Jim Biddulph & Katie Gillies in conversation

Shortly after Katie Gillies graduated from Leeds College of Art with her Printed Textiles and Surface Pattern Design degree in 2015 she was faced with a dilemma. The sort of dilemma that any proactive and driven student can only dream of.

Retail mega brand Topshop had spotted her work and liked it so much that they commissioned her to create 150 of bespoke tiles from her graduate collection for a new concessions counter in the flagship Oxford Circus store.

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Having used her ingenuity, as well as her dad’s garage, she delivered the project and quickly set about finding a studio space from which to officially set up her already sought after studio. She eventually landed a space in Nottingham’s One Thoresby Street; an artist collective nestled in the city’s creative quarter.

Working predominantly with Jesmonite and taking inspiration from the clean lines of Bauhaus pioneers such as Mies van der Rohe, she creates sculptural objects and surfaces with crisp minimal forms and the appearance of speckled terrazzo.

I interviewed her in the midst of a busy period working on a new and currently top secret new product range.

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JB: The materials and processes you use are so central to what you do, and have been since you started out. I remember talking to you a few years ago about your work and you said it really excited you; does it continue to do so?

KG: I’ve been working with the material Jesmonite for the past 5 years now. It is so versatile and allows me to make something as small as a coaster or as large as a wall panel. The beauty of the process is that every piece is unique and I still get a thrill seeing the result of hours of sanding by hand!

And in actual fact, everything is done by hand; from making the mould, mixing pigments and compounds to create a design, allowing to set and cure and then the gruelling hours of sanding to bring the aggregate to the top of the surface. But once each piece is hand sealed to preserve and provide longevity you have something completely unique and that’s a really exciting thing to me.

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JB: That must mean that you have to work quite closely with your clients when working on one-off commissions?

KG: I think the bespoke side of what I do is really appealing to clients, as they know that they are getting something that no one else will have, and there’s real value in that. Everything I produce is made with love and will therefore hopefully be really loved by its owner.

Clients sometimes take a lead, or at least give some direction in terms of the colours I will work with although I am always happy to experiment with a produce my own colour-ways.

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JB: Since first getting spotted as a graduate you’ve won some fantastic commissions; can you tell me a little more about them?

KG: The majority of my commissions have been for the retail and private residential sector. Over the past four years, I have worked with companies such as Glossier, Papersmiths and Topshop, but the majority of my clients are private. I have designed and made an array of items such as tables, vanity top units, fireplace features, kitchen worktops and splash backs for a whole host of private clients.

That said, I have designed and made tables, wall panels, display units and a worktop for a mobile kitchen for the retail and restaurant industry. I also provide pieces of my work to businesses for photo shoots to help promote their products. It’s a really rich and diverse client base.

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JB: I recently spotted that you also have a number of products available now too, is that a new direction?

KG: I started to get so many requests for homeware products and I’m actually working on the wholesaling side of my business. There’s real demand there so it’s definitely a direction I’m looking to move in.

I’m really excited to have been able to to open an online shop for homeware products like the trays and trivets. It’s still in development and more products will be added in the coming months, but it feels right.

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JB: And I’ve noticed that you’re doing quite a lot of workshops now too?

KG: Yes, hosting workshops is another huge part of my business and I do so for the public and companies. They take me up and down the country and are now being sought after outside the UK; having done workshops in Berlin, I’m returning there in August and have just recently returned from doing a series of workshops in Barcelona.

I take a great pleasure teaching students how to work with Jesmonite, in all honesty it’s probably the most enjoyable part of my business. I’ve been so lucky to host workshops for HAY, WeWork, Make Architects and many more. I’m even currently planning a series of workshops that will take place in America, which is super exciting.

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JB: Oh wow! It seems like the route you have taken is that of the archetypal “portfolio career” whereby you’re able to work on a nice array of overlapping elements?

KG: Well, one of the best things about working for yourself is that your have the freedom to do the things the way you like. That creates a certain level of pressure, particular as I am making everything myself. However, I’ve come to realise that I love working in the studio and making but also working with other people.

The studio itself is a community arts building and is great because it allows for the sharing of knowledge and experience and there’s a real togetherness. And the workshops give me another outlet, of a slightly different kind again, where I get to share in creative processes with others. They all feed into one and other really.

Contact Katie Gillies

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