Above and Below: Pennethorne’s Cafe Bar, Somerset House.
How did you get from living room pitches and paid projects?
It’s always been all about art for me. At school and challenged by dyslexia, I could be found in the art or metalwork room – at lunchtime or after school or just any time really, making things. I knew very early on where my strengths lay. The only problem was, I liked it all – from fine art to photography – and I still do!
Growing up in North East England with lots of heavy industry around me and a family history in civil engineering, my first choice for further education was industrial design, but I soon found it wasn’t flexible enough so I went on to study Visual Communications at Birmingham.
The minute I finished I moved to London and got into the whole burgeoning 80s design world around Soho Square. This meant working on structural packaging and the big business of the time; the annual report. Soon after 3D graphics followed, with lots of signage packages for shopping centres which started to get us into the fringes of interiors work.
While at Birmingham I met Graham Harris who was studying architecture. Then Graham met Dave Spence at Scott, Brownrigg & Turner and thus nucleus of SHH was in place.
We ventured down the competitions route winning Hastings Pier and then planning for the French town of Evian.
Looking back and knowing where you are now, did things turn out as you had in mind?
No, because I never had anything in mind! I never, ever had a plan.
Was there ever a pivotal moment when it turned from three designers to a fully formed practice?
We always knew we were establishing a practice. We always had admin and took on staff fairly quickly, but the focus was just on earning our keep for a long time. I think once the company turned 20, we finally felt properly established.
Any mentors who stand out for you?
I’ve worked with lots of wonderful people, but the most important person for me, looking back, was a visiting American tutor who visited my college. I had so many different ideas and so many different directions I could go in – and he just encouraged me to be myself and accept all of it. He really believed in me and that made a difference.
What technologies have caught your interest lately?
I love the idea of very organic, fluid advances in technology – like the passive charging of mobile phones on the desktop or clocks that run off the energy of house plants.
How is technology used in the SHH office?
We’re a classic office in that technology is everywhere and nowhere. We have amazing CGI designers, for example, but we also still appreciate the magic of hand-drawn illustrations.
Describe your take on achieving a work/life balance?
I fail, like everyone else. I have a young family and too many interests and passions. The balance should really be completely different. I’m not as good a juggler as I’d like to be.
How do you define ambition and what fuels yours?
My ambition is to get a really good work/life balance! That’s really it. It’s never been about the money for me.
Any tips on finding creativity when stuck in a rut?
Don’t read magazines – don’t fill your head. Do the opposite and empty your head. Go for a walk and try and identify a passion outside of the immediate question, the indulge in it. It’s much more likely to produce the goods.
Above: National Railway Museum Restaurants.
Why do you think you won FX Interior Design Practice of the Year?
Twenty-four years of hard slog! We don’t have a house style – we try to lead and not follow. We always have a healthy mix of different schemes in the office to keep the studio fresh and we always try to make those projects as good as they can be. Constant re-creation is the aim.
How did you win the London Zoo project?
We teamed up with a food consultant who had the initial contact and then we won a credentials pitch together, so it was the best kind of introduction really, arising out of a successful earlier project and a strong existing relationship.
Any advice for someone who’s five years into their career and looking to take a defining step?
Always aim to work with and for the best in your field. Don’t be afraid to take yourself seriously and aim high. Recognise your moment, whether it’s a new client or a major project and give it everything.
Have you ever had a career dip?
We’ve survived a number of major recessions now. When it happens, you have to work twice as hard and it’s really tough. It pulls you down to your core values and only the grafters get through.
Where was the last office party and how often do you entertain?
We’re a very sociable company, we always have been. We have a big company review and party every year at Christmas and we always go abroad. Last year it was Lisbon. We’re always up to something. Next week we’re going bowling.
Thank you Neil for helping others craft and create their own career story.
This YourStoree interview was edited for the web.