Collaborative by Nature Exhibition

Thomas.Matthews, Grant Associates & FCBStudios


Exhibition Design

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Collaboration is the ‘new’ mantra for creative businesses. Everyone is at it  – or talking about it at least. But there’s really nothing new there. Collaboration has proved over time to be the best way to work, particularly in design.

For us at Thomas.Matthews it started at the outset 20 years ago, when we found ourselves working alongside Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Grant Associates and others on a project to transform the former Conisburgh coal mine near Doncaster into a visitor attraction promoting sustainability.

Visitors to the £50m Earth Centre were promised ‘a fantastic future’ when, in 1997, the vision of sustainability activist Jonathan Smales became reality. Life was certainly never the same again for the creative collaborators who made it happen.

As landscape architect Andrew Grant says, ‘We were all young and it was very exciting. It marked a real step change in the way we work. It gave us curiosity and had us thinking about big issues.’

None of the practises has looked back. Our shared passion for sustainability and nature lives on through our work, whether executed together or apart. We at Thomas.Matthews have, for example, built on the materials library we started for the Earth Centre. It is now an invaluable resource that helps us specify sustainable materials and processes for all our projects, it’s a constant support that helps us make better design decisions.

And we all continue to collaborate.

The exhibition Collaborative by Nature aptly sums this up. In celebrating 20 years of practice for Thomas.Matthews and Grant Associates and 20 years in London for FCBStudios, it highlights the diversity and global spread of our work.

Education, and the challenge of creating a wayfinding system to welcome people into a complex semi-public building, is represented by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, which we worked on with FCSBStudios. Cambridge’s Accordia development by FCBStudios and Grant Associates, with others, presents ‘a city in a garden’ that won a prestigious Stirling Prize and was hailed as a new model for housing design. Bath’s highly collaborative Forest of Imagination annual pop-up installations, initiated by Grant Associates and 5x5x5=creativity, bring a sense of wild into the urban environment to fuel the imagination and inspire.

For us, as graphic designers, the point of difference is that these collaborations make us equal in a project. All ideas are valid, whoever has that initial spark, and we learn from each other. This is rare in visual communications for the built environment, which is too often an afterthought with designers brought in late to design the brochure or simple apply signage once the key decisions, for a building or place, have been made.

The results shout out the benefits. Take Singapore’s world-acclaimed Gardens by the Bay project. Grant Associates led the team of architects, engineers and designers, but ideas were shared from the outset. We worked alongside Grant Associates and Wilkinson Eyre to create wayfinding and introduced bold colours to the massive structures. We also created patterns inspired by the flora and fauna of the garden to everything from signs to merchandise and literature. But the choice of the deep purple, inspired by the mangosteen fruit, as the main branding colour came through a conversation with Andrew Grant.

Those early days at the Earth Centre instilled in us a belief that design can help to create a better world.  We all continue to campaign – together or as individual studios, but with sustainability and nature at the core. Sophie Thomas’s ongoing ‘Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean’ campaign has been well documented. A visit to Hawaii’s massively polluted Kamilo Point fuelled a passion in her to design out marine plastic waste – through design and design thinking.

Likewise, a visit to Madagascar for Gardens by the Bay and subsequent conversations with Bristol Zoological Society inspired Andrew Grant to address the plight of the endangered blue-eyed black lemur as part of Grant Associates’ 20-year legacy.  This led to the development of the Ankafara Field Station with FCBStudios, Buro Happold and the Richard Feilden Foundation. The primary aim is to raise local awareness of the implications of stripping the forest, while boosting research. Though not yet on site, the station will also create jobs within the local community and a programme for Madagascan research students. It goes beyond conservation to address sustainability in the broadest sense.

The three studios have achieved a lot over the past 20 years. These projects are but a few examples. But it is still very much a ‘work in progress’ for all of us. Our passions won’t abate. If anything, they get keener as we drive ourselves towards new ways of looking and doing things.

Collaborative by Nature runs on weekdays between 9am and 5.30pm from 4-29 June, coinciding with the London Festival of Architecture,  at FCBStudios, 20 Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RG.

Photography: Peter Clarkson