From Harlow with love: Snootie Studios on their community-focused practice
Abbie Freeman and Harry Watson were both born and raised in the Essex town, where Abbie says “we met and started working together (and fell in love)”.
- Harry Bennett
- 10 November 2020
The brutalist post-war new town Harlow, Essex, is where we lay our scene. Meeting at Harlow College in 2012 during on a BTEC Graphic Design course and going on to studying at Camberwell College of Arts, Abbie Freeman and Harry Watson have since become partners, designers and then the co-founders of the Harlow-based design practice Snootie Studios.
Snootie’s origins are found at Camberwell, they explain, where they found inspiration after taking part in a digital workshop hosted by Fred Deakin. “In his closing talk, he spoke about the limited options for our creative careers post-university,” the pair tells us, noting that it was either “work for someone, freelance, or start a studio”. It was here that “the seed of starting Snootie Studios was planted”. After mulling over the idea during a US West Coast adventure in 2017, the pair moved back to Harlow into a small rented studio and launched Snootie – and with it their dynamic, process-driven practice.
“We’ve always loved the idea of mixing processes in design, be it analogue with digital or fine art with commercial design,” they say, having been taught by three ‘Paste-up’-era Graphic Design tutors at Harlow College. Elaborating, Abbie and Harry note that “if you smash two things that wouldn’t usually go together, they always make something new, and often make something interesting.”
This is the hallmark of Snootie’s multifaceted practice, a testament of experimentation, variation and courage in trying to push the expectations of design. Working together in a ping-pong-esque way, Abbie and Harry trade projects back and forth until the concept is solidified or, as Abbie explains, “the other runs out of steam.” They add that they “try to keep it structural and generative, dedicating time to research, but keeping an open mind for that bolt of inspiration to come before we start making anything.”
This emphasis on working process seems to be Snootie’s signature visual language, explaining to us “as two collectors (or hoarders), we’re always looking for interesting bits of design and kitsch objects to inspire us,” suggesting that although their intention is always to make work whose key function is communication “inevitably, our influences, taste and visual archive, always find their way into the work.”
Self-described as a “Jack of all trades, master of some”, the dynamic duo thrive in any medium thrown their way, focusing more on the subject matter and content, rather than the medium itself. “We care about the work we are putting into the universe,” they say, “and hope it can help make the world a better place, even if on a tiny scale.”
This leads to the most fascinating aspect of Snootie’s charming practice: their sense of place. “Harlow offered our grandparents an escape from post-war London,” they say, “and gave them the opportunity to grow and learn, with a house, a job, and a huge public sculpture collection of world-class fine art,” referring to the enormous collection of public sculptures in Harlow – including the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
With this in mind, coupled with the notion that the town was built and designed with the needs of people in mind, it is no wonder Harlow has been an enormous source of inspiration for the studio. “When we moved away as students, we realised how unique Harlow is,” they recall, “and wanted to come back to revive that optimism, by promoting pride within the town.”
A recent project of theirs, made in collaboration with Fraser Muggeridge Studio, was a sculpture map of Harlow for the Harlow Arts Trust’s public sculpture collection. “Inspired by the council’s brand guidelines from 1975 we found in Harlow Museum,” they note, “we wanted to create something that locals could identify with and people from outside the town would find intriguing.” In the labour of love that was this project, they tell us how extremely proud they are of it, becoming part of Harlow’s history and working with some incredible people along the way, including Paul Barnes and James Smith.
With so much of their work revolving around their local area, it raises a question about the value of community-driven design. Obviously this can be seen, but normally only on a large scale, such as London’s artistic drives with TFL, and seldom appreciated on a smaller scale. In discussing whether design for community is undervalued, the pair comments that “when designing for community, there should always be a level of care involved,” adding “for us, there’s also something at stake, as both us, and our family and friends live here, so the prosperity of the town is in all of our best interests.” This sense of compassion flows into their work, resulting in design that reflects their care for where they live, but uniquely doing so in a youthful and contemporary spirit. “If we can use design to help the town,” they add, “it’s the least we can do.”
Snootie Studio’s sense of gratitude further extends to design education, working with digital collaborative workshop Modual since 2017, a platform with the mission to launch students’ careers and empower their design practices. A recent workshop Snootie ran was Modual: Open Futures, which took place during lockdown and brought together over 200 creatives across 11 time zones with the goal of social good. “It was a mammoth workshop,” they explain. “Over the years, the workshop has made a huge impact on our lives, and we’re really honoured to design both the branding and the content of the workshop each time around.”
Asked what they would like to see for the future, in relation to location, they point to a “more decentralised network of design in the UK”. This would lead to people feeling “like they can still make an impact on the industry outside of the big cities,” they say, a suggestion made all the more relevant given the current Covid-19 circumstances, which see people re-evaluating where they want to work and live.
After recently hitting the studio’s two-year milestone, Abbie and Harry have put together a portfolio collating their work, “after avoiding having one for two years”. Hoping to work with new clients and projects, they continue to create at least one product a year on top of their professional practice; currently working on an “optimistic 2021 planner,” following last year’s Harlow and Wonky Dog pin badges. “Also, we’ll probably try to move out of our parents’ houses,” Abbie concludes. “There’s only so much more design talk my mum can take.”
Snootie Studios: Harlow At 70 (Copyright © Snootie Studios, 2019)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.