One of the most eye-catching sights at this year’s Venice Biennale was not an exhibit. Sporting luminous purple hair and matching shirt and sunglasses, modelmaker Christian Spencer-Davies was vying for attention with the models on show in the British pavilion – including the three made by his workshop, A-Models. These were Alsop & Störmer’s C/plex interactive community arts centre in West Bromwich, Zaha Hadid’s mind zone at the Millennium Dome and David Chipperfield’s Davenport Art Museum in Iowa.
Spencer-Davies’ flamboyant style seems at odds with the usual low profile of modelmakers, who are rarely even credited for their work. When, at the 1999 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, his model of Alsop & Störmer’s Hanover Expo pavilion was shortlisted for the £25 000 award for the most distinguished work, it ranked alongside paintings by David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer and Patrick Caulfield. However, nobody on the jury even thought of inviting him to the presentation dinner. “In the end, Christophe Egret from Alsop & Störmer was going to try to smuggle me in,” says Spencer-Davies. “Hockney won it, and gave the prize money to charity. I was gutted.”
In February, the Swedish culture minister was more gracious. Impressed by his model of Brisac Gonzalez’s competition-winning design for the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, she invited Spencer-Davies to Sweden for the launch. “Most of the time you have to blag your way into these events, even when your stuff is in there. It’s crazy,” he says.
He may not get much recognition from the public, but architects value Spencer-Davies’ talents enough to pay £25 000 for large models such as the ones in Venice. His first client was Alsop & Störmer, but the list now reads like a roll-call of signature architects, including Future Systems, Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones, Eva Jiricna, Matthew Priestman and Crispin Wride. His work is crucial to their chances of winning competitions. “A model is the most brilliant selling tool,” he says. “It makes the design instantly understandable and convincing.”
When big competitions come around, Clerkenwell-based A-Models often works on several entries simultaneously, toiling for 24 hours if necessary to meet the deadline. For the ongoing Oslo Opera House competition, for example, the firm made models for both Alsop & Störmer and Matthew Priestman. When such intensive labour can earn so little recognition, some might wonder whether the business is worth it. But, for Spencer-Davies, it’s the creativity of the process that counts. He gave up product design for Conran Design Group because it was not creative enough. “The final straw was drawing flowers on fondue sets. Because it is a real product, there is nothing of you in it,” he says. “With architecture, you have to interpret the design – everything you do is abstracted, the detail is simplified, the materials are different – and the final product is viewed as a beautiful model, a piece of sculpture in its own right.”
After leaving Conran, he trained with modelmaker Network for five years before joining architect YRM’s in-house workshop, which he bought out during the early 1990s recession. He now turns over £750 000 and employs eight people, nearly all modelmaking graduates with more than 10 years’ experience. They interpret the designs – “anything from full construction drawings to a sketch on the back of a card” – using materials such as Perspex, timber, metal, etched brass and steel wool for trees. They can spend anything from a couple of days on a £500 study model to a month on a £20 000 presentation model. Spencer-Davies says the working relationships with architects are happy if the modelmakers are given creative freedom.
“I get on very well with clients because I enjoy making fun models. We encourage them to be more daring, colourful, use a variety of materials.” His first client, Alsop & Störmer, remains a firm favourite. “Will gives us free rein over colour. He’ll say: ‘Make that as jazzy as you like,’ and he is one of the few people who would go ahead and build it.”
In general, he says, the best architects to work for are those who are confident without being control freaks, “the ones who don’t hesitate in making decisions and just say: ‘Change this, or change that.’ The worst kind are the ones who worry about what their boss might think and fuss over detail.”
A-Models does not advertise, relying instead on word of mouth. “Our business is blossoming by encouraging people to use models again. Before the recession, people had got used to spending thousands on models, but then they thought they could not afford them. Three-quarters of the models we make are between £2000 and £8000, little jewel-like ones.” In fact, Spencer-Davies has to cut short the interview to get cracking on one. “I saw Penoyre & Prasad today and they need a model by Thursday,” he says. Does he ever say it can’t be done? “Not often. It is not the money – I get tempted by nice projects.”