A Clear Take on Design: An Interview with an Architect

24th February 2014

“Great design is thought, vision and passion combined” – those are the words of Melanie Clear, architect and brains behind Clear Architects, an Essex-based company transforming properties in and around London. Waving its magic wand over residential properties, restaurants and other thriving businesses, Clear Architects was formed back in 2005 by Melanie , a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA), and today the company has six employees. Priding itself on a sustainable approach to design, the company likes to make a difference wherever it can – offering contemporary design solutions, which are both functional, as well as championing great design. Here on the blog, Melanie’s taken time out of her busy working week to answer some of our questions, explaining why she entered the industry, letting us in on some of her favourite projects, and telling all about how she likes to relax on a rare day off. Enjoy!

Melanie Clear

Distinctive Chesterfields (DC): How did you get started in the business; what was the big draw in becoming an architect?

Melanie: I’ve always been a creative person and when I was 14 I knew that I wanted to be an architect.

DC: How has your company ethos changed since it began?

Melanie: The company ethos hasn’t changed at all: Detail is everything. Great design is thought, passion and vision combined. We don’t just create beautiful architectural drawings but create architecture that works both on page and on site.

DC: What would you say was your most notable project and why? And what was the specific focus of said project?

Melanie: The most notable from a personal standpoint would be The Stables, a top-to-bottom barn conversion in Coopersale, Essex. It was one of the first that my own practice did from the beginning, from the architecture plans to the build to the interiors. It was also a great project to work on because as it progressed, the clients became more and more excited about what could be realised and the project grew.

The Stables exterior

It became a great showcase for the ‘inside-out’ type of architectural practice that makes Clear Architects stand out; taking clients on a journey from their initial ideas to architectural drawings, securing planning permission, completing builds and to the interior design of projects.

The Stables was completely re-designed to include a stunning new entrance, annex and frame-less glazed link between the two buildings, and was refurbished using high-quality finishes and lighting design, as well as a beautiful new oak staircase, a feature within the new entrance hall. Clear Architects was shortlisted for a RIBA Award in 2011 for the renovation category.

From Clear Architects’ standpoint, the most notable project so far has been Coborn House in Bow, East London, which was a Georgian converted office block. We transformed it into two high-end ‘upside-down’ houses, incorporating a feature roof terrace with sliding glass box, a unique living/dining/kitchen space and bedrooms on the ground floor. Clear Architects was highly commended for this project by the Sunday Times British Homes Awards 2013, for the Conversion, Restoration, Renovation category.

Coborn House exterior

DC: As your industry has evolved, have you found that the line between architecture and interior design has become more blurred?

Melanie: I don’t think the line has become blurred but, certainly on residential projects, it has become increasingly important to understand how both interior design and architecture can and should be unified. Architecture used to be about the external profile of a building. Today, the one informs the other and vice-versa. A good architect with plenty of experience of working on residential projects will understand how important it is to take an ‘inside-out’ approach to design.

DC: How do you relax on a rare day off from the day job? And do you have any interesting hobbies?

Melanie: Ha! Well, as an architect and interior designer you never fully ‘switch off’, you are always looking and drawing inspiration from the things you see. I love walking in Chelsea’s King’s Road, around Islington and Clerkenwell and poking around in interesting furniture shops. I’ve been in clothes shops and found myself looking more at the skirting board, but you also get great ideas from textiles and different materials. I guess I live and breathe what I do.

“As an architect and interior designer you never fully ‘switch off’, you are always looking and drawing inspiration from the things you see.”

DC: Do you have any wise words for budding architects? And what three qualities/personality traits do you believe you need to succeed in the industry?

Without doubt, the biggest quality is passion. Be creative but also be practical; think about building your designs not just creating something that looks beautiful on paper. I think there is a romantic view of architects and what it is they actually do. If you’re thinking about coming into the industry you really have to be aware of just how much hard work it is. That’s why it’s so important to have passion, because that’s what pulls you through.

Architecture is the hardest of the construction disciplines by far, because everyone else’s role stems from what you create initially. I would recommend going through the list of registered architects on the RIBA website and seeing if you can get any exposure at all to what it’s really like.

I always urge budding architects to value themselves’; don’t accept working for free, always get paid for your time even if it’s a nominal amount to get the work experience. I really disagree with the cynical commercial decisions some practices take to ‘employ’ interns without pay who want the work experience.

DC: Are you a fan of the Chesterfield sofa? If so, would you choose a traditional leather design, or something more modern like a velvet or linen piece?

Melanie: The Chesterfield is a classic and in any room there is always space for a classic piece of furniture in the right context. Because it’s a classic, the Chesterfield can be utilized in many different interiors and – by positioning, type of fabric chosen, colours chosen – can look completely different within different interiors.

Pieces like the Chesterfield sofa, the Eames chair – they are contemporary classics that can often soften a modern space while retaining the character of the room, giving it a timeless appeal. By being selective with furniture, you can be quite eclectic in your taste – you don’t need to be trapped into the three-piece suite ‘look’, but select pieces that really work with the architectural space.

For me, the fabric choice is all about functionality. What is the piece of furniture going to be used for or exposed to? Putting a velvet sofa in a busy family living space is going to be a no-no, but if they like the look of velvet and you can find a material that looks like velvet but which is more durable, then the client can achieve the look they want and have it last. That’s why leather is so popular; it’s so durable and there’s a range of looks that can be achieved from that material, from distressed leather to quite a shiny finish.

“The Chesterfield is a classic and in any room there is always space for a classic piece of furniture in the right context.”

DC: Finally Melanie, what’s in the pipeline for yourself and Clear Architects, and where would you like to see yourself and the company in five years’ time?

Melanie: Clear Architects has some really exciting projects completing this year. We are delighted to be the architects for the Woodford-based children’s hospice, Haven House. Last year we worked with the charity to secure a Department of Health funding bid of £464,000 to create a much needed contemporary new annex to the listed building, which sits within Epping Forest to provide a sanctuary to both the children and their parents. Read more about the Haven House architecture project here.

Behind the scenes at clear 4

Other exciting projects include the restoration and internal reconfiguration of an iconic, listed Art Deco Cinema named ‘The Regal’ in north-east London into contemporary office space. In addition, the project will also see the creation of a new five-storey purpose-built office, linked to the renovated cinema building by a glazed tower.

At Clear Architects, we are also excited to be nearing completion on a stunning re-modelling project, Forest View, which has morphed as the client expanded the brief (reminiscent of The Stables for that reason). The result is a new cinema and swimming pool complex in the basement, a new master suite, additional bedroom on the first floor and a garden room, which taken together completely transform the property.

In terms of the future for myself and Clear Architects, we are a fast-growing design-centric architectural practice – recently used as a case study in an article by The Economist about fast-growing small businesses – so we plan to continue to build on what we have always done. We aim to continue to grow the number of residential projects we have and to build on our excellent reputation to raise our profile in the UK south-east.

Clear Architects is happy to offer consultations, so please do call the practice on +44 (0) 20 8502 5585 or email us: mail@clear.gb.com. You can also follow Clear Architects’ news on LinkedIn and Twitter.

We’d like to thank Melanie for giving up her time to answer our questions; please do let us know if you’d like to see more interviews like this by commenting on this blog post.


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