An Interview With Designer Susan Phillips McMeekin

How did you first being to design in metal?

It was by chance really. I started at Harrow Art School in the late fifties studying textiles, but it was jewellery, which I took as a subsidiary subject, that became my passion.

My work helped me secure a place at the Royal College of Art, in the School of Silversmithing and Jewellery and I was made Royal Scholar, graduating with First Class Honours in 1965.

It was the early sixties and of course, a time of huge cultural change. London felt like the centre of the world and art in all its forms – design, music, film, photography – was the expression of that change. It was a very exciting time.

I then took a one year travel scholarship in the USA through The Goldsmiths’ Company and got a job as a staff designer with a well-known jeweller in Philadelphia. On my return to Britain I became a staff designer with Whitehorn Jewellers Ltd. of Hatton Garden who designed and produced work for Asprey & Garrard. It was a wonderful chapter in my life and I worked for them for six years.

How did you move into freelance work?

By the early 1970s things were completely different. After the birth of my second child in 1972 it was no longer practical for me to work in London. By this time the heady optimism of the 1960s had given way to industrial decline and depression. I took on less work, which with a growing family, suited me.

It was not until I had a chance meeting with the managing director of Asprey in 1977 that I resumed my career. Though Asprey did not have a role for me at the time, they did recommend me to Peter McCabe and David McCarty. Having served an apprenticeship at Cartier, David had forged a reputation as a highly skilled craftsman of objets d’art; now they were looking for a designer who would be able to handle that kind of work. I will always be grateful to David McCarty and the late Peter McCabe for giving me the opportunity at that time, as I was totally unknown to them.

Whilst at the Royal College I had learnt diamond mounting; which I hated – and enamelling; which I loved, together with all of the other practical skills required to make pieces. Whilst I did not want to be a craftsman, having a thorough understanding of mechanics and how complex technical pieces are put together meant that I was able to design them.

This got me started with McCabe McCarty and it still serves me well today. I maintain that having the practical skills is vital before you can begin to design, as one needs to have a strong understanding of what will or will not work.

Where were you based at the time?

I worked from our home in a small Oxfordshire village; we converted a stable in our garden into a studio. From there I would travel into London each Tuesday, which worked very well.

I have been self-employed, working with McCabe McCarty (now David McCarty Ltd.) from 1977 to the present day.

How do you approach the design process?

When I am asked to do a commission, the first part of the process is to think through the particular brief, which materials are needed and how the piece will actually be made.

There are other considerations that have to be taken into account too, for instance, the culture of the country the piece is destined for, as certain colours, materials and design elements are preferred in certain countries. If it is a desk, a chair or a clock then I have to take the craftsmen into consideration. I always think about who will physically be making the piece.