Jonathan Batten & Lucy Norman

Fabricators; Directors of Studio MakeCreate

Lucy and Johnny are problem solvers. The kind of people who, given a scrawled idea on the back of a napkin, can work it though and make it a reality. They operate in the space between disciplines, taking on the kinds of projects that can’t be easily given over to a carpenter or metalworker because they involve too many complex parts, too unusual a mix of skills and processes. And Johnny’s background in sculpture and art fabrication combined with Lucy’s in engineering and product design makes them well placed for this kind of work. So if you want a photo booth that rains or a solar sail that breathes, Studio MakeCreate could help to make it happen.

‘Our first project together began by Johnny getting a phone call from me saying: ‘Hey, do you want to make a waffle maker in the shape of a Nike trainer? In five days?’ And that was it.’

You straddle the design and the art worlds with what you do. How did you become Studio MakeCreate?

Johnny Batten: I was very, very lucky when I finished art school. I bumped into one of my tutors when I was carrying my degree show sculpture through the corridor of Central St. Martins and he said, ‘Oh there’s this friend of mine who runs a fabrication workshop and they’re looking for freelance young people to help them on their projects’. If I’d been five minutes later walking down that corridor I would have missed the opportunity and he would have offered it to someone else. So I got the art school experience I should have had on the job once I’d graduated and this is where I learned my ‘trade’. I was being paid to learn a range of skills, making art works for other people, whilst doing my own thing as well. And the workshop happened to be run by an ex head of sculpture from CSM so it was great teaching. He also let me use the workshop space out of hours for free to work on my own projects.

Lucy Norman: I studied Product Design on my MA and when I left the Royal College of Art, I had a lot of people coming up to me who knew I’d finished and knew my skill-set saying: ‘I’ve had this idea, can you make it for me?’ Not always having all the skills I needed, but knowing someone who did, I’d ring Johnny up. We’d worked together in the past putting on events. Our first project together began by Johnny getting a phone call from me saying: ‘Hey, do you want to make a waffle maker in the shape of a Nike trainer? In five days?’ And that was it. We were off. After that people kept asking us to do more and more and so Studio MakeCreate organically grew out of that.

Johnny, what did you mean when you said that you got the art school education you should have gotten once you left CSM? Do you feel the experience you had at art school didn’t stand you in good stead for your current career?

JB: I don’t think art schools give you the best foundation in technical skills these days and technical skills are an extremely important part of what we do. You really had to be forceful to get the time from a technician. I left art school and I was lucky to go straight into working in a workshop where I could develop the skills I needed. I don’t feel like my art degree actually started until after I’d left.

Casting is one of the large parts of the work we do now so I’ll use that as an example. My first experience of doing any casting at art school was in my first year at Central St Martins with one of the tutors. It was a morning class, really basic stuff like how to mix plaster, you know, ‘Don’t put it down the sink when you’ve finished with it’. And that was it. After that the whole subject was dropped. Though there was a casting studio with a technician, you really had to nag him to get any support. There was a perception that the technical staff weren’t pulling their weight but at the same time they were probably overstretched because they were also being made to do things like the maintenance of the building as well, things they weren’t actually employed to do and so weren’t happy about. So they resisted the demands on their time to be involved with the students and it was a real shame.

LB: I think there’s a frustration between the academic staff and the technical staff that doesn’t help matters. It’s a problem to do with the hierarchy between the academic staff and the technicians. That was what I found at the RCA. The technicians have these incredible skills and many of the technicians are artists themselves but they’re not valued in the same way by the institution.

Lucy, you studied engineering and then went on to study product design. How does this compare to the way Johnny is describing a fine-art education?

LN: On my engineering BA, we actually had lectures on making in the first year. And pretty much every one of the projects we were set were based around a process as well as a topic. So you were tasked with including an element made in the metal shop or using vac forming or so on. It meant you had to learn skills as you went along. Learning these processes made us understand how to design. Not only did it open up possibilities of that material and process but it also sparked ideas for new things to make. Maybe something like that could be integrated into the art curriculum. Suddenly your mind is much freer as its not constrained by what you know how to make.

Can you talk a little bit more about being a designer and an engineer. What particular skills are you able to resource by dint of your specific education?

LN: As a designer you’re taught basic manufacturing processes but what’s more fundamental is that you’re taught that you’re able to become an expert in anything. You become really skilled in finding solutions to problems. In working out how to do something. I had a project to do with light and so I needed to become an optical physicist. I wasn’t an expert and so I spoke to people who were experts to find out what I needed to know. And so I become an expert in just the aspects I needed. So I guess that’s what design is. Being able to make anything. Understanding the process of how to begin, how to find out. And then being able to implement what you’ve learned.

How does this compare to your experience of being a fine-art fabricator, Johnny?

JB: Actually my freelance experience has taught me the same skill. When somebody comes to you with a design or a problem and you’re hungry for the work, you need to get good at figuring out the problem and then making whatever it might be, on time and to budget.

LN: Because we’re experienced in getting the knowledge we need, we’re not scared if someone comes to us with something we’ve never made before. We know we can work it out. We’ve recently been making a part for a super accurate x-ray machine. We had no idea how to make it when we were first approached but we worked it out and now we’ve done it.

You’ve mentioned x-ray machines and waffle makers. We know that you also work for artists. Can you talk about some of the similarities and differences across the work you do and the clients you work for?

JB: The biggest difference between making an artwork and making a product is the type of person you’re speaking to and what they’re concerned with. Somebody with a shop window is not interested in the conceptual at all, and the aesthetic only up to a point. They’re not worried about the feel of it, the texture of it. They don’t care that the back of it looks awful. They care about the margins and they care about whether its going to stop someone dead in the street and that’s kind of it. An artist is thinking about different problems and usually when working with an artist it’s much more involved. It’s more like a collaboration. Whereas a shop window person really wants to pass off the problem. They might have a loose idea but they want you to firm it up and tell them what’s good and what won’t work and why. Whereas an artist will be more exploratory and it’s a more give and take kind of relationship. There’s many more conversations. And the brief can shift just like that. Whereas with a shop window the only way it shifts is: ‘Can you do it for £100 less?’.

Can you talk us through the process of working on a sculpture commission front-to-back?

JB: An example sculpture job would be the solar sail we recently worked on. This was a big silver canopy based on those they use in space for powering satellites. So it moves and breathes like an octopus going through space. The client wanted to copy this and then to project images on to it, with sound. And it was important to them that it felt like a sail moving back and forth.

Who was the client?

LN: They’re called ‘Field’. They’re digital artists. They usually work in sound and technology, not sculpture, which is why they came to us for help on this project. It was for an exhibition in Oslo. They came to us with a rough idea. It was an open brief but it also had to fit on an aeroplane in regular hold luggage. It had to look right, move right, be 3m x 3m but also to pack down. It was a pretty small budget too.

JB: There was a lot of back and forth. We made small models to demonstrate what was possible. The biggest challenge for us was getting the kind of movement that they wanted within their budget. That produced the most toing and froing. In the end we solved it very simply by having a fan on the ceiling that just inflated the canopy rather than having something very mechanical that was moving it back and forward.

This brings us on to operations. Can you tell us a little about your set-up and how you’re organised?

JB: We made a decision quite early on when working together that we didn’t want to have a huge workshop space because it is such a burden on a young business. The overheads of it are extremely difficult to manage if your projects vary in size and scale as much as ours do. We’re manufacturers but generally make one-offs. And because of that we don’t always need the same kind of workshop. This approach actually also keeps it cheaper for our clients because it means we tailor the way we work to the sort of project that we’re dealing with.

Do you have an impression of what’s currently available in London in terms workshops that you can access?

LN: There’s quite a few new open-access work spaces that have opened recently in London that we’ve looked into but there’s still not that much that meet our needs. We need flexible space, flexible hours, with a range of quality equipment; and crucially, we need to be able to rely on the workshop that all of this is available at short notice. We’re quite lucky having access to Windsor Workshops in Streatham, which is where Johnny used to work. Its quite expensive but this is offset by the fact that it is a large workshop that has the facility for us to do a huge range of things. And having a relationship with them in a friendly kind of way is a big help as we help each other out.And because they are a commercial workshop in their own right their equipment is well maintained and up to date

So what you’re saying is that for you, even though Windsor Workshops is expensive, it’s still worth your while going there rather than to one of the open-access work spaces in London?

JB: Often these makers’ spaces promise more than they deliver. Take the Machine Rooms at Limewharf. Great in theory, not so great for us in practice. We couldn’t really make much in it. Firstly because you have to pack up your stuff and take it away at the end of the day, which is totally impractical for us. Yes, they’ve got good high-tech equipment such as a CNC machine and 3D printer but then this funny little lockable rack of tools which really are extremely basic and certainly aren’t the kinds of tools we use on a regular basis. It’s referred to as a ‘makers’ space’ but really it’s a big gallery/office sort of space. When I first went to see what they were offering there was a cleaner tidying up the tiny bit of sawdust that was on the floor and you think: ‘This is not a manufacturing space, this is a hobbyists space’.

LN: There are lots of digital fabricators calling themselves makers spaces, Fab Lab is another one, but its making in a very different way to the way sculptors and fabricators make. What they offer is only a small part of the designing and making process and therefore limited. It might require less ‘skill’ but we’ll use a power drill significantly more often than a 3D printer in our work.

You’ve just mentioned 3D printing technologies. Can you say a bit more about your experience of using them?

JB: Practically, these new technologies are another tool in your arsenal. So depending on what you need to do they can be useful. Though they haven’t really been developed far enough yet. You also need to weigh up the cost in terms of time and skill to draw something on the computer well enough to 3D print as apposed to just getting on with making it in the workshop, which might well be quicker and produce a better result. They’re certainly useful when you’re making multiples or something involving a mirror image.

LN: Even with 3D printing you pretty much always have to hand finish the object yourself anyway, even if you’re using the higher quality 3D printers. There is also currently a limitation to the size and quality when using this technology. On top of that is the fact that having the design on a CAD file out there means that it would be pretty easy to replicate if someone wanted to. So the value in its uniqueness could be lost if you know someone can easily print another one.

JB: With artwork it also comes down to whether the person buying the artwork values a 3D printed object in the same way as something that’s handmade. I suspect they would probably value it less. I certainly would. The authorship of the artist is so art historically linked with the hand and the impression of the hand creating the value in a piece. 3D printing doesn’t have that.

Thinking about outsourcing, there’s a perception these days that it’s much cheaper and easier to get things made in China. What is your experience of this?

LN: Prior to setting up Studio MakeCreate, I spent three years in a company where we made all of our products in China. You’d send a drawing over to the manufacturers but no matter how resolved, no matter how detailed the written instructions, it never, ever came back as you asked for. Ever. In the end we’d have to fly someone out there to tell them what we wanted in person or make it in our workshop in the UK and ship it to China and get them to copy it. There were always issues with communication and the fact that you weren’t there to see the product as it was being made made it really difficult. Also the timescale. If you’re manufacturing in China it takes nine weeks minimum for shipping. Often you’ll need to ship a full container’s worth of stuff so the transportation and associated cost is massively prohibitive.

So if we’re looking at specifically China as a manufacturing hub, it only works if you’re making things in the thousands. We generally make one-offs so I don’t feel that China is a competition. Maybe some other places in Europe might be. Looking at places in Eastern Europe where labour and overheads are cheaper but where clients can fly out there, and where there’s no import tax, the idea of one-offs is plausible.

JB: Its about being able to have the conversations, especially for artists. So they like the fact that you’re close by and they can pop in or pick up the phone. But also with these bigger manufacturing set-ups, you’re not dealing with someone who is an artist or designer themselves. Potentially you’re dealing with a person who works in the office, who runs the factory, and you’re not going to have that same relationship. You’re not going to get the understanding of talking to another artist or maker that you need to realise your work in a meaningful way.

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