The Art of collaboration
“We cannot do it alone. The curation is us. We don’t consider it a task but more of a high privilege. The creative thrill of collaboration is the perpetual exploration of the unpredictable”
Helen Amy Murray takes a very different path on the pursuit. Her work blurs the line between art and design to the absolute logical conclusion. What she does is as connected to traditional craft as it is to the form of contemporary couture.
Painstakingly human as a discipline, her work is the result of a fraught and, occasionally dangerous, ritual. The fundamental tool of her art is a very sharp surgical scalpel. Like Ian, Helen does not create alone. Her studio is feminine and subtly bohemian. It is as different to the factory of Based Upon as Helen is to Ian.
How does Helen describe elegance?
Ian Abell is a part of Based Upon. He is not Based Upon. He is a piece of it.
A tribesperson. Anybody on board with March & White’s idea of elegance is familiar with the art of Based Upon. They may not know it but they are. Examples, glimpses of what they create, are dotted through this book.
Ian is perhaps the dictionary definition of the word quixotic. Flawed but driven by a pure objective. The work they create is a little like that. It is unpredictable and complex. It draws you in. Resistance, for those who follow the same star, is futile.
What is Ian’s take on elegance?
What does it mean? It is one of those words that gets casually thrown around. We say, as a word, it should be used only by those who understand it.
There is no convention on the subject. What is elegant to one person is clumsy to another. You bet it’s complex.
As a conversation or a story, this one really has no conclusion. Just when you think you have a handle on defining elegance, along comes somebody, or something, which effortlessly rewrites the whole book on it.
To keep the conversational ball in the air we turned the questions on ourselves. What do we think of its meaning? Frustrating but we wouldn’t really want it any other way.
Who, living or dead, defines timeless elegance to you?
HAM David Bowie, it’s an obvious one but he managed, over a really long period, to keep it intact. Again, kind of obvious, but Kate Moss for largely the same reasons. I always remember those really early photos of her at Heathrow – she was just off a long flight wearing stripy knee socks, beaten up Adidas sneakers and no make up and looking just amazing. That’s what it’s about I think.
JW James Hunt. No explanation needed.
EM Karl Lagerfeld. How he lives, looks and works is simply otherworldly. He defines confidence and that is, I think, a big factor in elegance. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that with confidence the ridiculous looks stylish and without confidence the stylish looks ridiculous. Quite extreme maybe but I get his point!
Can a person learn, or acquire elegance?
HAM I want to say yes but I think there has to be an instinct to be developed, worked with. I truly believe there are people who with the greatest stylist, and all of the money in the world, will never grasp the concept of elegance. Then there are those who dig potatoes out of the ground on an allotment and manage to move with total, absolute elegance. Figure it out!
JW Yes, an elegant conversation can be inspired by a lifetime of experiences.
EM Yes. I’ve witnessed it first hand. That person must, however, have the instinct somewhere in them. Sometimes it takes a form of effort to attain elegance. Like most things it is a precise balance. Languid and effortless looks elegant but laziness is never elegant.
Is luxury acceptable? If so, how is it justified?
HAM Well, I think people confuse luxury with vulgarity or ostentatious indulgence. Luxury is relative to a persons circumstance. I would say it is not just acceptable but necessary. The person who enjoys the luxury is justifying it by their pleasure. That has to be, surely, a fundamental of living.
JW Yes. It is justified because it is complex to understand. It is not about money. It is increasingly about experience, emotion and memory. On one hand luxury can be very basic, it can be about being away from the world, close to nature, without the trappings of modern life. On the other it can be the most exquisite object invested with history and craft.
EM I’ve always struggled with the term, it is very complex and means different things to different people. Luxury will always exist – there is no denying it. I don’t believe it needs any justification. As designers we have a responsibility to inform our clients, influence the form luxury takes and how it is displayed or worn.
Would you sacrifice happiness for elegance?
HAM Never. I don’t actually think you could be elegant without happiness. The two go hand in hand. Happy people, really happy ones, look elegant because of their joy.
JW No. However some people cannot be happy without elegance.
EM No. Happiness is the key to a life lived well. That, the happiness, the life lived well, is elegance itself.
Would you sacrifice the happiness of somebody who depends on you for luxury?
HAM Again, no way. When you see someone who has obviously done that they look miserable. When I say miserable I don’t mean sullen, sulky or brooding I mean just miserable. Protect your happiness and the happiness of those around you and you’re on your way to elegance is what I would say.
JW No. Not at any cost.
EM Never. Same reasons as above.
Is luxury intelligent?
HAM Luxury is such a misused and maligned word. Now, more than ever, luxury is very intelligent. When you look at outdated ideas of luxury you see, really, gluttony and trinkets. Nothing really clever there but a contemporary understanding of the word is, I think, really intelligent. It’s about quality, honesty and authenticity. Time is a luxury. Time to read a book, watch a film, look at art or just have a real conversation with somebody. Our lives are so fast now that these things are a luxury. They are also perfectly intelligent.
JW Yes and to really understand and enjoy luxury requires intelligence.
EM Immensely. As we comment on in our paper, luxury means different things to different people. Real luxury is a complex coded language that is constantly shifting and evolving as society adapts and moves forward.
Fashion or style?
HAM Fashion interests me. It is a really fascinating cultural gesture. I love to observe it and try to understand it. Some of it drips into what I do or what I think. Style, however, is the big one for me. Definitely. I certainly don’t buy, wear and discard in accordance with the dogma of fashion. This links to the other question about luxury being acceptable or intelligent. I like to buy and own things that last a long time. They take on meaning as they age. I love wearing a really old piece with something very fresh. This applies to the aesthetic of where I live – everything really. They say fashion is about being noticed where style is about being remembered. That’ll do for me!
JW Style, it is elegance and balance.
EM Style. Fashion is too transient. Style, if you think about it, is simply better value. More valuable. As creative people it is important that we observe fashion without necessarily buying into it.
You’re all, approximately, the same age. How has the notion of elegance and luxury changed since you started your career, and how do you think it will exist in twenty years time, towards the conclusion of your career?
HAM I’ve certainly become more aware of it since I have naturally positioned my work in that world due to the hand craftsmanship and time it takes but I’m not sure how to answer the question. As we all probably remember luxury seemed more obvious and literal fifteen years ago. I have to remember though, as we all should, that we were looking at luxury more as outsiders then. I certainly was! A lot happened. A loaf of very good quality artisan bread signifies luxury now which would have meant nothing when I started. The future is unwritten I guess. Hard to say where it will go. I think how we work, which is literally hand crafted, will always be appreciated and revered. I am really fortunate. I have confidence now in the value of what we create. How we work will, hopefully, not change radically in the next fifteen years but, as I say, who knows really.
JW When we started we had the emergence of the luxury brand as the desirable luxury experience. The brands that had been experimenting and developing throughout the twentieth century became the prominent voices in luxury. Now we know luxury is about more than a brand experience.
EM When we hit the scene, elegance was in short supply and the perception of luxury had become almost disgustingly ostentatious and vulgar. The dominance of the Candy’s throughout that era typified this “bling is king” attitude. As with everything transient, it had a short life span. What we are experiencing now is a shift towards purposeful stealth luxury. It is discrete and appropriate, almost apologetic and conscious. Meaning, time and thoughtfulness now become the drivers behind luxury and I believe we will see this continuing and assimilated with more technology in the future bringing both together in truly unexpected ways.
What film should a person watch to appreciate your interpretation of elegance?
HAM Really not sure as I can’t remember all the films I have loved that would be appropriate! It might destroy any mystique I might have built up! A Single Man directed by Tom Ford is a good place to begin. Some might say obvious but maybe obvious for a reason. It is faultless. I watched it again recently and it still worked, it still looked exquisite. Grey Gardens, Paris is Burning, most Sofia Coppola things, there are so many. Again, going back to an earlier question – time is a luxury. In the perfect world I would have time to watch, and appreciate, more films. One day maybe. A possible downside of being creatively on duty is how you watch a film. I tend to get stuck on a detail in a film. The rest of the thing floats by and I leave the cinema with one tiny detail in my mind. I sometimes try to change that but, hey, we are what we are I suppose.
EM ‘Midnight in Paris’ by Woody Allen. Cinema is a medium that captures elegance amazingly. There are lots of films that nail it but this is a good one to start with. Then again, Manhattan, again by Woody Allen, is breathtakingly elegant in its purest form. I haven’t watched it since I moved to New York so it would be interesting to see it again from this perspective.
Is elegance over rated?
HAM Never. Ask yourself that question when you are in the presence of real elegance and, suddenly, the question seems inane and pointless. If anything I think, in the world we live in, it is possibly underrated. I am not a sports fan but, occasionally, I catch something on TV or see a picture of a sportsperson in a magazine and they define elegance. It is such an infinite meaning to explore. My elegance is different to my mum’s understanding of it, which is different to your understanding of it. It is very, precisely individual. Maybe that gets close to defining the appeal of it – it is absolutely unique to the person who exudes it.
JW Elegance is underrated, you can be elegant without style or luxury.
EM The exact opposite – it’s not rated enough. Elegance informs everything that is made to last. Elegance simply makes most acts and events in life more memorable and special.