OPEN studio, which occupies the first floor of an old photography studio in London’s De Beauvoir area, is home to no fewer than 14 young creatives – mostly illustrators, art directors and designers, plus a screenprinter and a publisher. As well as running their own individual practices, the occupants of the studio have a shared philosophy: “To provide support, criticism, dialogue, fairness, opportunity, a sense of belonging and fresh ambition to both our creative work and independent businesses, and in turn help others to benefit from the same,” says one of the studio’s founders, illustrator Holly Wales. “The two main objectives of OPEN are education and entrepreneurship within illustration and design practice,” she continues.
OPEN was not formed in an instant. Around a year ago, Wales, along with fellow illustrators Robert Evans (of Telegramme) and David Callow, screenprinter Loren Filis, and publisher Hugh Frost of Landfill Editions decided that they wanted to find a work space they could share. One damp, paper-destroying railway arch space and a dozen studio viewings later, an estate agent mentioned a space in De Beauvoir that they “wouldn’t be interested in”. When they visited, it turned out to be a 3,000 square foot, wooden floored warehouse studio with enormous windows letting natural light flood in on the south and west sides. It was not only big enough for them all to move in (OPEN comfortably occupies half of this studio space with the other half let out separately), but big enough to invite other practitioners to join them and start thinking about work in a new way, made possible by the space itself.
“It had been a dream of mine for a long time to set up something like OPEN,” says Wales. “Teaching has become a really important part of my practice, yet I was really yearning to find the right balance to connect it with my visual work,” she continues. “I needed to find a way of bringing the two closer together – a positive atmosphere where people are continually sharing ideas, materials and tools, to support the move towards independent methods of commercial practice, instead of out-of-the-box jobs in traditional, larger agencies.”
Wales has been thinking about studio space and how it affects her imagemaking for some time. As well as advertising the extra studio desk spaces via her own blog, she takes sole charge of the studio’s finances, sending out a monthly reminder to the group to make sure the rent and the bills are paid on time, while individual studio residents stock up on essentials like teabags, biscuits and loo roll as and when they’re required. “I’ve worked in four different studios since I set up my practice in 2006,” she says. “None were quite like this but I picked up a lot of things in terms of how best to manage a studio, and have developed a sensitivity to the type of people who work well together. For a while I had a studio completely on my own, which was one of the loneliest experiences I’ve ever had and it really affected the type of work I produced. A lot of my thinking behind the formation of OPEN has come from what I knew I didn’t want it to be.”
What OPEN clearly is not is a lonely place. Arranged open plan, the MDF desk surfaces (designed and put together by the studio members according to their own carefully considered studio layout) sit on trestles thoughtfully arranged to give everyone their own equally generous corner space with both horizontal and vertical surfaces to work on, and also display their work.
Resident creatives can get on with their own projects, but are encouraged to share knowledge, advice, constructive criticism, tools, 2 3 ink, printing facilities and, crucially, tea, cake and biscuits. “We made sure everyone who we offered a desk space to was working on their stuff as fulltime as possible,” says Wales. “This means there are no long stretches of the week with no one around, and milk doesn’t go off.”
“We encourage each other to hang out and try to have our morning coffee and pastries at the studio’s kitchen table at least two or three days a week, to catch up and find out what everyone else is up to,” say Robert Evans, of Telegramme. “Every day in the studio is different and we pride ourselves on this fact,” he continues. “The eclectic mix of projects happening around us helps us to try and make sure we are always working on things we still find engaging.”
Illustrator Damien Weighill used to work at a desk just a few feet away from his bed before moving his practice to OPEN but now loves being exposed to things he might never have come across alone at home. “It’s like a better version of the internet where you have these brilliant brains working as filters for all of the information the world has to offer,” he says. “And as a bonus, hardly any of them have tried to sell me Viagra.”
Fellow illustrator Ciara Phelan is equally enthusiastic: “We discuss projects [with one another], offer advice and critique, and on top of this we have lots of banter and make tea for each other, which is essential. The work being produced here is of an exceptional level which is very self motivating and the facilities are great. We have screenprinting, a risograph machine and a ping pong table.”
As well as their individual businesses, the residents of OPEN have plans for group activities beyond sharing fish and chips round the studio’s central table. Exhibitions, talks, and opening the studio to students and fresh graduates for portfolio crits are all on the list of things to do. “We’ve also been thinking about recording some of our more universally useful discussions on theory and practice to be made available online,” says Hugh Frost, one of OPEN’s co-founders and the one-man publishing tour de force behind Landfill Editions and Manymono. “That would make it a truly open project. Also, the possibility of offering space swaps to people working in similar studio set ups abroad is hugely exciting and something we hope to have in place before the end of the year.”
o-p-e-n.org.uk is home to: Adam Hayes, mrahayes.co.uk; Ciara Phelan, iamciara.co.uk, Damien Weighill, damienweighill.com ; David Callow, davidcallow.co.uk; Holly Wales, hollywales.com James Dawe, jamesdawe.co.uk; Landfill Editions/ Manymono (Hugh Frost), landfilleditions.com / manymono.com; Loligo, loligo.org; Loren Filis, lorenfilis.com; Melvin Galapon, mynameismelvin.co.uk; Patternity (Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham), patternity.co.uk; Telegramme (Robert Evans), telegramme.co.uk; Ryan Todd, ryantodd.com; Sarah King, sarahaking.com