Words by Greg Lomas
Photos by Edmund Sumner
Originally published in AJ Specification
Craft and collaboration
Our interest in craft and collaboration goes back to our respective roots. We both had a rural upbringing surrounded by makers ranging from blacksmithing and metalwork to potters, weavers and wood turners. As a result, making and collaborating is the essence of our design ethos and from the conception or our practice, we’ve developed a synergy with other fabrications.
On our first realised commission, Thomas House (2004), we collaborated with former mentor, blacksmith and artisan metalworker Jim Horrobin of Doverhay Forge Studios, to create a textured steel monoslab fireplace. We were interested in making a legacy and creating designs with longevity. The house’s fireslab was a sculptural piece of furniture, integrated within the architecture and a product of craft with an inherent richness and vitality embedded by the hands that made it.
Narrative and concept
We see staircases not just as a way of getting from one floor to another, but as an experiential journey through the three dimensional, transformative qualities of space. In some ways there is a playful naivety to being on a stair and we understand it as an opportunity to create something expressive in existing constraints.
The Riverside Penthouse (2014) staircase aimed to capture this idea of playfulness. We designed a helical, ribbon-like structure – unfurling down from a hanging pod and floating in a double-height space. The curved form of the room and accompanying staircase was initially developed from the geometry of the existing building, designed by Foster + Partners. Further design was informed by the block’s proximity to the Riv er Thames: the leather treads on the steps, upholstery to the pod, polished timber and brass detailing were all inspired by Carlo Riva‘s classic 1950s motor boat designs. Working closely with Webb Yates Engineers and bespoke makers Tin Tab, the monocoque-structure ended up having more in common with boat design than initially intended. the whole assembly – with just a laser-cut, veneered steel helical column supporting the staircase – was suspended on 12 brass tension rods from the roof of the apartment. The separate fittings were designed to fit in a single domestic lift to assist its installation.
Making and technology
We collaborate with artists and engineers from a range of industries and disciplines. Getting the team right, ensuring correct expertise and a cross-section of ideas is important. We typically set a brief for others, who work closely with us to develop innovative solutions drawing on a range of knowledge and experience.
It’s a creative partnership and the key to its success is experimentation, testing ideas and detailing, exploring alternative materials and selecting quality finishes. However, technology doesn’t and shouldn’t usurp craft. To us, technology is a friendly tool that allows for more efficient collaboration and faster communication.
For our A&J House (2009), a refurbishment of a large Victorian detached house in London, the balustrade was again designed in collaboration with our previous mentor, Jim Horrobin. Horrobin laser and plasma cutting techniques with traditional forging to create an organic artwork inspired by the building’s original exterior detailing.
To complement the balustrade, a bespoke tilted uplight was developed with Mike Stoane Lighting, which is now generally available within their range. The uplights were recessed into the stair treads and landings, casting shadows through the metalwork across the stairwell space.
Materiality verses technology
Because a staircase encourages interaction, its tactility and acoustics become important details. Considering how the treads feel proportionally and under foot, how the staircase is lit, the structure and its overall character within the space are all important features and open up additional opportunities for craftmanship.
At our Retreat for Sartfell, a mountainside house on the Isle of Man which was completed last year, we aimed to bind the building’s programme together with a triple-height staircase. Part of a growing umber of commissions exploring the relationship between landscape and self-sustaining architecture, the project sits in a restored landscape and will be joined by a visitor’s centre and artist’s studio in the coming years. The house is essentially an extension to a Victorian cottage – known locally as ‘Cloud 9’ on account of its white render – and provides a private library, among many other things.
The staircase and library places at the centre of the scheme, were topped with a clearstory, framing a study and capturing shards of shifting light to animate the stark concrete interior. The stairs orientation aligns with views to Sartfell mountain, as well as overlooking the valley below. The floors pf the staircase and landings are made from off-the-shelf perforated steel sheets, specified to be dog-friendly to save the feet of the client’s pets. They were a collaborative effort between structural engineers Conisbee and Somerset-based master boat builder John Hesp.
The frequency of holes in the steel set out the width of the structure and was coordinated with the height of the risers to create the illusion that the piece was bent from a continuous surface. Hesp tested the balancing of the staircase’s weight in an effort to achieve both the right strength and aesthetics.
The hole assembly was modularly fabricated offsite by West Country Blacksmiths, who assisted in completing the final detailing through the construction of full-scale samples.