Two sisters wander through the woods in the English countryside, collecting dry leaves, twigs, pebbles, and bric-a-brac, later carefully arranged on the mantelpiece in their bedroom in one of those little houses that are the stuff of fairy stories, with a kitchen garden, smoke coming out of the chimney pot, rambling English Roses and copper pans. Even the names of the two sisters sound like something from a fairy tale: Faye and Erica Toogood. Their grandmother was a seamstress who used to make underwear out of parachute fabric during the war.
A love for materials; for everything that is archaic and everything is in the making. Faye Toogood’s work has the magical appeal of a childhood breaching the real and an imaginary world; one of today’s leading names in art and design, and considered the most poetic of minimalist artists. Faye’s work is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. Her work has been shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, at the Triennale in Milan, and at the D Museum in Seoul. Nevertheless, or maybe precisely because of this, Faye refers to herself as a tinker, like the gypsies who once went from village to village mending pots and pans.
Erica got her long, slim fingers and her talent as a seamstress from her grandmother. As a child, she was obsessed with shapes, proportions and drapes, and when she was eight years old, she got behind an old Singer sewing machine and made herself a top out of an old windsock. Now an expert pattern cutter, she has worked with several fashion brands and makes bespoke garments for private customers and costumes for theatrical productions. The two sisters run – or rather live in – the House of Toogood, an eclectic space that speaks of their passions, material for Faye and form for Erica. The Tinker and the Tailor.
The House of Toogood really is an actual house. You ring the bell, and go in through the garage, crossing a small yard, if you have an appointment. Even if it is partly a shop, the space is closed at weekends. It is in Shoreditch, in the East End of London, on the corner of Club Row and Redchurch Street, once a haunt for the down-and-out but now a privileged shopping destination for luxury items and niche brands. The building is a startlingly narrow, four-floor Victorian house, with black walls on the outside. It used to be just another East End squat – a building occupied in a (failed) attempt to combat gentrification and the staggering increase in the cost of rents. The ground floor is a shop, showroom and display space, and above there are the ateliers and offices. About fifteen people work here: as well as the tinker and tailor, there is a blacksmith, a carpenter, an upholsterer, and an events organizer… The House of Toogood is a collection of people who do not want to be boxed into a single art form: architects wanting to investigate furniture, graphic designers who love fashion, and anyone who does not see themselves reflected by a single medium. Although it is the headquarters of a famous brand, and even if the interiors have been cleared of the signs of recent anarchy, the building has not lost the aura of a private residence, maybe one that is a bit run-down, with windows instead of shop windows and rickety parquet. The House of Toogood has moved premises six times in eight years. Although most of their work wants to convey a sense of permanence, Faye – the tinker – likes moving on. Her designs for Georgian houses for her clients can take years, but in life she willingly accepts the challenge of creating a fertile and welcoming workplace for her employees in just one night: I like things to be comfortable but not too comfortable.
Faye Toogood’s creations are timeless, like fossils. She’s not interested in listening to trends, fashion or aesthetic conventions. She prefers a notion of bewilderment, of insecurity: look at her work and you no longer know in which part of the world or which geological era you live in. There is something prehistoric and futuristic about her sculptures and objects – a chair whose backrest recalls a spade handle, pot-bellied cups, stiff concave armchairs, polished tables and three-dimensional shapes. Whilst other interior designers in London were painting walls white and trying to shed light and life on old brick-built houses, she became known for her mud-colored walls and metal cage bookshelves, in the mode of Anselm Kiefer. Her work has recently become more organic and less gloomy, maybe because she just gave birth to twins and this has made her view the world with a newfound sense of innocence, as she told the New York Times.
Erica’s textile creations are inspired by pre-industrial work wear, in her ongoing pursuit of individuality defined through uniforms. Sculptors, beekeepers, mechanics, carpenters … the dirtier the uniform, the more creased, or sullied with motor oil or plaster it may be, the more authentic and personal it becomes. The result is genderless apparel, made in fabrics that change from season to season, be it alpaca, linen or organza. All the paper patterns are stored in the archives and are relocated with each change of address. Some garments, including a pair of trousers, are reworked and made up in different fabrics for each new collection. She calls it the ‘bohemian wardrobe’, where arts and crafts become clothes. Bricklayers’ dungarees become a uniform for writers, the technical fabrics used by welders are now worn by craftsmen. Erica is an expert pattern-cutter, and the shapes she creates challenge the laws of anatomy and the rules of tailoring – but this is Shoreditch and not Savile Row. There is also a range of jeans with four different, very stiff styles: the first selvedge denim made in Lancashire, in the North of England, left rough so it adapts to the specific shape of the body. Toogood’s distributors include Dover Street Market in London, New York and Tokyo. Sometimes a customer falls in love with a fabric, or an idea. This is when Erica turns an idea into an item of clothing, cut out and sewn together, combining her flair with what the customer wants.
Toogood has a four-year lease with the owner of the building in Redchurch Street, and then it will probably move again. This is why there is a fleeting feeling about the display space at the House of Toogood – pale wood and clean lines – as if the people living there have gone on holiday and have tried to customize the space as much as possible without doing anything too radical just in case the owner decides to pay a surprise visit. The display includes items made by Toogood in collaboration with other brands – 1882 ltd, Calico Wallpaper, cc-tapis and Teixdors, to name a few. There are also exhibitions by contemporary artists, including Sarah Kaye Rodden, who works with Comme des Garçons. And the collections are also presented during fashion week, via tableau vivant where the models stand in the various niches around the studio, creating a feeling in line with the mood of the collection. Customers come for tea, to catch up on the latest news and see what is still in the pipeline, or to take in the House’s distinctively ethereal atmosphere. When Faye and Erica are not barricaded away in their offices, or designing installations somewhere else around the world (such as the recent one they designed for the new Carhartt store in London), they sometimes make an appearance, with their cropped hair and work clothes, suspended in time and space.
71 Redchurch, Shoreditch, London
E2 7DJ, UK