I went for the first time to Clapham-based 401 ½ studios late 2011 to visit a friend during their annual open day. I immediately fell in love with the place and the atmosphere and decided to come back to interview the owner Michael Haynes as well as the artists working there. I had a wonderful time meeting an enthusiastic owner and happy artists.
Entrance to 401 ½ studios
The courtyard and the studios
As stated in the website “For over fourty years 401½ has provided studios for fine and applied artists and designers. The project, started in 1971 by Michael Haynes, is housed in a Victorian warehouse situated on one edge of Larkhall Park in Clapham”. Michael Rowe, head of Silversmithing & Jewellery at the Royal College of Art and one of the first generation of artists working here makes a vibrant tribute to the studio: "401½ has a growing historical significance in the world of art & design as one of the birth places of the artistic crafts renaissance in Britain dating from the early 1970's. The history of this movement has been documented by the leading applied arts historian Tanya Harrod in her authoritative book 'The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century'. In it she pays tribute to Michael Haynes, the visionary founder and Director of the studios, for providing affordable workspaces for numerous artists craftsmen and women over the years; this was the first studio of its kind and was the model for those that were to follow”.
Michael Haynes (front left) and 401 ½ members in 1979
Michael didn’t know when he started this adventure 40 years ago that he would be a “model for those that were to follow”. Established as one of the leading display designer in the 60’s, the idea of opening artists’ studios was more a pragmatic decision rather than a visionary one. As he needed space for displaying the exhibitions he was in charge with, he started to search for a large building. The Clapham Victorian warehouse was a cheap and central alternative but as the building was too big for his needs, he decided to share it with other artists: half of the space for him and the rest split in individual studios. Fascinated by the energy and creativity of the new Applied Arts scene of the 70’s, he went to the Royal College of Arts and asked graduates if they needed studio spaces. 10 of them loved the idea and joined him: among them were the famous ceramicists Alison Britton, Carol McNicholl, Jill Crawley and Elisabeth Fritsch and the silversmiths Michael Rowe and Robert Marsden… As Michael told me “it was such an amazing group of people…I had no idea how good they were”… He is still in touch with those artists and had the opportunity to build an amazing collection of art works by regularly buying pieces from resident artists since 1971. His collection is stored in his Oxfordshire house but 401 ½ studios host a gallery space at the entrance where Michael exhibits some pieces all year round. “It is not a proper gallery. More a museum because nothing is to sell” he clarifies.
The gallery at the entrance of the courtyard
Front window display inside the gallery
Michael Haynes in his gallery
Being selected to rent a space in 401 ½ studios is nowadays a challenge as there are only 43 of them available while Michael receives new applications almost every day. He chooses the artists himself after an interview. “I am not an expert, but I love talking to artists and seeing works that are very individual and full of enthusiasm” he specifies. His main concern is that people feel so comfortable here that the turnover is very rare. He has had artists staying for 20, 30 and even 40 years…”it is lovely to keep people and at the same time, we need fresh blood…” he says. His aim is to keep a balance between established artists and new graduates and to avoid too many people in one field. A couple of years ago, Michael wanted to close the place as running it became too demanding as he grew older. However he realized how important a studio is for an artist and a poignant letter from one tenant writing than “in spite of all her ups and downs in her private life, she had always had a home to come to at 401 ½ ” finally convinced him to continue with the help of his wife and his two sons. Building new spaces might even be on the agenda…
After chatting about craft and applied artists, it was time for me to leave Michael and to discover this Victorian warehouse. The first thing I noticed was a tiny garden at the back of the courtyard and a small building with a ladder leading to a studio space.
A very original studio
In the main building, I immediately got a homey feeling:
Stairs leading to the 1st floor of the main building
Corridor inside the main building
Artists’ works hanging on corridor walls
My first interview went naturally for my friend Emma Nacht. She is a jeweller and moved to 401 ½ a year ago. Her studio is part of a huge semi-open space at the first floor. Having known her for many years I was moved to see how she managed to recreate a very personalised environment.
Emma’s studio and the corridor in the semi-open space
Emma Nacht in her studio
… and the tools
The drawing table
Emma compares the studios to a family and I think the image is particularly appropriate: everybody has his own space and freedom but lunch and tea breaks are opportunities to gather in the common kitchen. She loves the fact that disciplines are mixed as she tends to seek technical advices from her fellow jewellers but prefers to get inspiration or to test design ideas with ceramicists or painters. She still feels “new” and “shy” compared to more established artists but has found a comforting support when she feels low or short of ideas when they reassure her: “we all went through the same stages, don’t worry…” Interestingly she finds the proximity with successful artists sometimes intimidating but mainly challenging.
In the basement, two textile designers Bevelee Regan and Daniele Budd share a space. They managed to divide it in two distinctive parts and the space reminds me of Ali Baba’s cave. For Bevelee, who makes bespoke cushions, curtains and other textile works, 401 ½ is a “heaven of creativity” and she really loves the fact that it is a non-competitive environment. She lives nearby and comes with her dog Chopper, who seems to like the place as well…
Bevelee Regan in her studio
Bevelee / Ali Baba’s cave...
Chopper the happy dog
Danielle has rent her studio for 12 years and she loves it despite the fact she could use more space and more light. She makes leather and screen-printed handbags and purses under the name Miss Budd. She finds the place very safe and she really enjoys the garden in summer. “People are really friendly and there is a nice atmosphere”, she says.
Danielle Budd in her studio
Also in the basement but “hidden in a corner” as she says stands Heather O’Connor‘s space. She is a silversmith and she needed a studio where she could be noisy without disturbing the other artists. She has been renting the space for 7 years and she loves it. She wanted “something cosy” and declined an offer from a bigger studio. She enjoys the “relaxed atmosphere” and the fact she has her own private space but can meet people anytime to discuss a technical point or new ideas. Being “among very talented people who all understand how hard it is to run a business” gives her the support she wanted. She also loves the fact that people outside her discipline have a complete different way of looking at the same object, which allows her to have interesting discussions with the other artists.
Heather O’Connor in her studio
Upstairs, I met Holly Frean, a painter who has been renting her studio for 8 years. Holly considers the workshop "a vital space to experiment and play with intent in peace". It is impossible for her to work at home (she has two small children) and she finds it nice "to make a total mess everywhere and not have to clean it up"... She loves the place as it reminds her of her university years.
Holly Frean in her studio
Grab a seat…
I then met Gerlinde Huth, a jeweller established in 401 ½ studios for 15 years, She waited one year to get a space and had a tiny one to start with. She has now settled in a studio she loves, with plenty of light, which is crucial as she comes almost every day. “Working at the bench can be very lonely” and she really enjoys sharing moments with the other artists, exchanging ideas. “Everybody is different but it is nice to see people moving in the same direction”, she told me.
Gerlinde Huth in her studio
To do list
Her closest neighbour, Pina Lavelli is a ceramist. She arrived 8 months ago but reckons she has just settled recently. As a new graduate, it took her time to find the materials and to buy a kiln (which sits in the basement). She started to “work in a shed in her garden but felt lonely and wanted to meet people”. She likes small studios with enough people to socialize but not too many artists. She loves her room but could have more space as she does big sculptural pieces.
Pina Lavelli in her studio
Snuggled in a tiny space, I met Yoko Izawa, a jeweller who is the newest artist in the studios. She arrived 2 months ago and has just settled. She is a renowned artist who was previously working from home. She really “enjoys the good sense of community”. Her space is small but she feels “independent” and she loves it so far.
Yoko Izawa in her studio
Fancy a break?
And finally the last artist I met was Etsuko Montgomery, a painter and Emma’s neighbour. Etsuko arrived 5 years ago after two bad experiences in other studios. She really appreciates having hot water and central heating, things that people usually consider as obvious but which very often lacks in artists’ studios. She finds people “wonderful” and as she is an amazing cook, she regularly finds excuses to bake cakes for birthdays or other events “to share with everybody”.
Etsuko Montgomery in her studio
When I asked if anyone felt something was missing at 401 ½ studios I received a sole but unanimous wish for more external promotion. Less crucial for established artists who usually have their own network of galleries, shops or exhibitions, new graduates were the most vocal about this.
This was however the only negative point of the day. My visit culminated with an exquisite Tarte Tatin made by Etsuko for Gerlinde’s birthday and shared by everybody present that day in the common kitchen.
The common kitchen
Etsuko’s delicious Tarte Tatin
After this very friendly and interesting day spent at 401 ½ studios, I can fully understand what Bevelee told me when interviewed in the morning: “every time I come through the gate, I feel myself lucky”. It is a warming tribute to this 40-year old space, brainchild of Michael Haynes and home for 43 lucky and happy artists.
All pictures from Isabelle Busnel, except “Michael Haynes and 401 ½ members in 1979”