INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Chalk Architecture is a holistic architecture and design practice with a fixation on coffee. Based in the southern British county of Sussex, Chalk has worked with independent coffee shop chain Small Batch to produce an exciting blend of café interiors. Over the past five years, Chalk has designed six Small Batch outlets across the twin coastal cities of Brighton and Hove. Their design for the Wilbury Road outlet was previously shortlisted for the WAN Retail Interiors Award. Sarah Roberts meets up with Chalk architect and designer, Paul Nicholson, to see how the collaboration has developed.

How did you get into architecture and design in the first place?
I was given a book, Nikolaus Pevsner's History of Western Europe when I was eleven. It was completely useless, just black and white pictures, but my interest in architecture started from there. After school I went to Kingston University to study architecture and did my degree, diploma and Part III over eight years.

How do you think the market is at the moment in terms of available projects?
We are very busy but we are also very specialised. We are not a traditional firm of architects. We focus on hospitality and retail and offer the full service, design wise, from a detailed illustration of a logo all the way through to an architectural resolution of a shell and core project. We can do everything.

How did your relationship with the Small Batch coffee chain begin?
It actually started over a coffee in a shop in Brighton that Small Batch was already providing with wholesale beans. I randomly started talking to Brad from Small Batch and it built from there. We have since designed the interiors for all their shops across Brighton and Hove.

What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment we are fitting out a new Small Batch shop in the Seven Dials area of Brighton that sells commercial coffee machines downstairs and cups of coffee upstairs. The interior is much more intense. The architectonics of the other coffee shop sites has an overriding narrative that concerns the use of timber. In the basement of the Seven Dials store something else is going on. It is about production and learning. It will open in February 2013.

How do you think the Small Batch design reflects the city of Brighton?
Interestingly, if you start a design process with the intention of evoking a sense of a place, Brighton or anywhere else, you can immediately miss the point. Brighton is all about spirit rather than detail. Brighton North Laine is the home of the independent retailer, whereas The Lanes have more national stores. So the spirit of Brighton is being passionate about whatever service or product you provide. The person behind it is as important as the brand itself. Small Batch definitely reflects that.

How have you built up a design language for Small Batch?
There's a narrative, a big idea that underpins everything. And really it's a different take on how you perceive brand. We didn't want people to walk into a Small Batch shop and get slapped with the brand, like you would in other generic high street chains.

At Small Batch the identity is broken up and placed into the interior but very rarely do you get a Small Batch logo and an explanation of what they're about in one place. The dome motif is a constant design feature but where you see those domes changes. For example at My Hotel, graffiti on a column outside the shop depicts Merv Hughes [former Australian cricketer] drinking a cup of coffee with the Small Batch logo on the cup. The design is about not being constrained by conventional perception of how you place brand into a retail site and it works really well. It's all about the coffee.

You use a lot of salvaged materials in your interior design. What's the fascination?
Due to the nature of our work, which is retail on one side and residential on the other, we "up-cycle" a lot of material. We might rip something out of one site, an old house or something, and bring it over to a different project. There is a cross pollination of materials throughout our work. At the My Hotel site we re-used mahogany wood that was languishing in a shed in Kent for ten years. It was covered in mould and mildew but is now part of the interior. But we never just take salvaged material, a parquet floor for example, and re-use it directly. There is always an element of change.

Where's your favourite salvage yard?
Sussex. Where exactly is a secret!

What else about the county of Sussex influences your design?
The materials we are using for the Seven Dials shop evokes a traditional building method for Sussex barns. We are involved with a lot of listed building work, particularly refurbishing barns, and the knowledge of that construction detail can be brought into a retail environment in a hybridised way. It works as a reference point to reinforce a sense of Sussex.

The Wilbury Road outlet was shortlisted for the WAN Retail Interiors Award. Has this benefitted you as a practice? Absolutely. Increased marketing spreads the word and we will continue to put our projects forward for competitions if we think the outcome is worth it.

What does the future hold for Chalk?
We are focusing on leisure industry projects at the moment, such as pubs and clubs in the local area.

And finally, Paul, as a designer, what would you most like for Christmas?
Oh, a 1970s MK 1 Range Rover in tan! I did my year out in Cape Town and used to borrow my boss's to drive around the Western province.

Sarah Roberts
Assistant Editor