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Oliver Hawkins - Marshall Murray

22nd Apr 2014

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With Easter behind us, spring is undoubtedly here and the countdown to summer has officially started. In line with the season and the world's biggest garden event - Chelsea Flower Show - looming, Domus Nova will be profiling some of London's hottest names in the landscape design. We start with Oliver Hawkins of outdoor sculpture and furniture design company Marshall Murray who believes that gardens are a perfect setting for artworks, with the changing seasons adding a whole new dimension to the way we enjoy them – and a stunning piece of art is definitely a great way to ensure your outdoor space is as stylish as your home’s interior. We caught up with him as he was preparing to make an even bigger impact at Chelsea this year…

Oliver, how did Marshall Murray come about?
Design is one of my biggest passions, and the outdoors is where I am often at my happiest. I set up Marshall Murray in 2010 to establish a platform for great British design and to demonstrate how impactful sculpture can be in the garden. Everything we show is designed and made in the UK by British artists and artisans, whether it’s myself, sculptors at the top of their respective fields or emerging talents from the next generation.

What makes you different from your competitors?
I'd say there's three main things we do; what we sell, how we sell it and what we do other than simply sell. Firstly, everything we show is designed and made in the UK by British artists and artisans. We are a platform for great British artists, both those sculptors currently at the top of their respective fields and upcoming talents who will form the next generation. Secondly, we want to help our clients see their piece in situ prior to purchase. I adore galleries and sculpture gardens, but their intrinsic problem is that they can be a touch misleading and unrepresentative of how the piece will look in your home. What doesn't look great when placed on a plinth in an all-white room and softly lit? We use a combination of 3D modelling, digital editing and Augmented Reality to help clients get a feeling of space and proportion. This may dissuade or encourage them from the purchase, but frankly it doesn't benefit us in the long run to have clients make a purchase they later regret. Thirdly, we offer a broader range of services than most galleries. We always say that the most interesting pieces are those we only sell once, whether this is commissioning a unique piece of art or customising a piece of sculptural furniture. As we have in-house garden designers we can help you position artwork within your garden, tweaking the planting or the space to create the ideal way to show sculpture; ranges from tiny tweaks to full on re-design. Some clients bring us in to curate all of the art in their garden, which we love as this enables us to think creatively. We take inspiration from a range of factors, from the client's interior aesthetic choices to the history of the house/ area, and always try to create an unstated theme or story.

Is most of your work in the city or country?
It’s around half and half. Often our clients have properties in both; it’s fun to create subtle design connections between the two. We might create a pair of sculptures based around a theme consistent to both homes or use materials from the country property to build something for the townhouse. 

What type of work do you generally do – commercial/residential?
So far it's been largely residential, I'd like to do more commercial projects as it's a very different design challenge. I do love finding a piece that really moves a client and this tends to be more prevalent in private properties. We're looking to do a number of public art installations later this year, which I suppose lies somewhere between the two positions; the ability to impact someone's day of a residential client, but with the reach of a commercial development.

Do you have a favourite project that you have worked on?
Tough question, I'd say the most satisfying projects are those that fully integrate garden design and artwork. One of my peeves is the perceived 'chronology' of design; first the house, then the garden, then the furnishings. Why not design all three at the same time? Or take a piece of art and build a garden around it? We had a project in the same town in which Robert Frost lived and died, the house had a dark and rather uninspiring side entrance to the garden so we had a series of oak pergolas engraved with 'The Road Not Taken' and we planted liriodendron tulipifera amongst a woodland planting scheme ("...two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."). At the end of the path the road split into two, taking guests in different directions around the garden. Little ideas like that make me leap out of bed of a morning.

Are you still based in Sussex?
I've recently moved up to Islington as we are lining up some opportunities in London for this season, though now that our sculpture garden in Sevenoaks has reopened I'll be spending more time there. 'Wintering' in London and moving to the country when the weather warms makes me feel very Victorian.

How do you find your clients?

My background is in garden design so many of my early art sales were through existing projects. This definitely allowed Marshall Murray to grow through word of mouth, which ensured that the service remained very personal. A lot of our clients are extremely sociable and so when the perfect piece is installed in a garden, it quickly becomes a talking point, which subsequently leads to about half of our leads. Of course, featuring at the Chelsea Flower Show helped – it was a huge break for us. As a result, we now source art on behalf of a number of garden designers, architects and interior designers.

What was your experience of your first Chelsea Flower Show like?
We felt incredibly fortunate to be invited to exhibit by the Royal Horticultural Society, who had simply seen our website. Usually you have to pay your dues by taking part in the smaller RHS shows, so when we were given a fantastic plot right by a main entrance to the Great Pavilion, we couldn’t believe it. At that time, we had access to some incredible pieces thanks to luck and good timing. Dodecahedron by Walter Bailey had perhaps the biggest impact; the former head of the RHS said it was his personal highlight of the show. We also had some stunning ceramics by Adam Buick that led to a commission for the Shard, as well as a Barbara Myers set of bronze outlines that people fell in love with. The show was a dream, from the manic energy of build week to the buzz of talking art to an interested and engaged public for 12 hours a day – I was like a child in a toy shop. We were awarded a commendation for our stand, forged some great networks and made new friends.

And what about last year's show?
It was marvellous!! We went bigger and better last year and so it was amazing when we were awarded the Merit for Outstanding Presentation, which justified all the late nights. To try and explain it all, we created an ‘abstracted forest’, with the textures and planting palette of a British woodland but laid out in clean lines and geometric forms. The RHS kindly allowed us to break its height stipulations and so we were able to do a contemporary take on a treehouse, as well as some enormous sculptural ‘trees’. Aside from the actual display, we met some wonderful new clients and designers, many of whom thronged to us when the heavens opened. [I'm assuming this was unrelated to our having a weather-proof treehouse with both a wonderful view of the show and a built-in champagne fridge...!] A highlight for me though was when Ringo Starr came to our stand. I somehow maintained professionalism for about 10 minutes until he said that our display was "far out" - at which point my composure cracked and I reverted to being an idiotic fan. Almost.

And what do you have planned for this year's event?
This year we are hosting a networking event at the show with some of Europe's largest banks and energy companies attending, as well as some of the country's leading garden designers, including three of the most recent winners of the Best in Show award. We are loaning artwork to various designers and trade stands including multiple gold winner Jo Thompson, as well as a number of interior and exterior gardens.

What were you doing before Marshall Murray?
After university I worked in the energy sector for a number of years. However, the best part of my week was pottering in the garden at weekends, or going to galleries in my free time. So I jumped ship, took a risk and now my hobby and job are one. I must have done something good in a past life as I feel extremely fortunate to be able to say that.

Landscape design can sometimes be overlooked by the design world but do you think times are changing?
I certainly hope so. Winston Churchill once claimed that if everyone were a gardener, there would be no war. While that’s possibly a stretch, I love and agree with the principle. I believe that giving people an affinity with their exterior space, encouraging them to spend time outside and notice the daily changes in their garden can radically improve their quality of life.

What iconic design piece do you wish you had designed?
It would have to be something from the Bauhaus school, if pushed I'd probably go for William Wagenfeld's lamp. It encapsulates so much of what I love about their approach to design; simplicity, clean lines, using technology to create something beautiful. Horribly tough question though. 

What came first – a love of design or the great outdoors?
Definitely the latter. I was lucky enough to grow up in the South Downs and my parents encouraged us kids to get out and burn off all that excess energy. The Sussex countryside was undoubtedly a major influence on my aesthetic principles. My first foray into exterior design was a number of quite lethal woodland camps – rusted corrugated steel and sections of precariously balanced dead branches, which may well explain why I love pieces in rusted steel and charred wood! It probably also explains a number of scars, and why I’m not an architect.

How do you unwind?
They say that when you start a company you only have to work half days, and you can choose whichever 12 hours you like. The flipside of your job also being your hobby is that it can lead to a degree of obsession, so ‘unwind’ is a somewhat unfamiliar concept. When I force myself to escape I love being out in the greenery – country pubs, long walks, the Sunday papers. I’m an uncle to the most adorable girls ever born so I try and spend time with them when I can.

What inspires you daily in life?
My nieces, Radio 4, excessive consumption of coffee, music and interacting with people. I'm lucky enough to work with extraordinarily creative and passionate artists, at the risk of sounding slightly naff they genuinely inspire and surprise me every day.

What projects are you currently working on?
We are moving into some fun new directions this year, including loaning artwork to Candy & Candy and a collaboration with a development project working on a luxury eco-resort in Sierra Leone. I'm also working on a sculpture symposium this summer, in collaboration with Forum and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Five artists will be selected from a broad range of tenders which will see site-specific art being built for various parts of the grounds of our sculpture garden in Riverhill. These are very rare in the UK, despite being a great way for the public to be able to see art being created, as well as showing the potential for art commissioned for a particular space.

What are your design predictions for the rest of 2014?
I'm seeing more and more artists working on pieces that play with both light and vibrant colour, and I think that this will increase over the year. The international exhibitions at ART14 last year was full of pieces that used mirrored reflections and primary colours in gorgeous ways, perhaps reflecting the broader feeling of optimisim people seem to be feeling these days? This more colourful trend is hugely scaleable. For example one of our recent additions, Sinta Tantra, uses bright, angular and clean blocks of colour on walls and glass to play with our sense of perspective. Her work appears in homes as well as huge London bridges - rather than hanging art on walls, the walls themselves become the installation. Ekkehard Altenburger's pieces combine sumptuous use of colour and mirrors in landscape.

Marshall Murray;