How to Get Under the Skin of Architecture’s Great Cover-Up

By Elaine Knutt

Building Design

23 February 2007

Surfaces lay bare the architect’s imagination and clients’ aspirations, say BD’s surfaces experts

In architecture, surfaces are anything but superficial. When the site is small, the programme rigid and the budget tight, they leave architects a layer of imagination and an affordable arena for innovation. “Often, the way you can be playful in the space is via the surfaces,” says Pippa Nissen, architect, theatre designer and partner of Nissen Adams. “It’s especially true for a small practice like us, given the scale of our projects - refurbishments or adaptations.”

For clients, surfaces are often a project’s voice and personality. “You can get clients to focus quite readily on the surfaces - it’s where they interact with the building. It’s often an area of quite intense discussion,” says Mark Hewitt of d-squared, ironic understatement audible just beneath his own surface. His practice has been experimenting with solar-collecting exterior surfaces, thermochromic furniture, and holographic video projections for daylit spaces.

Tim Dolby, creative director of specialist surfaces consultant Curtis Bran, sees surfaces as the fulfilment of a client’s most intimate desires. “It’s where you’re the conquering hero. Seven eighths of the work is in the infrastructure, and all the time the client is waiting for the sexy bit - the surfaces!” Curtis Bran advises on and develops surface treatments, often giving a modern twist to traditional finishes, for a client list including Bere Architects and Jestico & Whiles.More…

The trio has been brought together by BD for an informal symposium, with an agenda to swap experiences of working with surfaces and forecast where surfaces would head next. The discussion, at the new London showroom of Tino Stone, is also a taster to next month’s Surface Design Show, and the participants preview samples of products to be launched there.

But the prospect of all the shiny new surfaces leads to a discussion on the dichotomy between hand-crafted and mass-produced, between the flawed beauty of one and the chilly perfection of the other. Dolby makes a plea for craftsmanship and inconsistency, the depth of colour in traditional lacquered surfaces versus spray-on paint “lacquers”. “They look fantastic but do they have the personal touch?” he asks. “Inconsistencies remind one of the earth, the Persian carpet notion of a flaw in perfection.”

Hand crafted materials

But hand-crafted requires a pair of hands, and both architects have met difficulties nominating craftspeople and artists as sub-contractors on contracts. “Who takes the risk [on the time taken to apply the surface and its durability]?” asks Nissen. “You don’t want it yourself, because that’s scary. But it seems unreasonable to ask artists to take it, especially if their work relies on things like the lighting and beams being in the right place.”

She can also look at mass production from the other side of the fence. “We’ve had success with screen printing, but one scratch and it has to be re-done - if you can find a screen-printer who can work in a contractual framework. But,” she says, picking up a semi-vinyl waterproof wallpaper that has been ink-jet printed with trees from Red Cow Imaging: “this will survive.”

With half an eye on business development, Dolby offers some reassurance. “The battle for the architect is persuading the client; and mine is to persuade the architect that all their bad experiences subcontracting to artists can be overcome. There are creative people who can work in a contractual framework. If we lose the personal touch, we’re losing an important tool in the box.”

All three express a preference for surfaces with integrity, and a dislike for surfaces purporting to be something they are not, such as faux leather-effect wallpaper. But there are always exceptions, such as the stone-masquerading-as-wood flooring at the Tino showroom, a stratified quartz sandstone. “It has an enigmatic quality, you’re not quite sure what it is.” says Hewitt. Another exception is Tektura’s vinyl mock-croc wall-covering. “I think the crocodile would prefer this,” he says, holding up a sample.

The architects flag up some favourite suppliers: innovators such as Mass concrete composites or Pilkington, companies such as Smile Plastics making laminates from recycled materials. Hewitt mentions Spanish company Visenova, which has laminated stone onto a ceramic tile, so the overall material is more resilient than ceramic but is quite light. “That’s pretty clever - as long as it doesn’t de- laminate!” he says.

Another preference is for surfaces that age, change and mature. “Materials that look better aged than fresh interest me,” says Dolby. “I work with one picture in my head of how the surface will look tomorrow, and another of what it’ll look like in five years’ time.” The others nod agreement, but Nissen makes a plea to suppliers to show they understand this too. “We work a lot with samples for clients. But it’s impossible to get samples of how it will look in five years time.”

Not surprisingly, specifying for sustainability was on everyone’s mind. “As a practice, we’re struggling with how materials are, how they arrive in the world and how they leave,” says Hewitt. “Suppliers are now accounting for production processes, there’s much more information. But making a judgment from an architectural point of view is still quite difficult.”

All agree that recycling and reclaiming materials could be a way forward, and hope that increasing interest will stimulate the business model for companies in the sector to become a viable industry. Nissen talks of the creative possibilities of using “found” materials taken out of their original context, describing the Liquorish bar in south London where her practice used recycled boards taken from Brighton pier as a door, and as shuttering to cast a concrete wall next to it.

Embracing technology

On the other hand, the trio is equally excited by the possibilities of new technology: photographic surfaces, thin LED screens that can play video; lighting that can be integrated into surfaces or used to make surfaces appear to change; and surfaces that respond to light, heat or movement.

With experience of using computers in a lighting installation to respond to energy flows and passers-by, Hewitt sees IT as the craft form of the 21st century, and a way back to unique, bespoke surfaces. “Computers can generate rich patterns that could be too expensive done by hand,” he says. “Technology can make it relatively affordable. You could do it with mosaic tiles, and have random patterning that’s unique. The software is the craft, it’s just a different medium.”

The three have spent so long discussing where we are, there is little time to discuss where we’re going. But Hewitt has a general comment that picks up many of the topics of the debate, including the pursuit of individuality and rejection of mass production. “I get the feeling people are more relaxed [about specifying surfaces], a little less unthinking. Maybe it’s because they can Google and question everything, so they feel a bit more in control, and less constrained - and that’s nice.”


Tim Dolby

Creative director, Curtis Bran


Bere Architects - Seascape’ wave panels for a London river boat

James Gorst Architects - a white, “textural” wall for an Eaton Square penthouse

Favourite surface

Cracked gesso “a wonderful textural surface for walls and furniture”

Least favourite surface

Polished plaster - a cop out!

Pippa Nissen

Partner, Nissen Adams


Screen printed images and textured coloured plaster at Liquorish Bar, south London;

Transparent and solid surfaces, competition entry for Hub theatre, Workington

Favourite surface

Reclaimed door and cast concrete, Liquorish Bar

Least favourite surface

Anything manufactured that has no texture

Mark Hewitt

Partner, d-squared


Holographic video projection in a daylit space, British Council HQ, London

Thermochromic furniture for a Hayward Gallery exhibition

Favourite surface

Tarmac, because it has such high emissivity it can be used as an energy collector

Least favourite surface

Thick chunky glass used as a balustrade handrail - such an inelegant use of glass



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