I have a major crush on three things: Hans Wegner’s Wishbone chair, marzipan & pistachio truffles, and I Am Acrylic jewellery. I doubt I’ll ever own a Wishbone chair, and the truffles don’t stick around for long, but I do have two I Am Acrylic necklaces, and whenever I put them on (I try to be restrained and wear just one at a time) they make me smile. So I was super excited about interviewing Brendan and Ruth, getting an insight into their creative process, seeing inside their studio and sketchbooks, and filling in all the details in the I Am Acrylic story…
Hello! Can you introduce yourselves?
Hello! We are Ruth Williams and Brendan Fan and we make jewellery and other stuff under the name I Am Acrylic. We met in the summer of 1999 over the Tesco deli counter (where I worked and where Brendan was one of my regular customers!). We were also both at Winchester School of Art at the time. Brendan likes chips but I prefer jacket potatoes.
Were you both very creative as children?
Brendan has always loved to draw! My dad is a retired CDT teacher (and master craftsman!) and my Mum was a brilliant artist – so from a very early age I was always encouraged to make everything myself. And about age 12 I was in my dad’s shed turning a candlestick!
How did I Am Acrylic start?
Brendan made me a bird-shaped keyring for my birthday in 2004. It was made from some acrylic we’d found on the street and based on a logo design that I loved on the side of a car park in Soho. I was working at Magma (a lovely design shop) at the time and the buyer (our friend) said we should make some to sell in the shop, so we did!
Can you describe the I Am Acrylic aesthetic?
We try to be humorous where possible! And we like our designs to have a kind of narrative and hopefully our pieces are things that make people smile. Our design process is quite heavily dictated by our production methods – as we hand-cut each and every component (even the tiny birds beaks) we have to keep the designs fairly simple. We have to distill our sometimes ambitious ideas into simple shapes that we can repeatedly and consistently cut out and piece together.
It must take a lot longer (and more muscles!) to cut everything by hand, rather than by laser. So why make your jewellery that way?
Brendan made the original bird-shaped keyring by using a mechanical fretsaw that we’d borrowed from my dad. It’s the same fretsaw that we still use today. (Sorry Dad, we never did give that back!) When we were both at school in the 90s this is how we made stuff in CDT (or DT as it’s now known). We like to keep the ‘C’ in CDT and keep making things in a crafty way! It’s also what we are comfortable with. We also like the fact that each individual item has been handmade from scratch by us and each one is ever so slightly different to the other!
Have you ever been tempted by a very attractive laser-cutter, quietly calling your name?
We wouldn’t know what to do with it! Give us back our saw!!
Where do your ideas come from?
Quite a lot of our designs have started life as presents for other people or as things that Brendan has made me for my birthday! (I was going on and on about how nice a cactus necklace would be – and on my birthday, that year, Brendan made me a Cactus Sunset necklace which we refined slightly and then put in our shop. We both like to scribble ideas in sketchbooks and re-visit them again and again to see if we can make them work. I love to brainstorm – and go off on strange tangents that don’t always work! Subject-wise a lot of inspiration has come from holidays, trips to the Spitalfields vintage market, and just from looking at all the stuff that we have (and love!) that is crammed into our little flat.
What’s the craziest idea you’ve ever had?
Maybe my recent obsession to make a working ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ necklace… all I need to do is source a clip for the tail and it’s a goer!
Do you ever get creative block? What do you do if that happens?
All the time! So we re-visit those sketchbooks and keep brainstorming and sometimes (mainly just for fun!) we like to use word association games to branch out from ideas that aren’t quite working, but whose subject matter we really like. It’s also good to take yourself well away from that blank page and go and visit somewhere like the V&A or the Museum of London – so much great stuff! It might not be immediately relevant to the designs we’re working on, but it can help to stir things up a bit and get the brain working.
Can you talk us through the process of making a piece?
First of all Brendan will cut all the components out for the item. (He’ll draw round our battered paper templates on to the large sheets of coloured acrylic first). Then we’ll both clean up the edges of the separate bits using needle files, Stanley blades and wet and dry paper. We each have our favourites that we like to clean up and construct and so far we don’t seem to like making the same designs, so there’s no fighting over the work! Once all the edges are smooth, we’ll peel off the protective layer and start to piece it all together. We use Plastic Weld glue for plastic-to-plastic sticking and Super Glue for sticking the wood on to things and for sticking brooch pins etc. Finally we’ll either attach a brooch pin to the back or drill holes for the necklace chain to attach to. A last little clean of the surfaces and it’s ready! You can read more about ‘how we make it’ on this page of our website.
Can you describe your workspace? How do you share you space (and who is the messiest?)
In one word our workspace is: Cluttered! But that’s the way we like it. Brendan works in what would be our living room (if the flat wasn’t turned into a studio) and I work upstairs in our spare room. Brendan’s space also doubles up as the packing room for orders and the computer room for emails. My space doubles up as storage space for all the market stall stock and props and also houses our mini photography studio set-up. Brendan is proudly the messiest worker! I would probably get more work done if I stopped obsessively lining everything up in neat rows whilst working (and posting photos of it on Instagram!)
Are there any artists or designers you particularly admire?
Tons! And it changes regularly, depending on what mood we’re in or what we’re working on. At the moment I’ve been looking at a lot of folk art painted eggs; papercut plant silouettes by Phillip Otto Runge; Jacqueline Groag and Mark Hearld.
Last year you worked with GSCE students on a range of new designs. We’d love to know more about that…
We really enjoyed seeing all of the students’ designs. They were set a project as part of their GCSE to design a piece of jewellery based on our brand and their teacher got in touch with us to see if we’d like to be involved somehow. We jumped at the chance, especially as they were going to be using fretsaws to cut everything out and not lasers. We offered to make and sell a limited-edition run of our favourite design as a prize. All their designs were brilliant! We’d advised them to use brainstorming and random word tricks to get ideas flowing and they really got into it. We liked so many of the designs that we ended up choosing four winners, which we’re still selling on our website with profits going to charities as chosen by the winning students. We’ve raised over £350 so far and we’re really pleased! You can read more about about the project here >>
You’re often to be found at Spitalfields Market and Crafty Fox Market, and your displays are always inspired. How do you come up with your stall designs?
A lot of our displays have kind of been born out of necessity. Our giant felt trees (that we quite often use on our stall) were made when we first had to use a table of our own with no upright framework (the stalls at Spitalfields and Sunday Upmarket have a frame). We like to hang a string across the stall with the necklaces hung from it, so you can easily see what they look like and to add more height to the display. We decided to build our own upright framework and then had the idea to disguise them as trees. They obviously fit with our silly sense of humour and we had quite a lot of leaf, butterfly and our bird designs on the stall then – so it made sense. We actually have more fun making the props for our stalls than anything else – and tend to spend too long on that rather than making stock to actually sell on the stall! We love people’s reaction to the stall props too and they’re a great conversation starter. You can read more about our stall designs in this Folksy blog post >>
Have you got any exciting plans for 2015?
We’d like to do some workshops this year. We held a drop-in ‘make your own necklace or keyring’ workshop alongside our stall at the recent BUST Christmas Craftacular… and we really enjoyed it. So we’d like to do more, we just need to get some organised. Oh, and I need to make that ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ necklace – obviously a priority!
If there was an official I Am Acrylic mantra or motto, what would it be?
The mantra or motto changes a lot depending on our mood or what we’re about to do! A few favourites are “Suck it up and stop crying!”, “Smell what sells!” and “Do your best and don’t worry!”
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