Paul Smyth and Andy Merritt. Photo by Kaspars Kursišs

Andy Merritt and Paul Smyth, founders of art and design practice Something & Son have managed to set up an urban farm in a derelict shop in Dalston, build a pop–up bathhouse in London’s eastern borough of Barking, and one of their most recent affairs is bringing production back into central London with Makerversity, a designers and makers space in Somerset House.

Interviews Fold September 17, 2014

At the end of July, Andy and Paul visited Cesis to give a lecture at Get Well City summer school, and we had a chance to find out more about their approach to work — designing not just spaces, but sustainable business models within them.

 

Evelina Ozola:
— Can you explain what Something & Son is in one sentence?

Paul Smyth:

— Well, people have prescribed different characteristics to us. We have been described as social designers, artists, architects, and sometimes product designers, but that is not how we would characterise ourselves necessarily. I think everyone sees a common thread that we’re not just creating purely visual works, we’re also having a function in almost everything we do. There is some layer of reason behind it, usually linked to a macro problem, a big issue.

Andy Merritt:

— We create artworks with a function. A lot of artists react against function, don’t they? They want to be floaty, whereas we think that there is enough floatiness now, and we need to start tackling things.

Evelina:
— What are the things you want to tackle?

Paul:

— In the last few years we have done projects around food security and reconnecting people with where food comes from, which ties the environmental discourse around sustainability, food system, how we feed ourselves. We’ve worked around production in cities, bringing «making» back into cities, either through the use of new technologies and how they might empower people to become makers again, or through a physical space which we have created in central London. Another theme in our work is macro economics, so looking at how economic constraints and scenarios in a certain city dictate how people use it, enjoy it or not enjoy it.

Andy:

— Cities! Cities are in the centre of everything, that’s one element that holds everything together. The nature in cities as well.

Ieva Laube:
— Could you shortly outline what is your background?

Andy:

— I studied graphic design in Brighton, but the course was quite conceptual, so you were given a brief that you could answer in any way that you wanted to as long as you communicate an idea. It was quite a good preparation for the work that we do now, not that I knew it while I was studying.

Paul:

— I studied engineering design with appropriate technology, which is a funny title, but it basically was focused on training to be an engineer–designer in a context of not having much stuff to use. Lots of people in my course went into development — spending time in villages around the world helping set up water and sewage systems. It was very much the first principles of engineering and design training, combined with political and economic studies as part of the course. During that time I grew interested in social enterprise and sustainability, and how you can use visual language to explain an idea. And now our works always evolve around addressing or highlighting, not necessarily solving, some social or environmental issue.

Andy:

— We are an example that in the UK you can do a course in a university, and then you don’t end up going into that profession. And rightly or wrongly, UK is quite fluid in that, it sort of allows people to move through careers. It throws up quite a lot of interesting practices because of that fluidity.

Ieva:
— In most of your projects you already think from the start about how they can have a life on their own, so the business aspect is integrated in the work. Why do you choose to do that?

Paul:

— If you have an idea that you love, you’d rather it can stay for 4 years and thousands of people can see it than it stays for 4 days and a hundred people see it. So it’s bringing a permanence to something that would often be viewed as a pop–up project. We don’t always end up with something that people run, but we always try to end up with something that has a legacy and a life beyond. Maybe an idea has a life beyond rather it being a place.

You do that through thinking carefully around how you can keep the doors open after the art funding runs out. One of our design tools, alongside drawing and building and making, is doing models and projections of what happens if we get this many people to come in, sell this many coffees or this many people pay for a towel at the spa. All these little details we can almost predict and control.

Andy:

— It’s not that we design something and then we get more people on board, we are designing and getting people on board at the same time. So we already know the people that are going to look after the project while it is still being developed.

Paul:

— If you can foster that in the right way, you can make this a really great environment; then you suddenly start magnifying the impact of everything you’re doing, because all these people there want to see it happen. We did a lot of that in Farm:Shop and learned through it. In that way you build a very broad skill set that encompasses the visual design, the image creation of the space, what does it look like from the outside, how do people engage in it, how to get the message out there, how to employ and get insurances.

Andy:

— We’re megalomaniacs, we want to do everything! It’s almost like a film studio — when producing a film they create a world around it, they have to build everything from scratch. It’s that kind of way of working.

Ieva:
— To what extent do you remain involved in the projects after they are finished?

Paul:

— We usually retain some kind of partial ownership or a link back to the project, because it has our name on it, and also we love it and want to support it, but rather in a «once in a month catch–up» not «peek over the shoulder every day» format. They are doing a more important job than us to keep it going. We’re lighting the fire and others carry on taming it.

Andy:

— Visually the projects always have a strong identity, so we make sure that they try to keep that in order. I remember in Barking Bathhouse people were constantly bringing in these pink hippy kind of things. And I said, «Get it out! It doesn’t belong here.» If the visual starts to get disbanded, the whole thing becomes a mess.

Evelina:
— Can you tell us about Makerversity?

Paul:

— We are a part of a team of four people, who are in the process of creating a space for people to make stuff right in the centre of London, Somerset House on the Thames. Makerversity has 15 000 square feet of space, which we run as affordable studios and workshops. Unlike most work spaces, everyone who joins Makerversity commits to work with young people. So we are trying to replicate, and hence the name, this faculty and student relationship, but the students are people who wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise. And the faculty are experts, start–ups in their own right, so people who make stuff. We put the two together in this incredible space.

Andy:

— There are pictures of London up until the 1970s when it had dockland cranes going right up to the Tower bridge and a bit beyond that. I think that people have almost forgotten now that London was an industrial city, a working city, and it was a kind of a mentality. City centres in general are becoming the same, you can go to New York, London and Paris, and you can basically have the same experience in all of them. But then you go to the outskirts of London and that’s when you start to get an idea of what London really is, and people there are just living their daily lives. It’s nice just to bring that daily life back into the centre of the city again, and stop it from becoming this «no go» zone for Londoners, a sterile tourist town.

Paul:

— There are 2 elements of that for us that build on some of the work we have been doing: how you can bring production back into rich city centres, and how do you then help young Londoners benefit. And the third string of it, which we have to have integrity and honesty around, is that we run the space as a company and we get the benefits that help sustain our practice and supports it. It runs as a kind of a light–profit, not–much–profit business.

Andy:

— I guess we have a plan to step back more and more as time goes by and then we’ll just get paid dividends, so we’ll then be doing small amounts of work and hopefully earning big amounts of money. Even though we’re reasonably young, we’re getting fed up by doing project after project — there is no grand security scheme. If you look at artists, they do tend to have these other schemes going on. There are all these things artists do but no one talks about it that much, but it really helps your creative process if you have that security.

Paul:

— We find ourselves talking about these things quite a lot, because we feel they are under–talked about. Particularly when a young person is listening to an artist talk, they are always talking about just the ideas, just the ephemeral. It might be that the artist is very successful and was gifted two homes by their parents, or got lucky with an entrepreneurial idea at a young age. Being an artist is seen as a quite enjoyable thing to do, but you have to interrogate how that life can exist.

Evelina:
— How is it possible that you got access to that space?

Andy:

— HMRC, the tax body in the UK, they had all their archives in Somerset House. Then they digitalised everything and moved out. The space became available, and they approached Tom [Tobia], who we are working with, because he was talking about the idea of bringing manufacturing and making back into the centre of the city.

Paul:

— And then we put a three page document to them. Over the last year five or six other people had done the same. But they all had asked for several hundred thousand pounds to do the project. Tom joined us and said, «We’ll do it. Give us the keys tomorrow, and we’ll start painting.» And from that we managed to grow it into something that’s working and employing people.

Evelina:
— Do you have to pay rent for the space?

Paul:

— Yes, we had a free period, and now that we can afford it we pay rent, so it’s working deeply in partnership with a landowner towards a shared goal. From the very start they were clear that when we can afford it, we would pay.

Ieva:
— How many people are involved in Makerversity?

Paul:

— It started off with 4 of us, and it’s grown to a total of 10 to 12 people that are there day by day, doing different jobs and functions. And that happened over a year, so it’s being quite quick. There are 130 members who use the space, and we’ve had 300 to 400 young people coming in for training and learning opportunities over the last 2 or 3 months. And that sits alongside our practice; it’s got its own identity, its own face —  Makerversity.

Andy:

— That’s often the case that our projects have more «likes» than us, because people wouldn’t necessarily know that we’ve done it, because the projects are quite big and all–encompassing. Some might know the Barking Bathhouse, but won’t know who did it. And we’re half alright with that.

Paul:

— We also brand projects or we give them a name that could resonate quite widely and be easily understood, that’s because we’re interested in creation of communities of interest, so basically groups of people who share a passion for something. You can put a message across a big city like London, and everyone interested in spa going will find the Barking Bathhouse interesting and look at it. Everyone interested in urban agriculture suddenly turned around and looked at what we’re doing at Farm:Shop. I don’t think they would rally behind an idea of a design project and support some designers. They do rally around the idea of creating this new thing with its own identity, with its own organisational structure, opportunities and chance of growing into something incredible. But when they tune in, they’re tuning in to something specific, and for me it says quite a lot about the way how the community is developing, probably in the world in general, but particularly in big cities. It’s around shared interest rather than locality.

Evelina:
— What channels do you use to distribute information about a new project?

Paul:

— We do that through research, through finding different communities that exist out there. And we’ve done something around posting information about projects on forums, putting it in on Gumtree for people searching in terms of interest, associated to what they’re doing.

Andy:

— There is this guy from Canada, who’s got a commercial fishing magazine, who always calls up asking questions about fishing, and we get people wanting to talk to us about the spa industry. We get access to these different worlds that are out there; we’re not just sitting together with artists and designers — we’re meeting also cucumber farmers and bath experts.

Paul:

— We started our first projects as volunteerism, and people who shared our passion for an idea came by and worked on it. Such environment is only possible where you’re not paying yourself or paying yourself very little. I think people won’t volunteer to help you get rich. They will volunteer if they see you’re passionate about making something happen and putting your own time above and beyond into it.

Andy:

— In Makerversity everyone gets paid, whereas at Farm:Shop, where we never took out any money, pretty much all the staff were volunteers, and only now they are getting paid a bit.

Paul:

— Some ideas will always stay as something around community activism and volunteering just for the nature of an idea, but other ideas are able to sustain more commercial activities.

Ieva:
— Have you noticed any changes your design approach and interventions have made in the social, economical and perceptive level of society?

Paul:

— We have some very good experiences seeing people develop through our projects. People who’ve had mental health issues or social issues and they’ve found a supportive environment. The other bit is when you inspire other projects to happen. Particularly after Farm:Shop, we’ve been contacted by people all around the world who say that they love what we’ve done with the space and would like to do it as well. Lots of people who volunteered at Farm:Shop now live in the countryside and had a big transition in life by being a part of the project. I think it’s for other people to decide whether or not we’ve made a change beyond that, but certainly we can see the immediate stuff. And it feels reasonably good.

Evelina:
— In the lecture at Get Well City summer school you said that you are interested in systems, could you elaborate on that?

Andy:

— I think we put systems in place, so you could argue that Farm:Shop is a system more than anything. We’re just sort of designing this system and then people can utilise it. And then in the 3D printing one [People Wood] we were designing a system more than anything, we didn’t have a design apart from all the intricacies of how to get this thing to work which would then produce the sculpture.

Paul:

— With that sculpture we didn’t control what the outcome would look like. We created the rules with which people could enter their questionnaire responses and the responses would create different shapes that would become an artwork. So it was letting go of our role as master controller designers. And the same with our other projects, we set the things up and the people then operate and become actors within. The other reason why systems are appropriate is because we don’t just design objects, businesses or graphics. We end up doing everything, which seems more like a system.

Andy:

— Systems are a good way of starting to describe what we do in one word. In our projects, there is normally some kind of designing of systems which are then always utilised by people.