Feix&Merlin is a boutique architecture studio based in London, co-founded by Julia Feix and Tarek Merlin in 2006. Since its creation, Feix&Merlin has consistently produced work that is magical and full of mystery, with an emphasis on the progressive, unusual and whimsical. Its first built project, Eyes Wide sHut, involved a beach hut on the east coast of England, completed in 2007, that sought to create new interest in the traditional UK holiday destination. Since then, Feix&Merlin has gone on to work for some of the UK’s leading developers, including Argent, Igloo and Urban Splash; educational institutions such as the London School of Economics; retail brands like Ferrari, and London property estates including Shaftesbury and Crown Estates, as well as other exciting projects for private residential clients. Feix&Merlin were finalists in the Young Architect of the Year award in 2008 and nominated for the LEAF Awards 2009. We spoke to Tarek Merlin in the run-up to this year’s London Design Festival.
Tarek, talk us through your design backgrounds.
I studied my diploma in architecture at the Bartlett UCL and started my career working with Norman Foster before joining Will Alsop at his studio in Battersea. I stayed for 10 years and worked on some of the practice’s most celebrated projects. After that I worked with some of the profession’s most interesting interior designers, from Philippe Starck to Kelly Hoppen, in my role as senior architect at yoo Studio. Julia originally studied in Germany but was drawn to London –something we are very glad about, otherwise we probably would never have met! I can safely say that the travel bug hasn’t left her, though. She’s just come back from a jaunt to Sao Paulo to launch our new Feix&Merlin satellite office out there, which is incredibly exciting.
How long have the two of you been working together?
I met Julia at Will Alsop’s office about 13 years ago; we were already in the same circle of friends so working together on our own architectural projects seemed to come naturally. We set up our own practice about seven years ago. It all happened quite intuitively – we entered a few competitions together, were shortlisted in the first and won our second, so we felt maybe we were doing something right and should make it more official!
How would you describe your individual roles?
I think we have very complementary strengths and skills. Both of us have a great passion for design and love seeing a project through from concept sketches, going onto site, then taking great joy in letting go of it once it’s complete. We always work on the concept together, then one of us will develop it further and we’ll come back to review it together again. We both love watching how people interact with what we have dreamt up.
What’s the best thing about working with someone else?
The best thing has to be that you always have someone there to bounce ideas off. Sometimes you just need a second opinion and sometimes it needs a fresh eye.
And the worst?
Sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree, but the end result is always, always better for it. So there is no real worst thing. It’s a bit like a marriage; you have to be flexible and respectful, so the design process moves subtly from a singular vision, through a filter of discussion and debate, and into a new vision. It’s always the better for it.
How did the TMforF&M brand come about?
I’ve always been interested in product design, furniture and lighting and over the years I’d built up a collection of ideas. I eventually showed some of my sketches to a friend at a marble workshop in Tuscany, who loved them and agreed to collaborate with me on making some of them a reality. This turned out to be the beginning of the Spindle Stools – a collection of solid marble side tables and stools inspired by the profiles of traditional timber spindles. I started working on the idea for the Spindle Pendants, a collection of hand-blown glass pendants in the same profiles, to complement the stools. I had some amazing hand-blown glass contacts in the UK. I went to speak to them about making the pendants, and they really loved the idea. I sat with the guys blowing the glass, and even had a go myself, and became really drawn to the skill and craft involved. It’s amazing to watch them do it. From then on, I decided that everything in the range should be hand-made or have an element of craft/hand finishing to it, and that we should focus the manufacture in the UK. It is more expensive doing it this way but I believe people want to invest in pieces that are designed and made in the UK, especially by hand. I think people also love to know how things are made and by whom, and to find out a bit more about the story behind the piece.In terms of the brand, the name TMforF&M stands for Tarek Merlin for FeixandMerlin. Creating a sub-brand out of our architecture practice has been one the most exciting ventures we’ve embarked on. It’s lovely to be able to work at a larger architectural scale with our projects for F&M, and also at a much smaller scale for TMforF&M.
How would you describe the philosophy behind your products?
As designers, we have always been interested in what’s gone before, just as much as what is to come; so the aesthetic of the brand seeks to echo tradition and craft, while firmly looking forwards: a search for a new tradition. We hope that people sense that whiff of nostalgia in the pieces but also see them as a contemporary and fresh addition to their home.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from everywhere in life. It is in everything around you, you just need to look!
What makes the Spindle Pendants special?
What we are trying to do with the entire range wherever possible is design and manufacture everything in the UK. This is unusual for most product design because it is more expensive to do, but we are passionate about supporting the UK manufacturing industry and want to support the Made in Britain movement. We also try to ensure that everything has a hand-made element to it; we love the idea of using a traditional craft in a new way, so many of the pieces are designed with a contemporary vision but with a traditional craft process behind it. Each part of the Spindle Pendants collection forms a handmade product made by skilled craftsmen in the UK using a traditional hand-blown glass process, a skill that requires years to perfect. The glass is of the highest quality and due to the unusual finishes (the ribbed finish of The Dorchester, and the diamond finish of the Charlotte, for example), light passes through the shade and casts the most beautiful reflections around the room. The forms are inspired by the profiles of traditional English timber spindles and we love the characters they seem to take on. The curvaceous form of The Dorchester, for example, evokes the idea of the hourglass profile of the 1950s pin-up, and the ribbed finish of corsetry and detail of lace. The shape of the Wentworth reminds us of the notion of a well-fed, well-educated English gent; slightly portly and smoking a cigar, but quite charming all the same.
Why did you choose to design lights?
We love lighting for the way it can completely transform the look and feel of an interior, and pendant lights can be so flexible in how you use them – clustered in a corner in a random pattern, arranged in strict symmetry over a dining table or used as bedside lamps, hanging very low over a side table. We wanted to create something that could do all of these things, so this was all part of the driving force in the decision making to design a range of pendant lights.
What’s a normal working day like for you?
A beautiful chaos.
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to take away from your work?
I think it would be that people feel a sense of nostalgia but at the same time a feeling of the contemporary. The idea that a piece can mean something personal to the individual is hugely important to us, also that they would see the pieces as a contemporary addition to their interior. We produce pieces of the highest quality, built to last, so it’s important to us that people feel they would cherish them for a long time and hand them down to future generations.
What’s been your career highlight so far?
I feel that the highlight is to come at London Design Festival when the pieces will be shown in public for the first time. It is our first show at LDF and the official launch of the TMforF&M brand, so we are very excited to see what people think!
What’s your favourite thing about working in London?
The vibrancy of the culture, particularly in the design world, and the transient nature of a big city; the constant change in neighbourhoods and communities. The speed at which things change keeps you on your toes. The list is endless…
What’s your favourite London building?
The Serpentine Pavilion. Maybe because it’s always changing! We get a fresh take on the same brief every year and I think that’s fascinating.
How do you feel about being part of the London Design Festival?
I am very honoured! It’s our first time, so excited and nervous all at once. It does feel like the festival has a new energy behind it this year. There was an amazing article in the New York Times recently saying how London design talent is really sharp right now and that the city is emerging above all the other design destinations at the moment.
What are you most looking forward to seeing there?
LDF does have some amazing work on show and I recommend trying to see as much as you can! Design Junction is a must; it was launched last year and was amazing, and of course while you’re in the area you must stop by Seven Dials in Covent Garden where I will be and check out my pop-up shop! Tent London is always good, too. My favourite thing, though, is just to walk around and try to take in some of the satellite stuff that’s happening; quite often there are amazing things slightly off the radar, which are all there to be discovered.
Where do you live?
In Peckham, for its vibrancy and its emerging art/design scene, and a feeling of change happening.
Tea or coffee? Coffee.
Dogs or cats? Dogs. My partner and I have a miniature pinscher and Julia has a Pomeranian.
What’s the last really great film you saw? Prometheus
What’s the last thing that really made you laugh? Probably something my nephew JJ said. He’s hilarious.
What are you looking forward to most about autumn? Escaping it and going to see Julia in Brazil!
What’s the one luxury you can’t live without? My coffee machine.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Watching a whole season of Mad Men in one day.
What song never fails to get you dancing? Right now it’s probably Chris Malinchak, So Good To Me. Of all time, maybe something by Blondie, Heart of Glass. Or Scissor Sisters, Let’s Have a Kiki!
How do you relax? When I actually have time to relax (!) I love being on the bed at home, the sun streams in all afternoon, and just keeping in touch with people on Facebook and Twitter. That relaxes me.
How would you spend your perfect Saturday? Sun, yoga, coffees, Maltby Street market, mooching about with friends and dog.
Feix&Merlin, Unit 40 South City Court, 52 Peckham Grove, London SE15; feixandmerlin.com