reminded us of a kind of well-fed English gent – slightly portly but quite charming all the same.
Thank you, but Julia, you can’t tell us half of the MysTREE of Leadenhall story and not solve it? Anything to do with some famous skyscrapers?
You actually pretty much nailed it on the MysTREE mystery. It was a competition to come up with an intermediate use for a site in Leadenhall, the one that is now occupied by the ‘Cheesegrater’ building. The credit crunch caused a bit of a delay but the building works were well under way and the multiple basements were already excavated, leaving a massive hole in the ground. The developers thought maybe there could be a fun, cool intermediate use making sense of the big hole whilst they sorted out the reasons for the delay.
We submitted a proposal for an enchanted forest, with trees and a little cabin, basically a beautiful pop-up garden with a little commercial unit in it, amidst the skyscrapers. From the pavement you would have been walking amidst the tree tops - that's how deep the hole was. Mysterious, no?
Understood now, thank you. You’ve also taken a basic material like concrete and turned it into something that wouldn’t look out of place in a stately home. Please tell us a bit about your fabulous Concrete Panels?
Tarek: The idea was to take something very familiar, like traditional Georgian timber panelling, and re-invent it in an entirely contemporary material.
We’re working with an amazing company, Graphic Relief, who were able to recreate the 3D effect of the panelling as a 2D trompe l’oeil effect in concrete. Its amazingly smooth to the touch, almost silky, and then you can feel the tiny dots that create the 3D effect.
The whole system is modular, a series of panels that all fit together like a kit of parts, so you can create your own arrangement to fit a wall of any size. It can go internally, including wet spaces, and could even be used externally as cladding. You can also have them with artwork embedded into the concrete, and you can actually use your own images - a favourite family photo for example, forever immortalised in concrete.
Do you ever argue at work? And do you crave space from each other outside the studio - or might we find you hanging out together at the weekends, mulling over new ideas?
Tarek: Ha ha yes! We love a bit of a heated debate. We’re passionate about our work, and its actually through this rigorous discussion that we end up with a much stronger design. Its always important as designers to be able to think through your work critically, and be challenged on the decision making process.
Julia: Yes, of course we argue at work – it’s part of the process. It’s good to have strongly held views - be it about architecture, politics or fashion styles. We were friends before we were business partners, so yes, you will most definitely find us hanging out together at the weekends, but we try not to talk shop then. A healthy work-life balance is very important in our office.
Do you both live in London? And if so, what do you like best about your neighbourhood?
Tarek: I love London, in particular because of all the little pockets and villages within it. There’s always something new to discover, and it is always changing. That, to me, is the absolute definition of a successful city actually, that it is always in a state of change or rather, evolution.
The most fascinating thing is being able to watch and experience and be part of changing culture and evolving urban environment. We’re in Peckham now, which is going through a huge amount of change as we speak; Hoxton hipsters partying alongside old south London locals and Afro-Caribbean hairdressers...new developments and social enterprises springing up and sprouting out of derelict buildings or bundling themselves into old car parks.
Julia: When we came back from Brazil we moved to a rented apartment in Haggerston and I really love having the opportunity to see London from a different side. There is so much diversity in Hackney, people watching is just wonderful. My favourite pastime is eating out and there is so much choice, I use an app to remind me where to go and what to try. I am looking forward to being back in our own apartment in Elephant & Castle/London Bridge in October; it feels a bit like I’ll be returning to my own age bracket!
To each of you: if you hadn’t been an architect/designer, what else might you have dreamed of being?
Julia: Running a caipirinha bar on a beach on the north-eastern coast of Brazil. I might still do that one day.
Tarek: I think I would have always been a dreamer of some kind - a writer, an artist or something. I’m very happy and lucky to love what I do I suppose. And it’s the challenges we face in architecture and design that make it all the more interesting. I’ll definitely be up for enjoying a caipirinha in Julia’s bar at some point though. I look forward to that!
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1: Julia with Tarek
Img 2: Peacock Theatre
Img 3: Kings Cross Gasholder
Img 4: Kings Cross Skate KX
Img 5: Eyes Wide sHut
Img 6: Peckham Studio
Img 7: Chateau Gateaux
Img 8: The Wentworth
Img 9: Concrete Panels