Richard Youel

“Working physical models become bookmarks in time.”

London based designer and maker Richard Youel set up Studio Youel in 2020, after spending 10 years working in the design, manufacturing and model making industries, 6 years of which were as a Model Maker for David Chipperfield Architects in London.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background? When and why did you start making models?

I initially studied architecture, at the University of Liverpool but after completing my degree I knew a career as an architect wasn’t for me, which led me to do an MA in product design at Edinburgh College of Art. I wanted a profession that was more hands on and that revolved around making. The great facilities and technicians at Edinburgh allowed me to experiment over the course of my MA, in wood, metal, textiles, glass, ceramics and my work ended up being in cast aluminium. After completing my MA I worked in a cast iron foundry in Edinburgh.

To develop as a designer I believe it is vital to continually learn new skills and techniques. It was very fulfilling to learn this traditional making technique. Ironwork is an important and very visual part of Edinburgh’s landscape and history. To be part of conserving and restoring this was a special experience.

Whilst working in Edinburgh I applied for the job as a model maker at David Chipperfield Architects. I wasn’t looking for model making jobs specifically but the chance to work for such a prestigious company and continue my learning in a new field seemed like the right move.

1.1000 Concept Model of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park competition submission by David Chipperfield Architects

Why did you decide to work as solo after working many years as an inhouse model maker ina prolific and acclaimed practice?

I had an amazing experience in the 6 years I worked at DCA. To work on such fantastic projects with such inspiring people was incredibly rewarding. I’m indebted to the head model maker, Ricardo Alvarez, who taught me so much. Becoming self employed is something I had always fancied doing and throughout my time at DCA I built up a good network of architecture contacts. At the end of last year I had some work lined up and the timing was right to take the leap.

Do you think advanced visualisation techniques, such as VR, are reducing the demand for physical models?

I see models in 2 categories; quick, rough working models, which are part of the design process and beautifully made presentation models. Visualisation techniques are not physical things to be chopped and changed quickly like working models and will never be able to replace the look, feel, scale of a well crafted 3D presentation model. The instant communication of an idea you get through a model can be understood by everyone.

However I see advanced visualisation techniques as something which can compliment models and vice versa. I prefer to make models which are abstract and conceptual, which display a key idea, material or driving force of the design. This accompanied with a realistic render can be a nice combination.

1.200 Foam working models

Architectural photographs are somehow considered to be the birth certificates of buildings, without them it is really hard to prove they are actually built. In that sense can we say a model is the ultrasound scan of a developing project or are the renders that take this role on?

When a project is finished and presented, you only ever see finished renderings of the design but it is common to show the working models which led to this point. Working physical models become bookmarks in time which display the development and key changes to the finished design.

Apart from commissioned works, you are also working on your personal projects. The hotwire project is especially interesting. What’s its story and to where do you expect it to lead you?

Part of the reason I wanted to be self employed is to work on other projects outside of model making and get back doing more design work. I have just finished the design and fit-out of a local cafe and several cabinetry projects for private clients.

The Hot Wire Project was the culmination of my MA in Product Design at Edinburgh College of Art. It is a low-cost, accessible, fabrication process that can be used to create mass-customised objects by cutting expanded polystyrene with a hot wire.

Imperfections caused by the hot wire cut means every object formed using the same wire will be unique and unable to be replicated. The detail of the polystyrene and the hot wire is visible in the final cast. The detailed finish and imperfections display the process the product has gone through to be created. It is very important to me that these characteristics are shown in my work.

I have lots of ideas of further products and applications for this process. Hopefully I get the time to develop them in the near future.

Being an expert on what you do is highly praised in the current conditions of our society, whereas we continue to admire polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, John Ruskin or Hedy Lamarr. What is your idea on specialisation especially in architecture where the design process is divided among specialised departments and the profession’s continuity heavily relies on creative support teams?

Whilst working at DCA I felt the importance of each specialisation working together towards a common goal. Even though practices are known as architects, the support teams of graphic design, accountants, communications, hospitality, lighting, engineers, model making etc play a huge role.

I think where coordinating this large variety of professions can become troublesome is when you’re working with a lot of external experts. Obviously it isn’t feasible for all practices to have all these professions in house so it is very important to develop strong working relationships with people you will work with time and again.

Metal casting in the foundry in Edinburgh

The BIM or visualisation industry grows rapidly with dedicated publications, online libraries, awards and even organisational bodies. On the other hand architectural model making seems to be lacking any of those. Why do you think this is the case and what can be done to connect model makers around the world?

There is a V&A Research project called Architectural Models in Context. The aim of this network is to share knowledge about the history, current state and future of model making and also develop a deeper understanding of model making in the design process.

More forums, online documentation like this will connect model makers and elevate the profession. It is important to show it as an essential process for your office, like BIM, not just someone you hire externally when the building is designed. Creating this culture and displaying its importance in the design process would give the industry more validity.

However certain architects, such as Renzo Piano or Peter Zumthor, do exhibit their process through models and highlight their importance. A few years ago I went to the Tadao Ando retrospective at the Centre Pompidou and it was fantastic. It displayed models from every stage of the design. I find an imperfect model, which shows the marks of design or an integral idea much more interesting than just the confirmation of an idea at the end.

David Chipperfield Works Exhibition – Vicenza Basilica

What would be your advice for architectural practices before starting to work with an external model maker like you?

Have an idea of what you want but be open to suggestions. I try to discuss certain topics like; what are you making the model for? A presentation? In-house photography? Design development? Who is your intended audience? What is the main idea you’re trying to convey with the model? Let the answers to these questions dictate what the model will become. Don’t be too fixed on a certain material, scale and budget because the model may not communicate what you actually want it to.

What is the most compelling work you have completed recently?

I have recently finished a very abstract model, for Henley Halebrown, out of solid Lime. The model is stripped back to a fundamental design idea of a loggia being a self supporting structure and how it relates to the public courtyard. The model came about after a long discussion with the architects and I love how it displays this key idea, whilst also being a nice stand-alone object.

Kings Crescent Model for Hanley Halebrown Architects

In contrast to the model making work, I have completed the design and refurbishment of Humdingers cafe on Hoxton Street. Designed with close input from the cafe staff, I have made new counters, seating, bread display and wine shelves.

Humdingers Bakery and Cafe Detail

What is your most favorite material and tool? Why?

I love working with Jesmonite. The wide range of finishes and textures you can achieve make it really versatile and the scale of the detail fits well with model making. For sentimental reasons my favorite tools are my Grandfather’s chisels. Great quality, Sheffield steel tools that will last several lifetimes.

Inagawa Cemetry Chapel and Visitors Centre – Jesmonite Model

How can design studios or architectural practices hire you? What is your working method?

I believe the best finished projects come from me having a good understanding of the practice and how they work. Most of the architects I work with I have known for many years and built good relationships. Therefore I know exactly what they want, so when a deadline comes it’s easy to get straight into the design and making of the project. So I would suggest getting in contact even if you don’t need a model right away and we can discuss your practice and working methodology.

It is easy to define yourself by what you are doing but if I ask you to define your services by the kind of jobs that you would never engage with, what would they be?

Part of the reason I wanted to run my own studio was to work on varied projects. With that in mind, I wouldn’t want to say I would never do this type of job because who knows what could come out of it and who you might meet?