James Soane of Project Orange enjoys creating a collage of materials

Buildings.

Project Orange has owned its first floor premises in a mixed-use building in what was traditionally a light-industrial area of Shoreditch since 2011. At the time the space was just a concrete shell that looked like a car park with windows but it meant that the practice could do a bespoke fit-out. Underfloor heating was installed, and fans to blow fresh air from the windows across the deep space. Materials were chosen to create an ambience that was just slightly more refined than an industrial space. A bespoke carpet runner creates a visual corridor along the length of the office and muffles the footsteps of the practice’s ten to twelve staff.

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Other materials used in the fit-out include some of the partners’ favourite samples that they’d never managed to specify, so they have a wall of smoked larch. They wanted to test out some very tall, low-budget painted doors from a project they were working on at the time, so one of those is in the bathroom. Likewise an industrial kitchen worktop with a moulded sink, considered to go on top of IKEA kitchen units for a professional chef working to a budget, is in their kitchen. The materials library is housed in a large walk-in store cupboard.

architecture is a collage of different materials; the construction is the way those materials come together”

How often do you review your library?

We do a major purge about once every six months. We don’t have a science to it. We like to have materials in the library that we are unsure when we might use – probably about half. We have project boxes for each project but, for instance, with timber there are so many finishes and it’s really great to get physical samples.

Because you can look at everything online there’s a danger that you think you know what that product is or what that material is, but in fact it doesn’t look anything like it. Particularly when it’s a natural material, the colour, the texture or the scale can be quite different. It’s so important to be able to touch things and to feel them, to put them next to something else.

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We keep all our drawings and presentations on shelves beneath our lab bench in the main office, and we use the surface to lay out palettes of materials. We usually have two or three projects on the go and people can get up and look at the real materials, that’s very important in terms of the process. When you’re making CGIs, even with scans of material, you’re basically wrapping wallpaper around shapes. You can do that very cleverly but it isn’t the same as looking at the material and understanding its qualities.

As you know, companies send you samples – without you even asking sometimes – and then you start accumulating and feel terrible throwing things away so we’re really trying hard to recycle samples or get manufacturers to come and pick them up. We joke that some day someone will line their bathroom with all the tiles we’ve got.

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Who manages the library?

There are a couple of people who are in charge of the library and I police it, because there is a tendency for people to hide things in it. The materials library is about the right size – the larger your store cupboard, the more you fill it. Editing is important. If it gets too chaotic or too full you can’t find what you’re looking for. While things sometimes end up on people’s desks, because we’ve got such a good layout space here most people don’t really want stuff around them.

For our projects abroad, particularly in Russia and India, you have to keep the samples until the end of the job. You meet with the contractors in Moscow, you both sign two sets of samples, they keep one and you keep one and it holds the contractor to account, particularly to ensure that the onsite finishes are as they should be.

A table top made for the practice by Benchmark, collaging techniques from different India projects, including a Himalayan garden for the Chelsea Flower Show.

How do you tend to find materials?

I prefer seeing things in the flesh, but a lot of people do use Google, or find products that are advertised or showcased and get samples in. We have a really good network of suppliers. In this area there are a huge number of showrooms and their representatives will pop in to show you things, bring new materials or samples in.

Another way is visiting buildings. Even if it’s not the actual product, you’re still seeing how architecture is a collage of different materials; the construction is the way those materials come together. This summer we all went to Cambridge and stayed in Harvey Court, which is a fantastic brick, quite Brutalist building, beautifully put together (a hall of residence for Gonville & Caius College, designed in 1962 by Leslie Martin and Patrick Hodgkinson).

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Sample of Minerva Carrara-marble-effect worktop

At the same time we are quite wary of being ‘sold’ materials, particularly new materials that have a lot of promises attached. We don’t fetishise new materials and that’s partly to do with the kind of architecture and design we engage in but there’s also a danger that novelty can take over.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some fantastic new materials out there, particularly with regards to sustainability. As architects we have to take more responsibility with our specifications. We’re aware for example that there are really great marble substitutes which have different qualities but aesthetically are fairly even with the real thing. When you rip out marble it doesn’t get recycled. We recently found a sample in our library of a rather beautiful white marble with a delicate pink vein in it and phoned up to find a bit more about it and it transpired that it doesn’t exist any more, the quarry had been exhausted.

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A concrete-like soffit solved the problem of pipes passing beneath what was intended to be exposed concrete in the main entrance to Rathbone Market housing

Do you make factory visits?

When it’s relevant to a particular project, yes. We’re a bit wary of factory visits that turn into a corporate jolly and take two or three days. I’d much rather go and look at what it is we’re talking about rather than be schmoozed into trying to choose something.

Do you have a regular programme of CPDs in house?

We have internal CPDs where we go through regulations and things we need to know, and external CPDs, which can be product related, as well as other industry-type sharing of information and best practice. Occasionally we’ll get in an expert in a certain field to give a talk. We try and do at least two a month, on Monday lunchtimes.

I’m interested in how one material fits with others. Often there are many other materials, particularly in interior projects. Half our work’s outside, half our work’s inside, and sometimes it’s both.

“This is our most fruity project, the Nhow Hotel in London. It’s in a Foster & Partners building, in the 250 City Road development across from the canal basin. There’s an eight-storey building which is a 180-bedroom hotel. This is the prototype for the wardrobe door. We wanted something that connected with the storyline – which is that you’re in this high-tech cluster, near Silicon Roundabout – they call ‘Old London Reloaded’. This is from a postcard, from an exhibition in MoMA New York, in about 1991, where they had huge blown-up drawings of microchips, the size of a wall. We scanned it in, made it into a 3D model, then gave it to the joiners who came up with this system. It’s routed, then a piece of white plastic is laid over it and it’s vacuum-formed, which gives slightly curved edges. It’s smooth, robust and great for cleaning. It’s a very playful scheme. The bathroom’s clad in anaglypta, which is painted, and we’ve got terrazzo tiles in the bathroom, as well as gold Formica doors.”

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“I’m very excited about this – our model of Big Ben Rocket Man, which is going to be the key sculptural feature in the main lobby at Nhow London. The Jealous Gallery are working with an artist who’s going to create this as a 2.5 metre-high object. We’re still talking about how he’s going to make the bubbles, possibly using balloons covered in fibreglass. The tower is going to be made of spray-painted machined MDF – with the gold flames created from fibreglass – and with a working illuminated clock. The brief is to create an Instagram moment for the hotel, which opens next summer.”

Athangudi tiles for Zone Hotels in India. “Project Orange has been working on hotel projects in India for the past 15 years. We developed a new brand concept for one of our existing clients – Zone by the Park. The design was to be contemporary but with reference to local traditions and we worked with a traditional tile company near Madurai in the south, whose Chettiar community hand-make the tiles using local soil. It’s like an encaustic tile, the colour is poured on, and it’s all organic. They’ve made them for 100 years and they’re rather amazing things. We adapted a traditional tile pattern and played with new colours.”

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William Blyth tiles for Leiston housing. “These are some of our more architectural samples. They are lovely handmade roof tiles, made from local clay in Lincolnshire by a company that dates back to 1840. They are beautiful in their form and patina. This is for a project we’re doing in Suffolk, a series of houses around a courtyard, in Leiston near Aldeburgh. What’s interesting is that the original planning request was for a cul-de-sac but we said ‘no, that’s the wrong precedent’ and we looked at barns in the area. We wanted to create a contemporary vernacular. It’s on site now. The roofs are particularly important because you can see them from the ruins of Leiston Abbey, which is slightly higher. For that reason we didn’t put in any roof windows, so there’s a lot of transparency within the walls, although there are shutters to close off the windows. We’re looking at how to build a shared space that’s not just concrete pavers and we’re probably going to go with gravel.”

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“We were lucky enough to receive this special Benchmark timber sample box demonstrating the subtle variations and finishes that are achievable in their workshop. I thi