Under the overcast skies in the heart of Birmingham sits Dual Works, an independent design studio and workshop founded by partners Zoe and Steve in 2015. Despite the grey weather, Zoe and Steve are a warm and welcoming pair, and their recent work on the charity project Sense has allowed them to bring color and uplifted spirits to their local community through accessible plywood furniture. Coming from a background of traditional methods, Zoe and Steve have had to adapt to new technologies to make their vision a reality.
What is Sense
Sense is a UK-based charity for children and adults with complex disabilities. Their mission is to create a welcoming and accessible environment for both those with disabilities and their families. They help to build a stronger community by supporting disabled people with access to employment, education, volunteering, and training opportunities.
Sense aims to help disabled people and their families lead creative and active lives through engaging and interactive spaces. TouchBase Pears in Birmingham is one such space. Sense has envisioned a place where anyone, despite their disability, can interact with the room and be creative. Zoe and Steve’s background as designers with an interest in sensory materials made them a perfect fit for this project. Dual Works have helped to create a decorative and functional space, such as creating braille panels on the furniture which is a sensory aspect for those with visual impairments, along with the contrasting orange colors, which also happens to be part of Sense Arts’ branding identity.
What is Dual Works
Until recently, Dual Works focussed on designing and building art installations. Building an interactive space for those with disabilities presented a new challenge, both in how they approached the design and fabrication of materials. They met the challenge with enthusiasm, as Zoe said “We used a combination of digital and hand skills to create the project.”
Working with Families
To meet the needs of the community, Zoe and Steve spent time at TouchBase Pears to see how those with disabilities and their families best interacted with the furniture. “There was a lot of listening,” says Zoe. The project has allowed for a collaborative design to form between Dual Works, Sense, and the families which make use of the room. It was important to Steve that people could look at the room and see that it was a Dual Works design and that the feel of the room didn’t come off as “medical” in any way. Their use of plywood has allowed them to give the space a natural feel that “looks nice, feels nice, smells nice.”
This has a positive and uplifting effect not only on those with disabilities but their families too, who are all too used to the sterile hospital vibe given off in most community spaces. Steve touched on the importance of the room not being another drab medical area that the families are familiar with. TouchBase Pears is a collision of an art installation and creative space – a room that is practical while also being beautiful to look at. The positive effect that Dual Works’ designs have had on the families has been immediate. As Zoe puts it, “It’s wonderful”.
Working with Plywood
Zoe and Steve are self-proclaimed lovers of plywood, particularly the fine layers in birch plywood that they use most often. They combine this with High-Pressure Laminate Formica, which brings a vibrant pop of color to the furniture. While they have always been very hands-on in the workshop, they have had to evolve to use digital tools to make the design more efficient. Their rough ideas are still drawn by hand using pens and markers, “It’s the way we communicate with each other,” says Zoe. This allows them to rapidly refine their ideas before moving to digital.
They then use digital drawings to bring the ideas to fruition. Implementing digital illustrations and a new CNC cutting tool creates consistent circular designs. This has allowed them to make the large braille dot design elements featured throughout the Sense Arts space. Braille is a tactile writing system based on a series of uniform raised dots. Although the braille design elements do not function like braille typography, the uniform quality of each piece cut on the CNC machine creates a consistent tactile experience when interacting with the space.
Art Which Lasts
Zoe and Steve appreciate being able to have healthy and open discussions with the funders of Sense. Showing that the money is being spent well and is having an impact on the community helps future projects to find funding. They have found this project to be significant for them. Having worked on art installations, they are happy that this current work won’t be seen by “only a few people and never seen again.” This is a harsh reality that many designers and artists face – that their hard work will only be seen and appreciated by a select few, and then most often hidden from the public and stored in a private collection. These studios have been designed to last for many years, and be open to all members of the community. It’s going to be affecting people on a day-to-day basis. Children will be able to choose what they want to access and it will be available to families for years to come.
The mentality of a “long-lasting” space is what drew Zoe and Steve to using birch plywood, as it proves itself as a durable material that can last for many years. The warmth that plywood radiates helps to create a comforting sensory experience for those who interact with it.
Dual Works and Sense are showing us how old-school design techniques can be merged with modern construction and go a long way when it comes to building spaces that are meant to last, and along the way create stronger communities.