Chalk Architecture

Emerging triumphantly from an adverse recession, Chalk Architecture is testament to the notion that creativity thrives amidst economic crises. Having worked together as part of another practice for several years before the business eventually folded, Paul Nicholson and Damon Webb took the opportunity to start anew with their own practice – and Chalk was born. In their current guise, Paul and Damon have worked on a number of projects for the MyHotel chain and have been responsible for the formation of the Small Batch Coffee Company’s award-winning new branding.

On a cold and rainy afternoon, we met with the two founders of Chalk in the cosy refuge of their recently completed Small Batch outlet in MyHotel Brighton, UK, to discuss the stories behind their salvaged materials and why travelling trunks and tea-chests are key to their design ethos.

When did you first start your involvement with MyHotel?

Paul: We did the first fit-out of the restaurant in MyHotel and designs for the business unit behind the bar as part of another practice in Brighton, which we previously worked for until it folded three years ago. As part of Chalk Architecture, Damon went on to design the refurbishment of the lobby WC – a really glamorous job!

So you decided to set up your own business when the other practice went under?

Damon: Yes - we’d already kind of mooted it, but this gave us the impetus to do it.

Paul: This was at a time when we had no choice but to start our own business – there was no other work out there.

Damon: But fortunately we already had a couple of projects to start working on – otherwise we’d have been doing nothing for six months!

You designed the Small Batch at MyHotel and the Wilbury Road outlet; were there any others that you worked on?

Paul: Small Batch has a couple of coffee carts outside Hove and Brighton stations, and we worked on the branding for those. Essentially, we worked with the client to move the brand on from their existing image – evolve it a bit. They wanted to retain the emblematic nature of the brand but push it forward and diversify it; make it a bit more playful, I think.

Chalk Architecture covers everything from architecture to interior design to branding; it seems a very holistic way of working. Do you work things through with the client from the very beginning to the end on most projects?

Damon: That’s the ideal scenario for us; not every client wants that, but that’s the way we’re going.

Paul: We like to keep control of the whole thing, so we know exactly what it looks like when the doors open. We can go as far as helping with menu guidance, choosing cutlery and visual merchandising, uniforms etc. I think a lot of our design and architecture has a simplicity to it, but there is a strong, central, ‘big idea’ somewhere in there. I don’t think it’s ever literal but there’s something which is tying all the ideas together, from the branding and the graphics all the way through to the interiors and the raw architecture. Going back to the nature of our service, that’s what we’d like to try and sell; the fact that if you let us control the whole thing, we will hopefully give a branded solution back to you.

Damon: Which then also means it’s a lot easier to roll out for other branches.

So there’s often an overarching narrative to projects such as this. What were your ideas behind the narrative for the Small Batch project?

Paul: Designing for clients like Brad – the owner of Small Batch – in a way is easy, because he’s very passionate about the product and the service that he’s trying to deliver, and he’s also really knowledgeable about how to deliver it. That passion feeds the design process.

Was there a particular type of visual inspiration that directed your approach?

Paul: Well, it’s all about the coffee really. That’s becoming a bit of a tired phrase, but it really is about how to deliver the coffee and the experience of it. The people at Small Batch are very focused on the taste, the flavour and the quality of the product, where it’s from and how it’s derived, so we tried to evoke a sense of that with the notion of trade. It’s quite a simple, bold narrative in that the timber references the quality of the warehouse. One image that we couldn’t ever get out of our mind was the travelling trunk; it’s not a fine piece of cabinetry, just an honest, robust piece of luggage.

Damon: The image is somewhere between that and the tea-chest – just a functional piece of kit.

Paul: Exactly – it’s quite straightforward but in that way, it’s honest. It is brutal in part because it can deal with being thrown around, shipped from place to place and beaten up a bit. All of our materials have that inherent kind of character.

It also evokes stories and a sense of history.

Damon: Yes, and there are also more literal references like the hessian, which is obviously a direct reference to coffee sacks.

The Wilbury Road branch of Small Batch was shortlisted for the WAN Retail Interiors Awards. How did you feel about getting this kind of recognition?

Paul: It’s such a big compliment to know that we’ve nailed it, it works, it’s right. I think because Chalk is only three years old, the idea of being recognised for doing a project is honestly a bit of a shock! We’ve done something that people like, and that’s really humbling. It has definitely had an impact as well; we’ve had a number of enquiries from other professionals, all potential collaborators. Our core service completely relies upon knowing other key professionals – graphic designers, branding people, and visual merchandisers – and without that network, that family of specialists, we wouldn’t be able to deliver what we deliver. It gives us quite a strong position whereby we can offer a bespoke service to the client.

Damon: In these times it’s more financially practical as well for our practice. But even though it’s been the worst recession for years, we haven’t had more than a day between us over that time where we haven’t actually had anything to do, which is quite an achievement I think.

You tend to use salvaged materials, second-hand finds and antique pieces in your designs. Do you in part draw inspiration from the materials that you are working with?

Damon: I think that did happen here (in the MyHotel Small Batch) with the timber for instance – that was kind of a find, and it was just a matter of working out the best way to use it.

Paul: Yes, there was a big idea to put a particular type of timber on the walls, which is quite easy to come up with, but the hard work went into researching scores and scores of different suppliers and finding the right kind of timber. Most of the materials we use are locally sourced as well – the bricks at the bar, for example, are originally from a psychiatric unit in Newhaven – so each component has got a bit of a story behind it, these layers of anecdotes.

Damon: But that’s almost by chance, which adds another level of interest to it. It also gives the client the opportunity to use that as part of their marketing and create the story of the brand.

It’s quite a refreshing offset to the proliferation of dull, ‘identikit’ coffee shops.

Damon: Yes, but then on the other hand it is roll out-able and has quite a distinctive image to it that can be transferred to different sites. Having said that, I don’t think it could ever be transferred to another site without taking the idiosyncrasies of that particular space into account.

Can you tell us about your theoretical interest in the phenomenon of space and place?

Paul: Reversing fifteen years or so to when we were back at university, my teaching was about phenomenology and understanding what it is about a space or place that you take away from it as a memory; what makes a place what it is.

Damon: It’s very easy to identify it when it’s not there – to go into a restaurant and feel straight away that it just doesn’t quite work. It’s just putting your finger on exactly why that is.

Paul: One of the fundamental issues with the MyHotel site was the level of the unit in relation to the pavement; it was about a foot lower, so when people were sitting there they’d be looking up at the street. It’s a very strange environment when you’re being looked down upon, and just the simple move of putting everybody on high stools and high tables brings everybody back onto the right plane all of a sudden. As a by-product I think it also makes it feel more ‘canteeny’, bustling and busy, with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. And when the customer knows that’s what the space is about, nobody minds and you squeeze up next to somebody and start having a chat. It’s really quite communal. And that’s about understanding the nature of the place, spotting that there’s an issue and saying, how can we make something of it?

Is there a particular aspect of the whole design process that you enjoy most?

Paul: There’s that moment when you’ve been looking for things, you’ve really been grappling for the solution to a big idea and the clock is ticking, and then you suddenly come up with something - that’s a nice moment, when you realise you’ve got it!

Damon: The projects are often quite fast-track, so even three hours before the building opens the site will still be just full of rubbish and you can’t quite see it; there’ll be forty builders still in there sawing stuff out from the floorings all covered in plastic, but then there’s that moment of realisation when you realise it is actually all going to be alright! But most of all, with this and the other pubs, clubs and restaurants that we’ve worked on, it’s seeing the space you’ve designed full of people looking like they’re having a good time and enjoying it.

Amy Knight, Arts & Media Correspondent