Julian Powell-Tuck, Architect & Interior Designer How I Made It
Julian Powell-Tuck started his own successful architecture and interior design practice when he was just 25, after being told by his tutor that he was practically “unemployable.” Here Julian tells us what it takes to set up your own business in a recession…
When I was younger, my dad thought I should go to business school and my school thought I should be a lawyer, so naturally I did the opposite and went to art school. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to do a traditional architecture course. In those days, and its different now, architecture wasn’t exactly cool. In fact, most people saw architects as pretty dull, uncreative people. Consequently, I decided to eschew a traditional architecture course for an interior design course at Brighton.
Brighton was an exciting time: I found myself in a creative place with creative people on the edge of architecture, and that was exactly where I wanted to be to. From early on, I always felt like an outsider, observing what the architects did. For me, it wasn’t about following the architecture career path blindly, but exploring other interests too. My course toed the line between fine art and architecture, so I felt I got a much broader, creative education.
If you can’t get a job, make one for yourself
It was always my plan to do a postgraduate degree; my four years at art college had taught me a lot, but it was still only a basic education. With that in mind, I went on to study Environmental Design at the Royal College of Art, which was led by a fantastic group of tutors. A lot of subjects don’t really open up until you’ve been in them for a few years, and architecture is just like that. College is like opening a door; you shouldn’t expect to reach a specific end straight away. Instead, it’ll open up a direction for you and within that direction there will be other directions and other doors.
Whilst at the Royal College of Art, I was told by one of my tutors that I was practically unemployable, as my work was very conceptual and theory based. I was determined to prove my tutor wrong, although it didn’t help that I walked straight out of art college right into the midst of a recession, just like now. Not only were jobs thin on the ground, but most of the established architecture practices were doing some pretty uninspiring work.
At the same time, there were people like Zaha Hadid, Peter Wilson, Piers Gough and Nigel Coates who were all setting up their own practices, and not worrying about whether they were fully qualified (which I wasn’t). They all thought, like I did, that we could do something far more interesting with architecture.
Setting up your own practice is like starting out as an actor
I started my practice in 1977 when I was just 25. In the early days, I had to duck and dive a bit. I worked three days a week for a famous interior designer called John Stefanidis and I also taught in a design school for one day a week. Of course, I was doing all this whilst trying to set up my own practice, Powell-Tuck, Connor and Orefelt, with a couple of friends.
Setting up your own practice is like striking it out as an actor; you have to develop a very thick skin, as there are hard times when you get very little work. Gradually, we built up a reputation for designing quite cool office spaces and studios for music and media companies, as well as young, trendy peoples’ houses. It’s different now with the internet, but then we relied on clients recommending us to others.
We felt, and continue to do so, that our clients were very special and should get a great service. Once you gain a client’s confidence, they’ll go on working with you for many years. It was tough starting out, but we grew the business and we even set up a branch office in Taiwan. In 1990, I set up Powell-Tuck Associates, taking the core team from the former practice with me.
I was a child of my time…
All in all, my career trajectory was shaped by the mood of the time. Architecture had a bad reputation then, so bright, young architects and designers (many without the proper RIBA qualifications like me) were turning their backs on the old style of architecture and ripping up the rule book. We all wanted to inject more creativity into architecture. It’s better now. Architecture schools are more exciting, creative places and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking the same route I did.
If I could give one bit of advice to architecture students
The one thing I would say is that, in my opinion, architecture is an applied art. It’s technical, you have people working for you, and you’re constrained by budgets, the economy and your client’s wishes. Some people get too carried away by the conceptual side of architecture, forgetting that it’s a technical art.
No matter how much you learn at college, it’s only when you actually get out there and start building that you really start to learn about architecture. Even now, with over 30 years of experience under my belt, I’m still learning new things every day. One day you might be working on a hospital and another day you might be working on an art gallery. Every project is a major learning experience, because you’re trying to create something very special to solve a particularly unique problem.
By Julian Powell-Tuck as told to AllAboutCareers
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