Making It Up As They Go Along

London-based design duo Isabel + Helen have scored coveted commissions from fashion brands like Nike and Selfridges. But they always make time for keeping it weird.

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From left: Helen Chesney and Isabel Gibson.
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Entering the studio of Helen Chesney and Isabel Gibson in South Bermondsey, London, is not unlike stepping into a high school shop class, packed with clanking machines and stacks of paint cans. For a writer with limited hand-eye coordination, it's more than a little intimidating with its power tools and planks of propped-up wood in various states of assembly. But the industrial setting quickly becomes personal, thanks to the jaunty cactus, novelty games, and back issues of Dazed & Confused and Wallpaper* that line a series of shelves on the opposite side of the room.  

Isabel + Helen's studio shelves.
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"It was kind of life-changing when we got that," says Chesney, long, straight hair, dressed in a casual gray sweatshirt and floral embroidered jeans, gesturing toward a circular saw that sits prominently—and somewhat precariously—in the middle of the room. "We can cut through anything. And we can make anything!"

Isabel + Helen at their desks.

It turns out they can, and they do. After meeting and beginning to collaborate while studying graphic design and communication at Chelsea College of Arts, the pair went full-time into the set design and installation business last March. Since then, they've notched up a client list that includes Nike, Orlebar Brown, RIBA, the London Design Festival, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Selfridges, and were picked as "Ones To Watch" by the creative-championing magazine and website It's Nice That.

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Video courtesy of Isabel + Helen/Vimeo

"Every project is different. I think we get jobs for our ideas, not our style," says Gibson, curly brown hair, bubbly, the techier computer geek of the two. "We don't think we have an aesthetic, but everyone else thinks that it's bold, stripped back, and quite playful."

Even if they can't see it, that is in fact a very apt description of their work. A case in point is the Noodle Chair, a playful, colorful one-off design which they are now in talks about creating as an actual product; as well as their very witty "Pig or Wig?" project which delves into the world of beauty pageants for guinea pigs. For this, the pair photographed long-haired Peruvian guinea pigs at various contests across the country, and, separately, wigs so elaborate that they could easily be mistaken for little critters. Viewers were invited to guess which is which. "We got a lot of attention for it, so this year we want to turn it into a proper book," says Chesney. The project, she admits, became quite addictive in the end.

Noodle furniture, designed by Isabel + Helen.

So, furniture experiments, guinea pig projects, and high-level client assignments all comprise a day's work for the duo. "It's quite difficult to say what we do, because it's mainly set design but it's not in the traditional sense because we do interactive installations for exhibitions as well," says Gibson. "We've always been interested in making 3-D sculptural stuff and we worked together really well at university," she continues. "We were interested in the same stuff and got excited about the same things. It's always stuff from being young, like gems of nostalgia—fun games we both remember having or books, like The Hungry Caterpillar, from when we were kids."  

Isabel and Helen created this interactive set and children's workshop for a Russian Avant-garde Theatre exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Of course when it comes to their design process, there's a difference between being sent a brief from a client and creating something off the top of their heads. The latter is what's next on their agenda: Pick Me Up, a graphic arts festival in London this April.

"We're making a series of self-playing instruments which will hopefully make a combined orchestra," explains Chesney. "It's quite an ambitious project."

For more of Isabel + Helen's work, see isabelandhelen.com.

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