Designer Katie Taylor has done it her way from the beginning of her career, whether it’s design in the Middle East or acrobatics in Russia. She tells Sam Eichblatt about tenacity, life away from home and surviving London in a recession
Listening to designer Katie Taylor talk about her latest client is like eavesdropping on celebrity scuttlebutt. “I haven’t even met her yet. She’s a total enigma. Her employees treat her like a god. She’s hasn’t been into half the rooms in her own practice!”
Taylor only recently started work on branding Zaha Hadid Architects and so far the experience has been unique in this age of pared-down, bottom-line corporate design. Taylor paints the mysterious Hadid as the Willy Wonka of the architecture industry, her close-knit workforce bunkered but fiercely partisan: “Brilliant, and mad.” The architects, largely new graduates from outside the UK, work 80-hour weeks on minimal pay and see their work torn apart in brutal critiques. In return, their youthful portfolios will include the world’s most amazing buildings. “They totally believe in her,” says Taylor, who is running interviews with staff to learn more about the company. “They’re a tough crowd, the architects of tomorrow. I still have no idea how it’s going to work out.”
That won’t faze Taylor, who welcomes the unexpected in a career has spanned continents and cultures. The first time I met her she had been freshly hired as the design director of a new London outfit called Greenspace and had recently won a double-gold at the New York Festivals Advertising Awards for her brand identity work. It was mid-2007 and, for two people in their early 30s, the idea of a recession was a novel concept. Sitting in a Clerkenwell pub around the corner from her studio, the jet-haired, pale-skinned Taylor was the picture of a hard-working East End creative, and the conversation was full of grand ideas and digressions.
“Having a New Zealand accent does not help. We’re from a country that’s not at all famous for design—in a way it’s famous for ideas and innovation, but maybe not famous enough”
Almost exactly two years later, the economic weather has taken a dramatic shift, particularly in Taylor’s field, and there’s a sense of urgency and a sharper focus on her work that wasn’t as apparent earlier.
“It’s been tough in London,” she admits. “The creative sector has taken a real hammering.” Greenspace had been thriving with 30 staff. Founded by Adrian Caddy and Paul Blackburn (both ex-Imagination), the company had wasted no time in taking on some impressive accounts, including Toyota and the swanky new high-speed Eurostar station at St Pancras.
Like many studios, redundancies were the only way to survive when things looked dark. “The Toyota account saw us through the worst,” says Taylor, who took a pay cut along with everyone else. The seven-month delay in beginning work on the Hadid account was also indicative of the gun-shy market in London, she says.
If dire economic times have brought out a certain gritty determination in Taylor, it’s not surprising. Maybe it’s even fair to say her adaptability has made her recession-proof, for her career to this point has been far from typical; when we first meet she draws her trajectory in the air with a finger, from Wellington Polytech in 1993 to Greenspace in 2009, as a scrawling, unpredictable line—an appropriate gesture for a graphic designer.
Similarly to many new arrivals, Taylor’s experience in mid-90s London was a giant wake-up call, opening her eyes to the reality that leaving New Zealand is about more than just changing the location of your office. Her first jobs were spent freelancing for studios such as Identity Ltd and Baber Smith, living in a low-rent co-op housing development in Southeast London, and saving up enough to do “an epic trip” every six months. “I had my bicycle and I’d just go off and cycle through Europe or Africa or India. I’d always meet people along the way, but they were very much solo voyages.”
It was after one of these voyages that she arrived back in London and still felt the call. “I wanted to see what it would be like to work in another country, and I was interested in Islam,” she says. She worked in a studio in Bahrain over 1999, travelling to Iran and slowly coming to terms with the social climate of the Gulf States. “It was a cultural shock,” she says now. “Bahrain is quite liberal, and though I did always get followed, I got used to it. It wasn’t very threatening, just based on a clichéd understanding of western women. Most people just assumed I was a man. Within a design environment, I wasn’t taken seriously—but that isn’t exactly limited to Middle Eastern cultures.”
Her next foray out of London came in 2001, when she joined the postgraduate programme in graphic design and typography under Wolfgang Weingart at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland. While there, she learned German and immersed herself in the country’s lifestyle. “It’s beautiful, you cycle everywhere and there’s so much art and architecture. The Swiss aesthetic is amazing. Everybody has this awareness of design that is lacking in most countries, so it’s a great place to be studying it.”
More significantly, she found that a degree from Basel opened the right doors in London. “It was starting to happen before then, but Switzerland is held in so much esteem it was easy when I came back two years later to get into good studios,” she says.
But mainland Europe wasn’t done with Taylor yet. A lifelong fascination with the former Soviet Union was stirred into action when she fell in love with a London acrobat and discovered a latent talent for the art herself. “I was 29 and you don’t start acrobatics when you’re that old— you just don’t,” she says. “But it seemed to be in my blood.” The couple decided to form a circus act and started training six hours a day, six days a week at the Kiev State School of Circus and Performing Arts in the Ukraine. They lived in a classic Soviet-era concrete block of flats with a hammer and sickle mosaic on the façade. It was minus 12 degrees when they arrived, the heating was only turned on by central government for set periods and they washed everything by hand.
“There’s a great nostalgia to the former Soviet Union, a huge divide between two cultures, one of which has broken down,” says Taylor. “Historically, there was fantastic design. The way that Kiev was constructed in the time of Lenin was very beautiful, but it’s become this decrepit thing which now co-exists with stuff from the west that’s not great at all.”
Taylor’s budding acrobatic career was cut short by a fall after six months of training. She almost broke her neck and couldn’t walk for several days, yet luckily the accident left no lasting damage.
Despite all of this, Taylor says the hardest thing she’s faced in her career has still been breaking into the London design scene. “Having a New Zealand accent does not help,” she says. “We’re from a country that’s not at all famous for design—in a way it’s famous for ideas and innovation, but maybe not famous enough.”
While she received professional recognition for her degree from Basel, she has found Bahrain equally valuable. Greenspace produces multilingual fonts for Toyota and has also been pitching for work in Dubai, and having lived in an Arabic country, Taylor can bring a certain understanding of the region to her work. “A lot of people can only grasp what they read in the paper,” she says.
Likewise her foray into Eastern Europe: “My boss [Adrian Caddy] says he knew I’d be okay because I used to be a gymnast. He was also a gymnast, so he understands how much tenacity you need, that mentality where you can only reach the point of perfection through pain, doing something over and over again, and never giving up.”
As a lucky few have found, hanging onto her job during a global recession has not only consolidated Taylor’s position but opened up new possibilities. She was recently promoted to creative director, teaches at Kingston University and in November is doing a lecture at her alma mater, the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, alongside other ex-students such as Stefan Sagmeister. She’s worked on a pitch to rebrand London (“Difficult!”), run a week-long Toyota brand identity workshop for 140 European employees and begun a project with the Wolfgang Weingart archive which will culminate in an exhibition in Zurich.
“The people who work at Greenspace are not your “typical” English people—they are very adaptable and in some ways unusual people. As a creative director, I have to direct and stimulate them. Travel has given me a sensitivity to the ways various cultures I’ve responded to function, so it heavily influences the way I work now. We want our designers to produce surprising things. One thing I have learned is that with each project, you can take it into the place most people take it—but when you take it beyond that, it becomes uniquely yours.”