In Design: The Archipelago design studio, Leeds

Feature by The Skinny North | 09 Jan 2017

As part of our series looking at great design in the North, we speak to Leeds-based studio The Archipelago, whose work displays an appreciation for space, light and the natural world

Michael Lewis and Zosia Berkieta-Lewis founded design studio The Archipelago in Leeds in 2011, with a desire to collaborate with other creatives alongside taking on client commissions. They've since worked with some of the leading art organisations in the region, including The Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, all while running their own projects – most prominently The Plant Room.

Starting out as an exhibition, The Plant Room has grown to become a series of events and workshops, with Michael and Zosia curating work by green-minded artists and illustrators, running mini markets selling plant-friendly ceramics, hosting talks and even designing edible city gardens.

Based out of Tower Works, "a beautiful Victorian factory that used to make pins for the textile industry" next to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, their workspace is reflective of their aesthetic. "The grounds contain a trio of beautiful Italianate towers, each based on towers found in Florence and Verona," Michael says. "The conversion to studio spaces was still underway when we viewed the vacant, unfinished units. We saw newly plastered white-painted walls, stripped wooden floors, huge Victorian windows and a panoramic view of the city. We saw the potential, signed up straight away and are still in love with our studio. It’s a place to make, with space to think." 

The Skinny: Part of your philosophy, posted on your website, is to 'keep the studio small, always'. Why is this important?

Michael: When we started the studio we had no intention of growing it beyond a handful of people. The idea behind The Archipelago name is that it references a collective approach, as in a group of islands forming an archipelago. With this approach we bring in other creatives and specialists to work with us on individual projects, allowing us to work on a wide variety of projects irrespective of scale.

Where did the inspiration for The Plant Room come from?

The inspiration for The Plant Room came from a research article we discovered about the positive benefits of introducing plants into minimalist workspaces, finding that adding plants improved both wellbeing and creativity. This article led to the idea of a plant-themed exhibition, hosted in a working space. We used our design studio and curated an exhibition celebrating illustration, ceramics and furniture, all with plants in mind.

Alongside studio life we’ve had an allotment for a number of years now. Starting with a basic understanding and a pile of books for reference, our passions grew. Our first house had a tiny front garden that gave us a space to spend time, grow and learn about plants. When it comes to houseplants, Zosia is the one with the vast knowledge and she spends a great deal of time sourcing and selecting the plants for our projects and for pairing with our ceramics at the Mini Market.

"As more folk live and work in urban areas we strive for a little green in our lives..."

The Plant Room seems to have become very popular very quickly. What do you think lies behind the project's appeal?

I think the first exhibition was very intriguing. We created an identity for The Plant Room based on old Observer's Books jackets and colour combinations and promoted it in a handful of locations in the city and through social media. There started to be a little buzz around the event, and when we had our opening night the studio was packed. Our aim was to put on an exhibition with integrity, to justify people taking the time to visit us. The first exhibition was a success and it led to other collaborations and projects over the last 18 months.

I think generally as more folk live and work in urban areas we strive for a little green in our lives. We’ve been very lucky with the support the project has had locally. We’ve recently stated to put on Garden Sessions, a series of workshops and talks with plants in mind. We’re up to session four and so far each one has sold out. We’ve got our next sessions lined up for the new year, so watch this space!

Reading material in the spare room. #bookshelf #observersbook #readinglist #beautifultype #type #colour

A photo posted by The Archipelago (@thearchipelago) on

Who are some of your favourite artists you've worked with through The Plant Room?

We’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazingly talented people through The Plant Room project. On the first exhibition we worked with illustrator Lucy Ketchin, ceramicist Dove Street Pottery and furniture designer Matt Kelly.

The first exhibition led to a few exciting collaborations with Tall Boys Beer Market and Northern Monk Brew Co (NMBCo). With Northern Monk we designed a beer garden and a planting scheme for an edible city garden. We launched the garden this summer with an NMBCo x The Plant Room Midsummer IPA.

With Tall Boys Beer Market we designed the interior of their cafe space including a modular green wall.

We’ve continued to collaborate with Tall Boys, opening our Mini Market earlier this year. The Mini Market is a small concession selling modern ceramics with plants in mind. More exciting Plant Room and Mini Market collaborations are to come in 2017! There are so many like-minded creatives in the North – there comes a sense of strength in numbers when you come together to work and collaborate.

Last few @dovestpottery at the #minimarket. #ceramics #succulents #minigardening

A photo posted by The Plant Room (@theplantroom) on

Where do you find design inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere and you’re most likely to be inspired while not even thinking about the project at hand. That said, I do personally have a fondness for monographs about icons of creativity. There’s always so much to learn from their processes and passion.

Books on inspirational creatives such as Dieter Rams, Alvar Aalto, Fredun Shapur, Bruno Mathsson, Olle Eksell, Lucie Rie, Margaret Kilgallen and Jasper Morrison take pride of place on the studio bookshelves and never fail to inspire.

Do you feel part of a design community in Leeds / the North? If so, how would you describe the scene?

There’s not just a design community but also a growing creative community in Leeds, and we’ve certainly been supported by it with our studio projects. There has been a wealth of creative events, projects and exhibitions in the city over the past year from a wide variety of fields and we’re looking forward to what’s to come in 2017.

What has been the highlight of your work as a studio so far?

There have been many highlights and we’ve achieved a lot, especially over the past couple of years. We’ve put on three exhibitions of our own, have released our first photobook under The Archipelago Press imprint and have had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing people on client and studio projects.

And what's been your biggest challenge as an independent studio?

The biggest challenge is managing the projects to make sure everything we’re working on runs smoothly and on time. Our projects can span a couple of weeks to several months and so making sure all the timescales work alongside each other is always a delicate balancing act.

What's next for The Archipelago and for The Plant Room – what are you working on currently?

With The Archipelago we’re currently working on four exhibitions, two for Lotherton Hall in Leeds, one for the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield and one for Kew Palace in London. Alongside this we’re also working on a new portfolio website for the studio and are having our project archive photographed. We’re hoping to launch the site in early 2017.

With The Plant Room there are numerous projects coming up. We’re expanding our Mini Market at Tall Boys Beer Market and have an exciting collaboration to reveal in the New Year! Also The Plant Room is currently working on a number of indoor-space projects in the city that will be designed and styled with plants in mind.

And finally – what is your advice for budding designers who want to get into the industry?

We talk with quite a few third year students each year from the Leeds design courses and offer up a little advice whenever we can. Often it’s about understanding what type of design they want to focus on and what type of studio they’d like to work in. This then gives a more focussed approach to finding a placement or job. Asking for a chat rather than an internship is often a way to open a few studio doors, too. It may lead to a placement or even a job down the line if you keep in touch. Above all else though, work hard and don’t give up.