Biba Dow, ‘Period Design’, in: Period Design, Bonhams Knightsbridge (1 July 2010)
Biba Dow trained as an architect at the University of Cambridge, and in 2000 formed Dow Jones Architects with Alun Jones. The practice have built up a body of work with a broad range of projects, including art spaces and new houses as well as work to existing buildings. They have won and been shortlisted for many awards, including Daily Telegraph ‘Architectural Heroes’, for both their built designs and research into sustainability. Recent projects include the new building inside the Garden Museum. They are currently working on the crypt of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields.
Dow Jones are interested in responding to people and situations, and interpreting the context of a project in its broadest sense – not just where a building is but how it is going to be lived in and by whom. They spend time getting to know clients, to arrive at something that suits their particular way of life. “With some clients who had bought the top floors of a warehouse, we wanted to make a layered space so as to extend the very rectilinear floor plans, and we made sliding walls between rooms and elongated roof lights to heighten the space. We took them to John Soane’s Museum, one of our favourite buildings; it was the home and office of the eighteenth century architect and collector, and is a wonderful, intense place, full of light and interest. We visited the house together on one of the evenings when it is candlelit, which reflect the many mirrors, some of them convex - a device Soane used to widen the space. My favourite bit is the Monk’s Parlour, full of his ‘found objects’, and his picture gallery, with the drawings on layered hinged panels.”
Their intention is to make something authentic, that has a character of place and is made in an interesting way. They emphasise materials and construction as the means of shaping spaces. “We try to use a limited number of materials and make them work hard – so that why they are chosen and how they are used tell a story. Our first project was a new house in Suffolk, where we chose Douglas fir for all the joinery, because it comes in solid section (for making door and window frames), in boards for floor and wall linings, and in veneered boards for making large sliding doors and furniture.”
This emphasis on materials gives a distinctive and hand-crafted feel which Biba feels is particularly resonant at the moment. “There is a desire to get back to things which are authentic and hand-made, in reaction to cheap mass-production. It touches on a lot of issues of consumerism, to do with ethics and values and place. I often refer to Common Ground’s Rules for Local Distinctiveness, full of reminders such as ‘resist the things that can be found anywhere’ and ‘we need enchantment’.” Dow Jones are currently designing a door knocker for the ironmonger Ize; “we couldn’t find one we liked, so they are making one for us. Their things have a wonderful quality, important in things you touch’.
While Dow Jones Architects try to make characterful buildings, they are mindful that the main show is the life going on there. “It is a question of getting a balance between a space being distinctive, and at the same time calm and open to all that goes on in it. We call it being generous to situations.” That also means thinking about their clients’ possessions. “ We love collections; they form their own world. My painter and photographer friend Charlotte Handy has a collection of Turkish bronze bells which she groups together, making you aware of their material quality and their quirks. We have designed rooms around pictures, and we love books. These things bring life and history to a space.”
It is these qualities which make salerooms so interesting. “The things have a uniqueness and a life to them; you might be looking for a certain type of thing but each one stands alone, and there is the thrill of the unexpected. In this sale, several things jump out. I love this statue of the Virgin and Child: delicate and distinctive, with its refined detail but simple pose. It has great presence.” She also likes the chest of drawers with its serpentine front bringing out the character of the mahogany grain. She chooses the writing desk; “ I enjoy its quirkiness, with the side drawers and the top that pulls forward and folds open. I also like the sinuous caned chair. I would re-cover the seat in something contemporary, a Bute weave in one of their jewel-like colours”.