Monica and Petras home is located in a typical neighborhood of London’s East End. Family-owned convenience stores, an all-important chip shop and a neighbourhood drugs advice centre make sure that most basic needs are covered.
A maze of stairs leads us to their space, a huge loft full of light thanks to the windows on three sides. Everywhere there are plants, adding to the feel of airiness. Although the girls make predictable moans about it being messy, it looks beautiful, full of groupings of interesting and intricate pieces that you long to pick up and examine further. You sense their history together, everything looks one-of-a-kind and clearly has a story attached to.
The loft is like a ready-made stage where anything is possible, from Petra’s space, an explosion of sketched ideas and photographs, pieces of work in many stages from concept to finish, a selection of previous designs that she particularly loves, and scattered amongst all this is a mixture of memorabilia and inspirational knick-knacks. In a way it is as if her brain has been laid bare for us to see. Monica’s space is very feminine and lady-like, maybe it’s the way she’s dressed today but you can imagine this Victorian lady sitting down at her desk, writing a thank-you note to a dear friend.
She has many drawers and boxes neatly piled up, her name spelled out in large Scrabble tiles, her inspirational images and of course, the tools of her trade, make-up brushes and her powders and paint. The heart of the loft is undoubtedly the kitchen, a vision in turquoise cupboards and mirrored mosaic tiles, full of intriguing-looking jars and bottles, which invites you to pull up a chair and have something so quintessentially British as a nice cup of tea.
How far apart are you age wise?
Monica: We’re 3 years apart… guess who’s older!
Your work/live space is beautiful and full of creativity. Do you both live and work here? How long have you done that and how did it come about – what inspired you to do it?
Petra: I’ve been here for about 4 years now and Monica moved in about a year and a half ago. It’s changed a lot in the time I have been here. The layout is always changing a lot to accommodate projects or photo shoots that take place here. It’s a real luxury to have as much space as we do. I think its a good place to work, I never procrastinate here like I did in my old studio.
Monica: We get to do amazing things here which we couldn’t do in a more conventional set up, like a recent dinner party with 40 friends that our flatmate held to celebrate his birthday. I love having so much space, I feel a bit spoilt by it. It’s a great place to dance in!
Can you tell us about your background – how did you get to where you are today?
Monica: My route into make up artistry came after a Fine Art Degree. Painting faces had always appealed to me but for some reason, I had never considered it as a career – I don’t think I knew it even really existed as a career. I was inspired by my lovely friend Nikki Palmer, a fellow make up artist of 13 years who persuaded me to try a short course and see if it was something I liked. Very quickly I knew this was what I wanted to do and haven’t looked back since. I am still relatively new to the industry and still have a lot to learn but I love what I do and think I am on the right path. I love Alex Box’s work – her work has gradually evolved from painting into make up and she is exceptionally talented.
Petra: I studied furniture and product design at University and really enjoyed it but eventually fell into the set design, costume design, props styling and art direction area of the creative industry. I really enjoy it as it is so varied and fast paced. At times it’s too much but normally it’s really creative and I love the process from drawing the design to seeing the final made object, it’s like magic.
Who inspires you currently as a set designer?
Petra: Well there are so many inspiring people out there! The two top set designers on my radar are Shona Heath and Es Devlin. But I’m always seeing amazing work on blogs and in magazines. Recently I came across some beautiful, bespoke suitcases made by Sarah Jane Williams – very specific items. I’m primarily inspired by and interested in shapes and forms and how you make them. I do like and use colours, textures and surface pattern, but that’s a bit secondary to me. I like to learn new materials and techniques for making then see what comes up with from there. I love buildings and architecture because I’m in awe of the planning, engineering and design that goes into making their gravity-defying forms.
Who inspires you currently as a make-up artist?
Monica: I love Alex Box’s work – her work has gradually evolved from painting into make up and she is exceptionally talented. Her precision is amazing. I’ve been working a lot recently with a photographer called Claire Huish and I always love what she does. We seem to work very well as a team and I always look forward to the next project we do together.
Petra, what especially makes it worthwhile to do what you do creatively?
Petra: I find the process of drawing something on a piece of paper and then planning and manipulating the shape to turn it into a reality really satisfying and pleasurable. It’s always very hard work and a bit of a struggle but then once it’s done it’s an amazing feeling. I don’t think it will ever become old.
Do you have a little ritual for getting the creative juices to flow? I read that the architect Frank Gehry tidies his desk as a way to open up, yet every time he fears he won’t be able to ‘make it happen’. Do you do something similar?
Petra: Ha! I try to tidy between projects; otherwise the studio gets completely out of control. But no, I would love to have a ‘creative intro routine’, I spend my time at the beginning of a project going back and forth negotiating budgets, which is not that fun.
Monica: I start with finding inspiration in old magazines and online. I have a little archive of images stored that I like to refer to. I look through different eras of make up and find aspects that I really love. This inspiration, combined with my own ideas, comes together in some sort of mood board. Then there is the cleaning of the brushes, the buying of specific products needed, packing my kit, deciding what I do and don’t need, lugging a huge case down 5 sets of stairs to freedom and then off I go!
Do you ever collaborate with each other?
Petra: I really like working with Monica, she always knows what to do, and adds exciting ideas and details I would never think of. When we work on projects I know nothing about makeup, she’s the boss, so it’s not stressful. I also am always a bit in awe of Monica’s professionalism. Applying someone’s makeup is so intimate, you are very much in his or her personal space and you have to make him or her feel comfortable while doing something very intricate and tricky. It’s impressive to see her at work!
Are there times when you get sick of the closeness of being two creative people working on projects and if so, how do you cope when that happens?
Monica: It can be a little tricky sometimes! However I admire Petra hugely and find her pretty inspirational and she spurs me on. She helps me stay focused and I enjoy that she is always working here, busy like a bee, getting amazing things done. Despite the occasional bust up, like “is my wardrobe her wardrobe?!!” we get on very well.
Because of Petra’s work there must be a constant ebb and flow of amazing things being created which are then sent off on shoots…are there any that you particularly remember and why is that?
Petra: The most out of control project was definitely a good few years ago when I made an enormous 14ft Hans Bellmer doll sculpted out of polystyrene for Paloma Faith’s stage show. It took about 2 weeks over my birthday. I got so sleep-deprived and in to it that I only remembered when my dad rang to wish me happy birthday! The car park at my studio became a sea of tiny polystyrene balls, once we had the shapes we painted them with rabbit skin glue, which created a gesso effect that looked great but smelt foul, and made everything in the house sticky. The final night before the deadline I remember us baking the fake hair into ringlets in the oven, with all the windows open and protective masks on because it smelt so bad!
Monica: Sometimes I come home, open the door and BOOM it’s like a bomb has gone off! Stuff and people everywhere! I love seeing the end results of her projects though. I think my favourites are generally the paper sculptures and the costumes. I loved working with Petra on an Olympic style shoot for APM.
Petra, tell me about the dress made out of perforated metal pieces…
Petra: The metal dress was prototype costume for ‘Camellia and the Rabbit’, a project we did with performance artist Rachel May Snider, a fantastic London based performance artist and theatre maker who contacted me to help her with the set design and costume for her new solo show. Since then we have been developing a collection of otherworldly objects to enhance her captivating performance, as she tells stories from her life threading them together in a celebration of Afternoon Tea.
If you had to do something else, what would it be?
Petra: I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, but got nervous about it last minute and went off to art foundation instead. Now maybe I would have a go at being a dressmaker, upholsterer, animator, and florist or open up a café and be a waitress.
Monica: Er, I used to have big plans to be a lawyer. I remember talking with Petra when we were much younger and making a plan that when I passed the Bar we’d hire a vintage convertible and drive it around Italy! Didn’t happen, but I’m happy with how things worked out.
What would be your dream project together and apart?
Petra: My dream project would be to get to work on the set for the ‘Opera on the Lake’ Stages of Bregenz in Austria. Every year they construct another breathtakingly beautiful set, on the water partially submerged in the lake. It’s quite a backdrop for a show. Then as a project together, maybe a stop frame animation?
Monica: Yes, perhaps an animation!
What would you highlight as the greatest advantage of living and working together?
Petra: We get to see each other all the time. This can be great, because it nice to see each other all the time! But then often because you see each other all the time, you don’t make an effort to do fun things together, which I think is important.
Monica: Haha! I like what you say! It’s true though, it is important to do fun things together away from the house. I really enjoy it when we do that.
How do you see your private and working lives progressing… say you wanted to start a family, how would that affect your current set-up?
Petra: Yeah, I think this is a special carefree time before we all make the jump to being grownups with families and move to sensible houses. I should probably make the move soon but I’m a little reluctant!
Monica: I’m very aware that things may change quite soon with our living situation. Petra’s been here much longer than me, as have the others so they might choose to move on soon. I’ve never been happier then at this stage of my life so I’m just enjoying it all as much as possible. In terms of my work and private life I’ve got big dreams but I’m going to keep my cards to close to my chest at the moment.
Petra, the kitchen looks so beautiful. Was it like that when you moved in or did you change it to how it is now?
Petra: Yes I love the kitchen, that’s the one area that doesn’t get messed up all the time – it stays constant! We did it up a few years ago and tried to make it like an ice cream parlour with duck egg blue cabinets. I tried to make it the same colour as Fortnum and Masons, my favourite colour. The mosaic mirror tiles were left over from a job. Monica has a special knack of finding beautiful old mirrors on the street. We have quite a collection at the house. The amazing photographic light boxes are our flatmate Mark Griffiths work. He is a photographer/set builder who I work with all the time.
Which is the one item you’d grab if there was a fire and why?
Monica: I think I’d grab the photo of my grandpa as a young man in his American football kit. I love that photo. I think he looks like a movie star! I have a little collection of photos of our parents, grandparents and us when we were little so I’d do my best to save all of those.
Interview: Anna Bang
Photography: Georgia Kuhn