James Burke – Co-founder and CD of Acrylicize

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In the last issue of Mix you will have seen our comprehensive review of Sea Containers, designed by BDG architecture + design. Not only was this one of the most impressive, forward-thinking, truly agile workspaces we’d seen, it also had people at its very heart. This, we felt, was a space where people were looked after, were free and, equally importantly, were stimulated by their surroundings. It takes some doing to trump views across the Thames in terms of visual stimulation!

We’ve also been fortunate to speak with a number of experts in their fields to discuss how the look and feel of a space can affect workers’ mindsets. Cool breakout spaces featuring equally cool furniture designs, biophilic design and ergonomically correct environments all help enormously – as do visual stimulants.

Although corporate colours and branding works for some sectors and a large number of businesses, we are also now seeing more of a desire to be different – to be truly unique – and to look and feel different. Whilst salivating over the look and feel of a number of projects in the recent past – not least the aforementioned Sea Containers – we’ve noticed a single common denominator: Acrylicize.

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The studio’s unique blend of talents realises a fusion of art and design, resulting in some of the most eye-catching, dynamic installations we’ve seen – certainly in the workplace.

We’re in the epicenter of cool that is Hoxton to meet with James Burke, Co-founder and CD of Acrylicize. James, we quickly discover, has enjoyed something of a momentous journey, some of which can be seen as we walk through the studio itself. ‘I struggle to throw anything away!’ James grins as our eyes dart from Lego figures to cans of spray paint to a WWF championship belt. ‘I can’t throw that away – I’m still the champion. There’s some interesting stuff here, which we’ve accumulated over the past 13 years. We’ve even kept all the passes from our meetings and events over the years.’

In case you were wondering, James and the team here are not just hoarders. This ‘stuff’ is materials and inspiration for the studio’s critically acclaimed designs. Taking a seat in the library/informal meeting room, we can’t help notice just how well organised the books here are. Perfectly arranged in categories and then alphabetically within those categories, the library is another important source of inspiration for the team.

‘I always think the idea is out there, somewhere, you’ve just got to see it,’ James muses. ‘Recently we’ve been giving ourselves creative constraints – so we’ve been setting ourselves creative challenges. For example, we take a word out of one of the books, then take a word out of another of the books and those two words have to inspire our idea. It’s strange how that somehow opens up so many doors – it sets you off on a path.

‘When we work with clients we have to find the narrative – to tell a client’s story in a really interesting way.

‘We want to be engaging and we want to be accessible, but we also want to go one step further. We want to make the implication, not simply say the thing itself. You should always make people work a little bit – but just a little bit.’

We move on to talk about the Acrylicize route to market. ‘We work with a lot of the leading design firms,’ James tells us, ‘who either bring us in right at the beginning, when they are pitching for the work – to help give their pitch an additional element to it, or they’re already working on a scheme – doing their thing – and they may have an idea for what they want to do, but they simply don’t have the resource or the time to go deep. We’re set up to do just that.

‘We then work with the big developers – such as British Land – who have great buildings and really want to give them a bit of identity because they’re looking to let them out or to give them something to really differentiate their buildings from others. We’re doing more and more of that developer work – they’re now starting to realise that for a relatively small amount of money they can really make a huge difference to their building.

‘We also work directly with brands – the end client – and get a lot of referral work, which is always particularly nice, of course.’

So much of the Acrylicize work speaks for itself – as the images throughout this feature clearly attest – but which of the projects is James most proud of? ‘I really like the piece we made with dominoes – it’s called Momentum. It’s a huge spiral of dominoes, where the first few are knocked over while the rest are stood up. It was a project for a developer – so there was no brand to work for, so no story to tell there. It was a pretty ugly 80’s building, so no architecture or history to work with. We really had to work hard to find a narrative, and we eventually drew on the idea that this is a multi-tenanted space where people will come together, so this is about connection, about cause and effect – how people can meet here and what can happen when they do meet. We really had to work hard for that one!

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‘I do love that journey though – I always have. It certainly helps nowadays that we have a large catalogue of reference. Our portfolio is over 100-pages now! We don’t expect a prospective client to go through it all, but I think they do get a sense that there is a real breadth of work here.

‘I think what’s really unique about us is that we’ll do you a huge eight-storey hanging installation but we’ll also design you a fine art print – and we’ll do everything in-between. If the project’s right for an interesting piece, we’ll be all over it. We have people with graphic design backgrounds, sculptural backgrounds…a whole bunch of different skills and backgrounds.’

Speaking of backgrounds, we ask James to tell us about his. ‘When I was about six years old I woke up and found a drum kit at the end of my bed. My parents realised that academically I wasn’t going to set the world alight, so they thought they’d nurture my creative side. My dad played casually and I just took to it. I went through school being interested in art and drawing. I didn’t really have a style or a narrative – I just liked doing it. Then I did a graphic design course followed by an art foundation course. Again, I didn’t really know what I was doing or what I wanted to do – and then, during that course, I really got into graffiti. That was the really key moment for me. I was mesmerised by the graffiti in places like Camden.

‘I eventually went to uni, where I found a creative course where I could combine music and art. I started doing my own graffiti at uni and in my third year everything just came together for me. I just found a narrative – I started making work that was accessible. That was very much my thing.  I did all this under the name – the tag – Shesh.

‘I developed a number of prints and came out of university with a whole product concept – and I didn’t want to stop there. I set up with my good friend Paul Arad and started using acrylic – which was a very contemporary material for the time – and I used pop culture images, which you couldn’t help but relate to. I wanted people to walk into the gallery space and have an instant connection with the work and an instant emotional connection.’

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And with that the name Acrylicize was born, of course. James continued to refine his work, finding great commercial success along the way – in fact, Wembley Stadium is still decorated with dozens of James’ acrylic prints – which was mirrored by great critical acclaim.

The company soon grew into a studio as James looked to bring in new talents and start to incorporate new materials and styles. High profile commercial project work quickly became the studio’s forte – and the name Acrylicize equally quickly became synonymous with inventive, stunning and truly original commissions.

It might seem like quite a leap from graffiti to major corporate commissions – but talent will always be talent and Acrylicize not only have it in abundance, they’ve also never lost that young, cool edge. And that’s exciting.