Twenty years of Richard Chapman Studio
This month twenty years ago I was sitting down to begin work in an old printers on Munster Road in Fulham. I’d plugged in my new laptop, bought an in-tray and sent some stationery I’d designed off to be printed. I suspected, perhaps without really taking in the full implications of the decisions, I’d opened an agency rather than ‘gone freelance’ as everyone around me was doing at the time.
At that point I was 28 and figured I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I’d no way of knowing what the future would hold, or where it would take me. It’s only now, all these years later, that I can look back and try and make sense of the exhilarating, rewarding and at times daunting events that followed.
I don’t think I could ever tell all the stories that make up twenty years of Richard Chapman Studio but one or two? Sure.
My overwhelming memory of this period was of both emulating what went before and finding my own voice. I’d been working at Conran Design Group for four years and loved the stylish manner they managed dealing with their clients. The company had a panache born of their long-standing heritage which I felt innately comfortable within. I wanted to apply the ritual of using elegant stationery, invoices and business cards, albeit within the sphere of my own evolving creative approach to my work. I based the way I was doing everything on instincts learned after a long stint at art school combined with the commercial rigours of a major design consultancy. The way I presented myself, defining who I was, helped in turn define the perspective I gave to those coming to me for creative guidance.
Speaking of art school – it’s worth offering credit and thanks once again to my friends Ben and Steffi who were making similar tentative steps into being entrepreneurs in Barcelona. I reflect now that many of my wonderful contemporaries from the mid-90s at Goldsmiths went on to start from scratch rather than get a job. I was lucky to be surrounded by such fascinating and wonderful people. As I’ve said, in the early days I believed I was ‘going freelance’, but the truth is that I’ve never worked for another design consultancy in all these years. Whether by accident or design, I had indeed started a consultancy.
However, for all my love of print and branding, I had never designed a website – and suddenly everyone wanted one. So that’s where the Spanish connection came in. I’d get in the clients, define what we were doing in terms of the logo, print or brand and they would create the website designs remotely, inspired by what I had been doing. With half my team based in Spain, we had to improvise our ways of communication and collaboration. We’d chat away on Skype, using it much as we do Slack now. It strikes me writing this how working remotely is something I had been doing, by dint of circumstance, from the very beginning.
Our earliest client was a set of fashion shopping guides to different cities around the world called Where to Wear. The covers of these books were in bright, zingy colours and beyond the initial London, Paris, Italy and New York editions we ended up designing a much wider range of box sets then colourful guides to other places like LA, Las Vegas or Sydney. I’ve still got the books and they look so great all these years later. I can’t help thinking how lucky I was to fall on my feet with the ladies that ran that business. So, thank you Julie, Gerri and Nicola.
Diversity of clients became a hallmark of what we did. I had no specific industry specialism and wanted to say yes to everything, but this ended up doing me a lot of favours, as it meant I was never pigeonholed. I got lucky helping out the parents of a friend of mine who had a business running a series of care homes for profoundly autistic young people in Surrey and Sussex called Cavendish Care. This blend of what felt both altruistic and commercial to me was the beginning of a partnership that lasted fifteen years, til that business was sold in 2022. We devised the original identity system, a series of websites, signage, directed photo shoots, and all manner of events and promotions. It was a defining piece of work that led me to understand not merely what we did and how wide that work could stretch, but the way we approached our work ethically.
Left to right: the distinct chaos of the original studio at 129 Munster Road; early letterpress business cards; out for drinks with Michael, Paul (a French work experience student) and Oli; Riccardo assisting on a shoot for Oddbins; Oli and Riccardo in Verona the day before a shoot; a Spritz at the end of a day shooting at a hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo
By 2008 I’d got into a bit of a rhythm. Things seemed to be going well and I had aspirations to move office to my own space. I’d hired my first employee, Oli, straight out of Wimbledon Art School, around this point. He was working part time for me and part time for David and Michael, who were running the technology business from whom I rented my desk. Things felt like they were evolving.
I had a flatmate, Mel, who I’d been at school with, and worked in Canary Wharf for Lehman Brothers. I remember she worked these insanely long hours, leaving the house usually before I was awake and returned late at night exhausted. Burned out, she decided to bank her bonus cheques and retrain. A wise move, as it turned out. I remember hearing that Lehman had collapsed as a rather abstract piece of news, little realising the effect a protracted recession would have on me – and the clients I depended on.
Yet, amid all this chaos and without realising it, I’d made a good decision. That summer, just before the financial crash happened, I’d had a sales call from someone who wanted to promote my business. He told me he’d got an amazing way of pushing websites up the search rankings using dozens of cross-links and despite my being a small business he could achieve amazing things for me. Moreover, he’d do the first month for free and I’d soon see spectacular results. It all sounded too good to be true, but I had nothing to lose so said yes. It worked. That single call and my suggestion that we use the term ‘graphic design london’ as the central search term that would promote the company saw me through the financial crisis. For the first time, I wasn’t going out to get clients, they were coming to me.
I’d built a lovely website thanks to Ben and Steffi, and was constantly adding new projects we’d completed to it. Every new addition felt like a little victory. Suddenly clients were calling out of nowhere having found me online. This was a completely new thing. What I began to grasp over the next year or two, however, was that while our work looked great and the new clients were coming, the promotional side of things was in fact not exactly within the guidelines of the search engines. In fact in the end it seriously damaged us as certain engines blacklisted the site for a time – but was in blissful ignorance at a time when the internet was more like the Wild West than it is today.
My search engine prowess also meant I was found not just by a client but by an Italian graphic designer called Riccardo who walked through into the office one day and (on and off) has never really left. His arrival at the studio coincided with a call I had from the wine merchants Oddbins. They’d recently been bought out of administration and needed shop-window posters for the 14 or 15 shops that were left behind from a formerly vast estate. I could scarcely believe it – they were instantly easily our most well known client. Moreover, they put us on a retainer which was a revolution at that point. I absolutely loved the work which really harked back to the retail experience I’d had at Conran. It also had a thrilling immediacy – our designs were in stores across the UK within days of completion. So we began working up a series of increasingly creative and beautiful posters and point of sale designs which remain in our portfolio to this day.
Left to right: before and after – Riccardo celebrating signing the lease on the office at 535 King’s Road, then working with the furniture installed; Christmas 2021 with Rob, Sak, Jake and me; Jake on a shoot; Christmas 2022 with Riccardo, Sak, Jake, Sam and Kris
‘Do you want your own front door?’, said Charlie. I took a moment to figure out what he meant – and then it made sense. I had spent the previous ten years sharing someone else’s. Now it was time for a new challenge.
Charlie worked in west London commercial real estate and I had called him up for a bit of advice about where to look locally. He did a search for me, we looked at the results and one spot at the corner of Lots Road and King’s Road really stood out to both of us. I called the estate agent and went to take a look and it just felt like the perfect fit. I’d never negotiated a lease before so hired a lawyer, then spent the summer of 2014 going back and forth with the most protracted negotiations imaginable, to try and secure this little second floor office. The process seemed to take forever but we got there and by the middle of August 2014 I was making really very exciting decisions such as what desks to buy and whether we could have our own light fittings. All these felt like really defining decisions, not merely in terms of lighting but how we were going to work going forward. The office at 535 King’s Road (where we’ve been ever since) is an idiosyncratic building. The ironwork as well as fittings and fixtures are a distinctly 1980s combination of green and red which are giveaways of a very specific moment in architectural history. It all felt a good fit – and rather familiar given the era in which I grew up.
The online side of our work had begun to grow increasingly sophisticated and with my team keen to define how the sites looked, we began to bring that side of the business in house. In particular Riccardo and latterly Sak’s talent was central in how we crafted our websites – and still do. In addition, around this time we’d found another key part of the business, Kyle, who has built all the websites since we started doing them from London. I’d be remiss not to mention his influence here as we sought to work both creatively and practically. I can’t help feeling it’s a back-and-front approach to a website’s users that has been a lynchpin of their success. We design the sites for a visitor but offer the smoothest, most sophisticated editing facility that allows clients to maintain their own site with little recourse to us. In the enthusiasm to showcase our creative work, it’s often this ease of use and functionality that’s overlooked. I contrast this with the way prospective clients call me frustrated with their current ‘unusable, uneditable’ sites, which we go on to replace. Such a charge that could never be laid at our door. So, thank you Kyle.
Nobody likes goodbyes after long working relationships, but I had begun to get used to people coming and going. Oli and Riccardo left to pursue their ambitions elsewhere and were replaced, in time, by Brummie Rob and Finnish Sak. To begin with, I’d found this changeover distinctly unnerving, but have got used to this sort of gradual evolution as people come, find their feet, grow as designers and go on to their next adventure. While I’m the one left running the fort, this evolution is understandable and I have come to realise there’s a strength in terms of being able to find fresh creative voices and talent who will mean we can branch out in different directions for new projects.
Our 20th anniversary lunch held on 22nd September 2023 at The River Café. Left to right: Sak, Rob, Jake, Me, Kris, Riccardo and Oli
Much like the news from New York of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, reports of a new virus and Chinese cities being closed, with residents being forced to stay in their homes felt abstract, otherworldly. Nothing to do with us. In both cases, events turned out to contradict assumptions and rudely interrupt a cosy status quo. I remember there was a moment in March 2020 when it had begun to become clear that events were accelerating and we should do something – and thinking we should probably work from home. I asked a friend who said – don’t delay, just do it now. My team had evolved by this point even further, and as Rob had left, so Jake, a designer from north London, had joined. Sak was living in Crouch End, I was in Fulham, Kyle in Covent Garden. Suddenly our team dispersed to our kitchen tables and our office on King’s Road lay sad and empty.
It was a moment of the absolute unknown and part of me was prepared for everything to go to the wall. But our in-tray did not dry up. Not at all. In fact I recall 2020 as our busiest year to date. And on reflection, little wonder. Rather than working from home, in fact I’d essentially moved into an office without realising it. Working days previously delineated by arrival and departure sprawled from 8am to 7pm as the ping of an email and impulse to respond evolved from the mundane into something interesting to break up what had become a rather boring life. In fact the transition from working in the office to being at home was seamless. It turned out that we’d essentially been training for this for twenty years by using one technology or another.
I recall the grinding sadness of the pandemic contrasting with an excitement of how quickly the old rules evaporated. By May 2020 a new client base had begun to emerge that was more international – gone was the requirement (indeed possibility) to meet first, so following the swiftly habitual Zoom call, businesses from Brussels, Milan, then Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and more recently Vietnam thought nothing of hiring an agency from London.
I spent that winter of 2021 working from my parents’ dining room table. We reflected that there was rather a nice circularity to that given my father’s involvement in the earliest days of the business as my accountant. The ability to successfully run a business from anywhere and my clients’ agnostic attitude to that birthed a flexibility. ‘Just as long as the work gets done, who cares where it happens’, became the attitude. This is a freedom I’ve decided to seize on in the future, learning the lessons of the pandemic and taking forward the best parts of this recalibration of our working lives, seeking creative inspiration as I go.
With hard work and success comes a need for altruism. We’ve spent ten years being a part of a project that rewards secondary school students who produce a magazine, newspaper, podcast or other online media project – called Shine. It’s an annual awards scheme run by the ancient City of London livery company of the Stationers, to which I belong. Every year attending that ceremony is the most wonderful thing: we get to see the young, talented faces of our media future, innovating and never taking no for an answer, in real time. Doing something rewarding that recognises a central part of my own life as a creative feels like such a good fit. Increasingly my team have got involved with Shine which makes me really happy. We can back it and believe it, watching the students we once were win – on a national stage. This past summer after some years on the committee, I took over as Chair and I am excited to see the competition evolve in the years ahead.
Today finds the business with new faces – after Sak left, Sam from Putney and Kris from Oslo joined in 2022 to round us out to a team of five, though in fact it’s often, somewhat organically, more. I’m very happy to maintain our relationship with freelancers we know well, specialist animators such as Riccardo’s brother Carlo who’s based in Turin, and the technical team that builds out our Powerpoint decks and illustrators from our longtime friends at The Artworks.
My thoughts as I reflect on twenty years of Richard Chapman Studio? It turns out that great people, a sense of style, the willingness to adapt, as well as ultimately enjoying what you do, sees you through. Here’s to whatever comes next.
– Richard Chapman, September 2023