Offset London: Graphic Though Facility’s Andy Stevens on transforming Hult International Business School

Creative festival Offset kicked off in London today, with talks from Erik Kessels, Johnny Kelly, Seb Lester, Rachel Thomas and more. Andy Stevens also gave a fascinating insight into Graphic Thought Facility’s wayfinding and identity work for Hult International Business School in East London – a collaboration with architects Sergison Bates, interior designer Fiona Kennedy, Why Not Associates’ Andy Altmann and London print studio Jealous…

The Hult School is housed in a Victorian building in Whitechapel which had previously been a brewery, a whiskey bonding house and a textiles warehouse before lying derelict.

Sergison Bates was responsible for transforming the building, retaining original features such as its cedar floors, brick walls and cast iron structure. The oldest section of the building is divided into four zones containing a mix of lounge areas and study pods, while a newer extension houses classrooms.

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Images: Graphic Thought Facility

With a relatively simple layout, Stevens said the aim of signage and wayfinding was primarily to inject some colour and character into the space. Drawing on the building’s history, GTF used stencil lettering inspired by type on whiskey barrels (barrels will often house several drinks in their lifetime, from whiskey to port and sherry, with a new layer of lettering added each time to create a visual history of their use, explained Stevens). The studio painted letters and numbers on found materials such as leftover flooring and scrap wood, and arranged them on shelves to signpost the relevant floor number, zone and room number.

Cooler shades of blue and grey were used for lower floors, progressing to a warmer palette on higher levels (a system devised by Kennedy and also used for furniture and interiors). Floor numbers are obscured by overlaid signage at a reception desk by the building’s entrance, shown below – an unusual approach but as Stevens points out, “most people are familiar with the sequence 1,2,3,4. They don’t really need to be able to see the numbers.”

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The studio also created some graphic displays aimed at helping improve acoustics in the space by absorbing sound (the building has an open ceiling with exposed air conditioning unit, a metal floor and brick walls). The company used offcuts of felt fabric by Kvadrat, a client of GTF‘s, to create a series of wooden boards studded with felt discs for the walls of each room, to match the colour scheme on each floor. 40,000 discs were pressed in by hand and holes were cut by a car gasket manufacturer in Birmingham.

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The dot motif is continued in window displays and a series of art prints for rooms and study spaces, which were created with Why Not Associates’ Andy Altmann and print studio Jealous. These were inspired by a series of prints by Altmann and Charming Baker, which featured Charming Baker’s drawings screen printed over vintage posters collected by Altmann.

Artwork is designed to evoke a sense of place using London ephemera, says Stevens. GTF drew on the area’s boxing heritage (there are still a number of clubs in the surrounding area) and used old boxing posters collected by Altmann, over printed with Cockney rhyming slang in bold red type.

Many of the phrases feature slang for money: “It was perfect for where the school is situated – it’s the near the City [of London, home to banks and financial institutions] and you’re right in the East End, with Bethnal Green just down the road,” says Stevens. “The idea is that the prints work as one liners – you can walk past and read them – but there’s also a fantastic amount of detail behind the dots.”

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GTF also used penny stamps, illustrated tea towels and vintage photographs of London by John Hinde as backdrops for prints, and the idea led to a further set of posters in the style of lithoprinted newspaper headline boards (shown below). The studio visited the Evening Standard’s print room and were given a copy of the alphabet used to make its headline posters, which it used to create a series of phrases in the style of newspaper headlines, again using Cockney rhyming slang about money.

“Visually they’re very simple – there’s not a lot of richness – but the language is quite opaque,” says Stevens.

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Other designs created for the space include a coffee and tea van with an illustrated window display by Barcelona-based artist Gabriel Corbera, in the style of pizza box illustrations Stevens had come across in Italy, and a stunning display for a downstairs room which had to have “a different look and feel” to the teaching and study spaces above.

For this, GTF sought inspiration in the buddleia plants which grow all over London, often in abandoned buildings and on railway tracks. The studio found some in an empty building across the road from the school and photocopied them, creating black-and-white displays reminiscent of graffiti found around the city. They also had neon lights made in shades of pink and purple to match the colours of buudleia flowers.

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The tea and coffee van in Hult International Business School. Barcelona-based artist Gabriel Corbera illustrated the van’s window display

It’s a rich and beautifully executed project, with a clever use of found materials and everyday ephemera. As Stevens points out, it goes beyond a traditional way finding and signage project, creating a connection between the building and the city that surrounds it. “What is graphics? I think [graphic designers] just have this skill to make conenctions with people and make visual observations. It might be type, or it might be no information at all,” he adds.

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Offset takes place at Shoreditch Town Hall. For details, see iloveoffset.com

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