James Earls on the decision to close Studio Crême and explore a new direction with ProtoÉditions
Having run London-based design agency Studio Crême for more than five years, James Earls and Jack Featherstone made the bold decision at the end of 2021 to leave their successful venture behind and start afresh. Triggered by a desire to push their creative output beyond branding and conventional graphic design, they’ve launched a new studio called ProtoÉditions – through which they will split their time between self-initiated projects and client commissions. Intrigued by this direction, and the ambitious projects that it has already started to produce, we caught up with James to find out more.
EM Hi James, congrats on the launch of ProtoÉditions. To start with, can you tell us about the decision to close Studio Crême and relaunch?
The decision was as much a business one as it was of creative fulfilment. A change had been on the cards for a while. Our work and personal interests had shifted, and we wanted to move into new territories. We found the best way was to trust your gut instincts, and to start again.
You have to be willing to tear things down to get to the root of what you want to be doing with your time, and now more than ever I don’t think there is any reason to not be doing work that is exciting and relevant.
EM How have your interests changed? What have you left behind with Studio Crême?
JE We grew less interested in purely working on identity and graphic design projects, and got a lot more satisfaction/interest from exploring design in a broader context. Being able to explore design within the realms of digital and physical.
We are really focused on working in a space where technology, nature and society converge. We want to be working with people working towards doing good/driving change, and to be involved in helping to tell those stories.
We are really enjoying the opportunity to experiment, try things out, and have the freedom to collaborate with a lot of people from different backgrounds.
In a time of uncertainty, we were optimistic.
EM How much impact did the pandemic have on Studio Crême and your change of interests, or was it inevitable?
JE We were fortunate that the pandemic was a good time for us. We haven't really stopped working, and thankfully on projects that we have liked or developed ourselves. It was the first time in a while that we had time to really think about what we're doing. It felt like the perfect time to shift gears and change the direction of the studio.
In a time of uncertainty, we were optimistic, and whilst things could seem quite bleak to some, we were committed to developing ideas that are both thought-provoking and beautiful. But we didn’t feel that the work we had done previously wasn’t heading in the right direction to achieve that. We wanted to be working on projects that allow us to help shape the context of the work. Eliel Saarinen said, “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
It was a natural conclusion to Studio Crême. For now, we are focusing on exploring new and emerging narratives through emotion, design and technology.
EM Have you retained existing clients, or are you quite literally starting afresh?
JE A couple but I’d say it’s definitely more of a totally fresh start.
EM Has anything structurally changed about the studio alongside the name change, in terms of the team and how you work?
JE At its core, it is my business partner Jack and me, but the model is based on working towards interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration. Opening us up and our clients to differing perspectives that allow us to push ideas further.
EM Where did the name ProtoÉditions come from?
JE Éditions is inherited from Studio Crême. All of our self-initiated work landed under this moniker. In the future, some of our projects might indeed be editions in the ‘classic’ sense, but we look at them as a series of explorations around a set theme/question. Proto, from prototype, defining the research-led side of the practice, exploring new narratives and interdisciplinary exchange.
EM Why do self-initiated projects and client commissions hold equal importance to you?
JE I would say self-initiated work is starting to mean more to us than client commissions, although they go hand in hand. It has allowed us to develop ideas and materials of creative interest. All the while fostering a culture of exchange and conversation both with our collaborators and clients.
The work we explore ourselves says a lot to our potential clients about who we are as people and as designers/thinkers. This means that more and more, we are working with companies/people that have problems that are very interesting to challenge or stories that are exciting to tell.
And, of course, client commissions facilitate a lot of our self-initiated work. Giving us the time and space to think about what we want to explore next.
EM Do you have an example of where something you learnt in self-initiated work informed the outcome of a client project?
JE The work we did with AI researcher Vera van der Burg springs to mind.
It has probably been one of the most collaborative projects we’ve worked on. Both parties were fully open to input from either side, and this really allowed us to push the project forward and for us to reach a result that exceed our expectations. It really highlighted the importance of having diverse outlooks on a project. And has truly informed how we approach outlining opportunities and briefs with new clients.
EM How do you typically begin self-initiated projects? What triggers them?
JE A lot of the time, a theme emerges from what is going on around us, or in a specific sector (technology, material etc). We then look at how we can define a narrative around it. It is important for us to have a diverse outlook, so we like to collaborate with people on these projects, as well as have our own take on them.
We are focusing on exploring new and emerging narratives.
EM How do you manage the time to make sure that client work doesn’t take over? Or is that inevitable…?
JE Haha. Good question…
That said, I think we have a pretty good balance between them. We tend to operate our own projects over relatively healthy timeframes, so we have the space to do them, but client work will often come first and need dedicated time and attention. It does require a good amount of discipline, though, and the occasional early start/ Saturday studio day…
EM What can you tell us about what the next few months have in store?
JE We are continuing our work with Amyris, a biotechnology company in America, assisting them on more education-focused pieces about the work they are doing.
And a few other exciting projects within material innovation. And we are currently developing our second Edition.