Regulars / Very Nice Valentine's

First Dates for those who create: the husband and wife duo behind Studio Contents and Totem

We know Valentine’s Day is over, but don’t brush the rose petals off just yet. Due to an overwhelming (and very sweet) response to our First Dates for those who create feature, we’ve decided to keep the love going for a few more days this week. Today we hear from partners in creativity, and also in lurve, James and Rachael Gilbert-Burns. The busy pair run two creative companies, Studio Contents and Totem. Here they are!

James Gilbert

How did you meet?

Rach will probably tell a different version of this story, don’t believe it. We met online. We hadn’t worked together but we had mutual friends – we each knew of each other and that we both worked in the creative sector. We just got chatting via social media and email, eventually met up, got on and just carried on seeing each other. We’ve barely been apart since!

How did you know you could work together?

We didn’t! For quite some time I did my work and Rach did hers. It never really crossed over. I think we were both so used to our own working dynamic that we didn’t end up questioning it for ages. Rach worked in a shared studio space and I worked from home, but as time progressed Rach built the odd site I’d designed, I did some design work for her. One thing led to another and we ended up fusing into one creative partnership and I moved into the same studio with her.

We knew that we got on with each other in our relationship and so assumed that work would be no different. And that is the case, more or less, except I’d say that our work relationship is more turbulent than our everyday relationship! We have heated disagreements at times – we can both be quite stubborn – but it always leads to us making a good decision and any clash is always forgotten by the end of the day, it’s never personal.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

The project I’ve enjoyed working on most – although it’s not necessarily my favourite project from a design perspective – was our installation for Catalyst Science Discovery Centre. It was a big project, with many stakeholders. It was challenging in many respects, but it ran smoothly, we managed the job well and we created something which really excited everybody involved.

It’s a small thing, but I also like the invites we created for our wedding last year. There was no client, but sometimes it can be harder to design for yourselves. We banged our heads against a wall for quite a while. For weeks we hadn’t been happy with any of the approaches we had been batting around and with the print deadline looming, at the very last minute we changed our minds. We redesigned everything and created the invites and website in a night. It’s a brilliant feeling when you suddenly get that idea that you know is the one; especially when it happens after you’ve been struggling for ages with it and have no time to spare. Such a relief!

What makes your [creative] relationship special?

Just the fact that we have a creative relationship is pretty special. Not a lot of people get to experience that. It’s a pretty sweet deal – we work for ourselves, on our own timetable, with each other. Our every day routine feels natural, not stifling like a nine to five can be. Plus, because we are with each other pretty much 24/7 we can dip in and out of work talk too. So we might be watching a film at night and one of us will pause it and say: “`what about this…” and then we’ll do a few sketches and get back to watching. Having said that, we do have to try hard to actually end the working day sometimes, occasionally enforcing “no work talk” rules. You have to remember that even if work doesn’t feel like work, it is still work and work isn’t everything.

What’s the best thing about Rachel?

She’s pragmatic. When talking to clients or having to make swift project defining decisions she can quickly analyse a situation and find the crux of what our focus should be. As much as it pains me to admit it, this also translates into directing me and my design work. I’ll slave away at something and then she’ll walk over and say: “don’t like it”. Then she’ll point out something that could be changed and 90% of the time she’s right and it makes for a better piece. It’s good to have someone there to see the things you can’t sometimes and I guess that works both ways – I critique her work too.

She is also good at picking away at a coding or electronics problem until it’s solved. She does these kind of mini coding marathons… she’ll do a 12 hour smash through a problem and then collapse.

What’s the worst thing about Rachel?

Impatience. I think her brain works twice as fast as mine. I’m not sure if this is something to do with developers vs. designers, but I like to take my time to choose my words carefully and explain something in detail whereas Rach wants the synopsis – quickly, briefly and immediately – and then… “next!” Sometimes she’ll be shouting at me to spit it out before I’ve even realised I’m about to start talking.

What does your future together look like?

Massively different! We got married last July and we are expecting our first baby this July. We’ve also moved from Central Manchester to the middle of nowhere (a place called Plumpton in the Lakes— yes it’s a real place) where we are renovating a water mill and attached house to become a living/studio space. There’s a forest, a river, deer, buzzards and the next two weeks are our last living in a static caravan (which was fun during Storm Desmond!) while we complete the work on the house.

Work wise we hope to get involved with more like-minded and exciting clients. We have some interesting work for Battersea Arts Centre going on at the moment which should be finished in the next couple of months. We will also be looking at ways of diversifying our income. So rather than simply working with clients we are looking at other ways to use our creativity. Building our own sites/apps/products. I’ve always worked with bespoke type arrangements in my branding work and recently I’ve fulfilled a bit of an ambition of mine and started actually designing complete typefaces, the first of which will be released in the next few weeks. Above all we just want to continue to remain creative and inspired – enjoying whatever work and our new environment have to offer.


Totem: Wedding Invites

Rachel Gilbert-Burns

How did you meet?

Well, it’s a long story, which James doesn’t like me to tell. He messaged me on MySpace, but before I got a chance to meet him I got into a long term relationship. It involves about six years of him asking me out every time he was available. We didn’t actually meet in person until our first date. I finally found out we had a mutual friend – so the whole thing was made much less weird/stalker-like/creepy. We’ve been together ever since.

How did you know you could work together?

It kind of just happened. We both have a strong aesthetic when curating and developing all aspects of our lives – our design eye just seems to align. It just made sense, one day he said: "If I design this, will you build it?” I was like, "OK yeah.” It’s naturally developed from there. We’re not afraid to take risks, start from scratch or throw ourselves in at the deep end.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

There’s been a few – but my heart lies with museum work. I particularly enjoyed working on an installation which teaches children about the science of polymers. We creatively worked on all aspects of that project together from start to finish including all design work, script writing, illustration, creative direction and build. I’m proud of what we made and why we made it that way.

What makes your [creative] relationship special?

We don’t always agree and this can cause tension – but we love it deep down! It means we’re always pushing each other to not only develop our own skills but to also learn new ones. We give each other confidence and good honest critique, it makes us stronger and this style of working has bled through to the rest of our personal life and projects too. I love it. We often have sketch pad meetings where we throw all our thoughts and ideas out there, whether that’s about how to design and renovate our studio or how some type of interaction on a project will work best. There’s no room for ego or attitude which means we work together really effectively – there’s a mutual respect there for sure.

What’s the best thing about James?

He’s got a very strong design eye and has always been confident in his ability. I know whatever he creates will have integrity and an interesting concept behind it. He’s also just a really nice chap in general, will help anyone with anything – I should tell him that more often.

What’s the worst thing about James?

He used to be more stubborn and sometimes a bit “glass-half-empty”, but he rarely digs his heels in too much these days. We get through disagreements pretty quickly and have learnt to push each other’s buttons enough to force new thinking but to stop before we actually get too pissy!

What does your future together look like?

Well the immediate future includes the birth of our first child and moving into a home we’ve been carefully and lovingly renovating for a year. We will continue working together on projects both design and technology based. I’d love to work on more abstract pieces and art installations together. During this time we’ll also start focussing on our new studio space – and learning to live in the sticks. It’s strange moving from the bustling city of Manchester to a tiny village in Cumbria with a population of a few hundred. But living and working in an area of such tranquility and isolation just makes me feel excited about what we can create without all that noise around us.


Totem: Polymer Zone