Helen Strevens On Her Architectonic Art And Working On The Lord of the Rings by Tash South

On a rainy afternoon last week, I was lucky enough to catch designer, Helen Strevens on a one day London stopover between her work trips to Portugal, and before heading back home to New Zealand – I couldn't believe my luck. Helen's exquisite work has appeared in The Lord of the Rings, The Sir John Soane's Museum, Liberty, and Peter Jackson's private country house.

Helen was in town for the launch of her Designer's Corner at Jonathan Charles Fine Furniture on The King's Road. Jonathan Charles have dedicated a corner of their showroom to showcase individual designers, and this time it was Helen's turn.

Helen's Designer Corner at Jonathan Charles

On arrival I met Helen and Yannick, the showroom manager, who was completely lovely and hospitable beyond belief. After the interview, the afternoon turned into the evening the launch party and I got to know Helen a little better, not only is she is an awesome artist, she is intelligent, sharp-witted and a great laugh. I was so pleased that I got to meet and interview her.

I sat down with Helen, in her Designer's Corner, to talk about her art, her brand, HMS Studio and of course The Lord of the Rings.

TS: It's so great to meet you! Let's start with telling us a bit more about your background.

HS: I trained as an architect and I'd say that that's pretty significant influence on the style of my work. When I was young I wanted to go to art school and really my parents wanted me to do something that was a little bit more academic and sensible. I suppose I could have gone to art school, but my mother said to me; if you really, truly are an artist, then you will make art.

Which is true, because I trained as an architect and then subsequently in set design. I've just been drifting further and further away from architecture and into my style which is a little bit more whimsical and fantastical, and that's why set design is so great for me.

I come from a big family, my mother’s an artist. My father is an accountant, who should have been an architect, so I lived in a very creative house with lot of things being made and drawn around me and that's probably had a big influence on me.

Helen's Memphis wallpaper, Roman Graffiti cushion and plates collection on display.

TS: When did you launch your brand HMS Studio and what was the reason and ethos behind the brand?

HS: The brand evolved, so there wasn't a definite start date. Actually, what happened was I had been working in film for a long time and I started to really feel the need to make my own artwork.

I developed a series of drawings and I had an exhibition and alongside that, my sister was living in the UK doing furniture design and she required some posters for a trade fair, and I did some illustrated posters for her, Tektura then saw the posters at the fair and liked the style, they asked my sister if I would like to design wallpapers. So together, I drew for the wallpapers and my sister curated. Then slowly she drifted out of it and I took over, I then became very interested in expanding.

French Panels Wallpaper. Image: Tektura

So I suppose HMS properly began when I did my first trade show, 100% Design, in 2011. I exhibited some wallpapers and the beginnings of my plates collection. Then Liberty picked up my Roman Graffiti plates for a season, and I created more and more of those. I feel like it's a collection that I will just keep going.

TS: Your work is so intricate. What’s your medium and how are your plates produced?

HS: I draw in pencil a lot but, I also draw ink – and also Indian ink. The drawings are then scanned at an exceedingly high resolution, the original drawings are very, very intricate as they are architectural drawings really, drawn on the drawing board with very fine lines and lots of geometry. They are then screen-printed onto decals and then placed onto the ceramics.

TS: How would you explain your creative/design approach and where do you draw your inspiration from?

HS: I draw my inspiration from everywhere, in the sense that I find ideas all around me, but I'm particularly drawn to ornamentation detail. So for example, on buildings, I'd look at the columns, I'd look at the articulation.

I also like narrative,  I’m quite interested in stories and I think perhaps that's why the classical world features so much in my work because there's such richness in the myths. They are dramatic stories but they are culturally recognizable and we all buy into them because we know them. They are part of our world culture because so many of the western world's ideas and philosophies sprung out of Greek thinking. So that whole classical world appeals to me intensely.

My design process starts by gathering together with quite a lot of things – and then just start. Next, I go around in circles, and just make and make and make. Then I combine and re-combine, just bringing things together, rather than just sitting down and having a genius idea and then creating that.

TS: We've covered some of this already, but how would you describe your style?

HS: My style...it's a combination that's quite difficult – a combination of the quite bold and graphic, and the incredibly intricate. Sometimes my work has one or other of those qualities, and sometimes it has both together, but definitely graphic and quite architectural. I use the word 'architectonic' to describe it, but essentially classical, graphic, architectural, whimsical. And there's always a little humor in there, and a bit of a story.

Helen's graphic Knot plate is one of my favourites. Image: HMS Studio

The Backgammon wall covering. Image HMS Studio

TS: So tell us a little bit more about your products, your wallpapers and plates, and do you have a favorite piece in the collection right now?

HS: So with wallpapers, I currently work with Tektura, a London based wallpaper company and they are great to work with because they’re really a family company. I'm from New Zealand and I’m quite friendly and relaxed, and I don't drive hard bargain and I like to be with people who are nice – if you know what I mean! So for starters, they're actually really, really a nice company, and then secondly, their digital printing quality and papers are really excellent.

In terms of my favourite wallpaper, it's the Dr. Caligari wallpaper which is based on one of my favorite German expressionist films called the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It's completely crazy and has a very famous set design, it's completely graphic. I think that there is something pretty original about it and I'm very happy with that! I like that the best out of my work at the moment, I think it's brave. I think it just stands well as a piece of really good quality design - in my eyes anyway.

Helen with her Dr. Caligari paper. Image: HMS Studio.

TS: So when the and how did you create Dr. Caligari design?

HS: I actually made the woodcuts a very long time ago.  I did a series of woodcuts and always had the blocks at home, I thought I'd make the blocks into a table, but I kept rearranging them and thought that they looked so cool when they’re placed together, that I decided to make a pattern out of them and talk to Tektura about making them into a wallpaper.

TS:  Sounds like so much work and skill went into that.

HS: A lot of work, my design work tends to be quite labour-intensive. It's always got a lot of hand drawing, a lot of hand-making, and I think maybe it's optimistic, but I do think it comes through because these days these a lot of cool stuff. I can barely open a magazine without wanting something. So I'm trying really hard to make good stuff, for me it's really important that it has a lot of time put into it, because I don't want someone to be expected to keep something, they should slowly start to get to know it and like it and have a relationship with it.

The Dr. Caligari wallpaper looks stunning in this modern bedroom. Image: HMS Studio.

TS: To date, what has been the highlight since launching?

HS: Ooh, my highlight is happening right at the moment, I'm working on...oh hang on, I have another highlight!

TS: You can have two highlights!

HS: OK, highlight number one is when Sir John Soane came to me at the Paris Fair and said: 'we want you to do some work for us'. That was a highlight! I studied that museum and I have a real thing about it and I visit it every time I come to London. They said 'you might not have heard of us' and I said 'don't worry, I might be from New Zealand, but I have definitely heard about you!' So that was huge, and we're still working on that project – we have a lovely range but I'm still perfecting it.

My second highlight is that I'm currently doing a residency at Vista Alegre, which is a Portuguese porcelain manufacturer – I'm just nearing the end of my two months there.

A plate from the John Soanes collection (on top of the Knot plate). Image: HMS Studio

TS: So what does that entail, what are you designing for them?

HS: Well it's all a bit secretive. I can't really tell you, but what I can tell you is that we have something coming out in 2019, it's two large decorative pieces, but I can't tell you much more...!

TS: That's a shame – we'll have to wait until 2019 I guess!
You've been so prolific in your work so far, but where do you plan on taking your brand in the two to three years?

HS: I feel like I just want to keep going with it long term. I need to keep making work, it's almost that my goal is is not really a business goal, it's more of a personal goal. I want to get to the end of my life, and I hope it's long because I have got so much to do. I just want to have created a portfolio of beautiful work, that's what I care about. It's output, I want to output... you can output anything, but I don't want to output just anything, it takes time and it's got to be good.

I want to be able to look back through all the different types of design I've developed. So far, it's just one thing at a time, I want to keep the consistency going, I just need to keep building this pile of good work - that's what I'm driven to do. I have been designing for a long time now, and one think I've learned is to stick with your style, stay focused and don't worry about trends and what other people are doing. I just figure, If I keep going and do good work, people will find it.

Wallpaper from the Iris Collection. Image: HMS Studio

Can you give us a sneaky insight into something you're working on at the moment?

HS: Well, I'm doing the dining range for Sir John Soane's museum, which is under development and I'm working on the two decorative pieces for Vita Alegre. Sorry, I can't tell you any more!

TS: Well, it was worth a try!
You’ve worked as a set designer on some epic films such as The Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. How did you find the experience, and how does the creative process compare to your other work like wallpaper and china design?

HS: I absolutely loved working on film, particularly the Tolkien films were probably some of the best experiences of my life. When I worked on The Lord of the Rings I was quite young, in my early 20s. I was spellbound! When I first walked on set I couldn't believe my luck. I worked with these two famous Tolkien illustrators who did the main concept art, and I got to watch them draw every day, and I learned so much from them, so in terms of experience: incredible!

I still really enjoy film, I don't work in it full time because I do feel the need to do my own work, but I love it! It's different because my own work is quite solitary and working in film is so much a team effort. In terms of how the creative process is different; in film I'm working very much to someone else's vision... the production designer’s vision, but mainly the director's vision. Whereas in my own work, I give myself a brief and really I just do whatever I like! So that is hugely different – and there is a lot more freedom in that.

TS: So in terms of actually working on set, you obviously do the drawings, but are you actually there on set, helping to build, construct and instruct?

HS: There’s a lot of that. In a way it's similar to being in architect – that's the art direction aspect – it involves liaising with builders, liaising with painters, sculptors and foam experts – there are just so many different people involved. But especially, the builders, scenic artists and set decorators, it's just huge teams of people and so you’re never working without thinking about those people... it's really dynamic and deadline-orientated. Every day is go, go, go which is all so different from just sitting down quietly at the drawing board.

TS: That sounds so amazing, what an experience. I've read that you also designed Peter Jackson's private country house, what was that like and how did you find working with him?

HS: I worked with the supervising art director, Dan, on Lord Of The Rings and also on this design project [Jackson's house]. But I was the only architect, so like film, the vision was fixed between him and Peter Jackson. They knew what they wanted, they had a strong idea, and it was up to me to deliver that. Which is a little different to coming up with your own design. It was quite exciting because Peter has quite a whimsical approach to design, which is why he didn't hire a traditional architect. He wanted something different, so it was quite like set design in a way – except we had more time and a much larger budget!

TS: Where do you call home? Tell us a little bit more about your own interior style.

HS: Home is Mount Albert in Auckland, New Zealand, I have a very big volcanic mountain right behind me...    

TS: Wow!

HS: Dormant... Dormant! Living in New Zealand is wonderful, in the sense that it’s very beautiful, it's a gorgeous place, it's green, the houses are big, there's not too many people. It's a gorgeous place. It's paradise, it’s really a gorgeous country, so that's the beauty of New Zealand. The slightly hard bit about New Zealand is being away from my most heavy influences, which is this culture, New Zealand is a very new country, so we don't have the museums which means that I travel a lot. So I suppose that's good. Being far away is an advantage and a disadvantage.

My home is an Art Deco style apartment. My style is eclectic, it is very... Kelly Wearstler. I try not to gather too many things, but they do come into my life.

Helen at home. Image: NZ Homes & Gardens, Jane Ussher

TS: Where do you go to find pieces to bring into your home?

HS: Auctions! They are so under-rated, the value for money and the quality are amazing, also
design shops and my travels. I have quite a full house now, over the years I've been given things, I have a lovely big Hollywood Regency lamp which is just fabulous, it's huge, it was given to me as a wedding present. My husband is a sound engineer, so we also have a lot of musical instruments around.


Helen's living room with Memphis cabinets and portrait of her sister, Sarah. NZ Homes & Gardens, Jane Ussher

TS: That sounds gorgeous!
You've had a full and successful career so far, do you have some advice for artists or looking to follow in your footsteps?

OK. This is true advice, what I'd tell my nieces and nephews. I'd say, don't spend too much time at school, you can learn so much more by just doing it. Even though there's so much value put on degrees these days. Really try and learn how to paint, or draw, or sculpt something real because so much of what you will end up doing will be associated with technology, and that's great, but that drawing ability will teach you to look in a different way, and it's disappearing as an art form. It will give you something that your friends don't have. That would be my advice. And to stay true to yourself. 

TS: Very good advice, and we've come to my last question; what is your favorite thing about London?

HS: I love London! My favourite thing is that my sister lives here – and my nephews and niece, that's my favourite thing about London. And the museums, The V&A and the Sir John Soane's Museum – those are my two favourites.

The V&A... I dream of my work, one day, being in the V&A. That's my life goal, and I don't mean just in the shop. I mean on a shelf with my name – I don't care which section, any section will do!

TS: Well, I think that's the perfect place to end the interview and I look forward to seeing you in the V&A!

Huge thanks to Helen for giving her time for this interview. I have to admit that I was a bit star-struck, Helen has accomplished so much in her career, but she is so lovely and easy-going and seems to make everyone feel at ease in her company. I wish her all the best for her exciting upcoming projects.