Jim Biddulph on portfolio careers, adapting to trends and embracing design

Jim Biddulph is a project and materials manager at Material Lab in London, where he discovers and shares the latest surfaces and materials with interior designers and architects.

When Jim isn't material hunting, he's designing exhibitions and pop-up spaces via his own venture, Here You Are Studio for brands such as Johnson Tiles and Dulux. Or he's teaching Surface Design at Buckingham New University. But "design" was never meant to be his thing, as he studied Fine Arts before venturing into the world of work.

We caught up with Jim to find out what he gets up to during the working week, how he adapts to trends and what we should all be looking out for next.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get here?

Today, by bicycle and train, although those multiple and overlapping modes of transport reflect my working life to date, to be honest. I’ve always had more than one similar-but-different job at any given time. I went to art school, studying Fine Art and sought out gallery jobs when I moved to London to do my MA.

I found some of those working as an installation technician at various galleries but also got a part-time job at Material Lab which was (and still is) this gallery-like emporium of materials; the equivalent of a sweet shop for interior designers and architects. It blew my mind!

I’ve been there since 2007 and it’s evolved a lot, much like me – as I became a designer. I set up my own studio, Here You Are Studio in 2012 when first designing an exhibition space for Material Lab at Clerkenwell Design Week, and haven’t looked back since.

Describe a typical working week – what do you do?

My working week varies a bit depending on the time of year because I teach Surface Design at Bucks New University. What this means is that during the term, I split my time between freelance studio work, teaching and doing stuff for Material Lab. When the students enjoy their breaks, I tend to concentrate more on my studio and big projects, be they exhibition, interior or editorially focused. The beauty of my week is that no two consecutive days are the same!

You have a 'portfolio' career with multiple revenue streams. What's it like to wear so many different hats?

Even though I now consider myself a designer, I think the skill sets I learned on Foundation and during my Fine Arts degree have allowed me to be open and adaptable, as well as creative. This has been essential in the development of my career – which hasn’t exactly been conventional. But through all of my roles, I get to meet loads of amazingly creative people and ultimately share with and support what they do. I’m looking to bring a great deal of this together in the form of a book, but you’ll have to watch this space on that one.

As mentioned, you're part of the team at Material Lab on Great Titchfield Street. What do you do there?

My official title is Project & Materials Manager but as far as I’m aware there is no comparative role with which to liken it. Such is the beauty of the space, which is truly unique. Its success is dependent upon being responsive and adaptable because both material manufacturers and specifiers create an organically changing landscape which we are tasked with keeping up with and sharing.

My primary role is to seek out new materials and with it, manufacturers, find out as much as possible about them and what they produce and then get material samples into the studio. But I also head up our blog as well as organising external exhibitions – other platforms from which we can share stuff.

With Material Lab, you're exhibiting at UK Construction Week, Surfaces & Materials Show. Tell us more...

We’ve been tasked with producing the main hub space at the show, which is a great privilege. My aim is to bring together some of the leading surface material makers out there in a stimulating and immersive space.

We’ll be creating a seminar and live making the environment as well as exhibition stands which will be adorned with some lovely examples of new work from the likes of Giles Miller Studio, Daniel Heath Studio and Smile Plastics. The space is being supported by some leading lights in material manufacture with some distinctive uses of colour from Dulux’s new Colour Futures trends, ceramic from Johnson Tiles, cork underfoot from Granorte and a extra special display of surface materials made from Jesmonite.

You're also passionate about moving visuals and love to pick up a camera. Is it now crucial for designers to visually tell their story?

There’s so much going on in the world of design and so many means with which to share your latest work or inspirations that it makes absolute sense to use both still and moving image to communicate you and your work.

I spent much of my time at art school shooting and editing video footage, and I’m glad because it feels natural to record in that way now. Designers are very visual and will generally have a 'making' process (often more than one) that is interesting to watch. Revealing a bit of the 'behind-the-scenes' of your design and making process is a great way to help your audience get to know you, and ultimately encourage them to hire you!

What's changed in the design industry since you graduated?

Social media and online platforms have probably been the most impactful development in that time and overall I think it’s had a positive impact on design. It offers a visual space in which designers can share what they’re doing, giving them more of a chance to distribute their work and passion as well as making their own discoveries. I think it’s really helped the creative community to connect too. Collaboration, something that is often vital in a design process, is so much easier now, which is great.

In your opinion, what makes a great designer?

For me, a great designer has the ability to create their own visual language but remain flexible and understanding when it comes to working with a client. Design should hopefully make the world a better place and the relationship between the designer and people, most immediately the client is vital in producing something of use and value.

You recently went to New Designers, picking out some of the best emerging talents. What do you look for when spotting the next big thing?

New Designers is a wonderful show. I wish I’d had such a good opportunity when graduating. I’m always on the lookout for great surface design, so that’s my primary focus when visiting each year. Week one tends to offer more in that respect because, much like the course I teach, there are a number of textile students that are integrating the subject into their course, but this year I found some really interesting surface pieces across both weeks.

A great designer has the ability to create their own visual language but remain flexible and understanding when it comes to working with a client.

Being a lecturer, you're passionate about supporting graduates. Any ones to watch this autumn?

I managed to bring a number of those designers to work in the studio where specifiers can come and see it all year round. I’ve also selected a few to exhibit on the Material Lab Central Hub at the Surface and Materials Show this October.

These ‘innovators’ are all quite varied in terms of their approach to surface design and the materials and processes they work with. For instance, we have Apilada Vorschart making an intriguing new surface material with maize alongside Izzy Webb who saves carpet from refill and creates beautiful new pieces from the dyed, cut, stitched and recycled waste.

What common issues do you see with students who are trying to break into the industry after university, and what advice would you give to them?

Scalability is always a stumbling block, particularly for surface designers. Covering large areas is often a prerequisite for material specifiers but is not often something graduates have got to do much with during their final projects because of time, space and costs.

Having knowledge of how to make your graduate collections on a larger scale, whether on your own or with external support from other makers, is a really useful thing to try to achieve whilst studying – it gives you more of a chance of getting on those specs and with it some cash to get that studio, buy more materials or pay for useful equipment.

Finally, what advice would you give to those looking to follow in your footsteps?

Get involved with industry – put yourself out there and get the opportunity to test stuff in your preferred or even related fields. Be confident, but ask questions. Share what you do. Be professional and clear about work, and don’t fear people’s responses – with so many people looking for and able to find great design you’re bound to find positive responses eventually. Be patient (it’s all not going to happen right away) but passionate (you can help it along). Be nice.

To find out more about Jim Biddulph, visit www.hereyouarestudio.com or www.material-lab.co.uk. To see Jim at work, make sure you check out the Material Lab Central Hub at the Surface & Materials Show at Birmingham's NEC this October. Find out more at ukconstructionweek.com.