The second of our One Year On interviews is with illustrator Benjamin Craven and designer maker Charlie Birtles.
Tell us the story behind you and your business. How did you become interested in design?
Charlie: I’ve been making things since I was young and first became interested in working in 3D forms during my Foundation Studies. It wasn’t until my final year at Manchester that I began working with found and ready made objects as I do now.
Ben: From as young as I can remember I’ve always wanted to design. It all started on Microsoft Paint, I used to create these really abstract, colourful designs. I always wanted to design for fashion/clothing and started my own clothing brand at 16, but my whole perception of design changed when I went to University.
Where did you study and what was the most useful thing you learnt from your course?
Charlie: I graduated in 2015 after studying Three-Dimensional Design at Manchester School of Art. The course covered a wide breadth of specialisms and skills, and I liked that we were encouraged to cross boundaries, which has heavily influenced my practice to date.
Ben: I studied at Leeds College of Art doing Printed Textiles, and really loved the course. The best/most useful thing I learnt is not to rush (unless you have to) and know when to stop working on a piece. Less is always more and happy accidents are always good!
What inspired you to start your business?
Charlie: I was selected for the ‘Cultivated’ graduate support programme at Unit Twelve Gallery in Stafford after graduating. The programme acted as a bridge between University and independent practice, offering 6 months’ studio space and professional support through the early days of setting myself up in business as a Maker.
Ben: Being able to do what I want and having the freedom to create when I like, that’s what inspired me to work for myself. I’ve been self-employed since I was 16 so going into a 9-5 (which I did do for a year) seems wasteful.
Give us an insight into your thought process to design your work – where does your inspiration come from?
Charlie: I create artworks of curiosity inspired by miscellanea and endeavour to explore value and meaning of unsung objects. I am constantly on the look-out for new objects everywhere from car boots to rural landscapes. Each object I create is carefully considered and collectively they form a ‘landscape’ of my reflective process. I enjoy leaving them free to be interpreted by the viewer.
Ben: I’m constantly being inspired, from the moment I walk out my door to when I go to bed. I’m heavily inspired by architecture and just general happenings. It could be a brutalist building to a bright yellow grit bin against a concrete wall… I’m forever taking pictures of everything on my phone, from architectural compositions to cleaning products!
What materials, methods and tools do you use to make your products? / What one technique, material or tool could you not live without?
Charlie: My approach to making is very instinctive, so I try not to define myself by one technique or process. I use silversmithing techniques within my work to ‘construct’ unusual materials together and create a lot of cold connections, like rivets.
Ben: I’ve really pushed boundaries with what materials I use, I constantly work with wood but I’ve started to move on to casting and using Jesmonite, I’m just trying to experience and work with as much stuff as possible! I certainly couldn’t live without screen-printing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? / What piece of advice would you give to this year’s graduates?
Charlie: Network. Most people hate networking, but it is so valuable! I have met so many interesting people and learnt so much through putting myself out there – and you never know what will come out of it!
Ben: Just be yourself and find your ‘niche’. Create what YOU like and don’t create to satisfy somebody else, that means you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. I make sure that when I’m creating something that I’m always having fun and enjoying myself – If you’re not having fun then what’s the point?
What have you designed that you’re most proud of? / What project are you most excited about at the moment?
Charlie: I am most excited to explore the scale of my work as, in the future, I would like to explore site specific projects, responding to historical archives and place. I am currently on the Craft’s Council development programme Hothouse. I was delighted to have been selected, and I am really enjoying the process. It is really helping me to question and define what drives me as a maker to plan my future portfolio practice.
Ben: Maybe the tote bags I’m about to bring out… Although they aren’t the biggest and most complicated products I’ve done it’s the first time I’ve actually created a product from scratch. They’re all handmade in North Yorkshire and I did all the measurements of the bags, sourced the fabric and screen printed them.
Where do you want to be One Year On from now?
Charlie: In a year’s time, I would love to be exhibiting a new body of work as a solo show. I am really open to collaborative ways of working as well, so would love to be working on a project with another individual or group.
Ben: To have my own studio with everything I need, screen printing, wood work, casting and so on… Being able to work in my own space, creating my own products, seems more than ideal for me.