Susan McMeekin Des RCA. FRSA.Today's interview is with an artist who has carved out a career spanning over forty years, designing remarkable pieces for Royalty, Heads of State and some of the wealthiest and most discerning clients in the world. Susan McMeekin has created the designs and prototypes for the most elaborate jewellery, furniture, clocks, table pieces and objets d'art, all in precious metals and for some of the most prestigious luxury international names in the world.

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.

Design for 18 carat gold and enamel dinner plate with rock crystal centre depicting enamel orchids of the world. Gouache on drafting film.

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.

Design for 18 carat gold cup and saucer depicting African animals. Gouache on drafting film.

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.

I then make a rough sketch, writing my remarks in the margin and begin to make a few detailed designs in gouache. Each design takes about four days to complete; the designs are then submitted to the client.

When you're designing pieces with moving parts (the mystery clocks, automata etc.) how aware are you of having to design around the physical limitations of the mechanism?

It needs to be kept at the front of your mind throughout. I work closely with the engineer or craftsman in order to factor in enough room for the mechanics. A clockwork mechanism will only lift a certain amount of weight, but if a piece is particularly heavy, weighing perhaps 1 kg, then a larger mechanism will be needed. There are vast differences in the design approach one takes for a small electronic device as opposed to a large mechanical device with many moving parts.

I get enormous pleasure from commissions that have a lot of complicated interlocking procedures – mystery clocks and mechanical pieces in particular. Mystery clocks are amazing pieces of mechanisation which are designed and constructed in such a way as to appear to run without gears or a power source. Many have the traditional look of a clock face, but with the numbers and hands housed within a transparent material, making it obvious that the gears and cogs are not there. Working with skilled craftsmen to bring all of the complexity together in an intricate and apparently simple piece gives me a great sense of achievement.

Design for rock crystal mystery clock. Supported by two diamond lyre birds with blue enamel wings. The base is made from lapis lazuli, 18-ct gold and coloured diamonds. Gouache on drafting film.

When you are designing to commission, how much of the design inspiration comes from the client?

Sometimes very little – it really depends who the client is. If I receive a call to design for a particular person, I am usually able to recall their past purchase history and instinctively know how to design for them. My design remit is usually free and I am trusted to design to the client’s taste.

Can you tell us about your current project?

I am currently working on designs for gold handbags and boxes. I have also had the recent challenge of designing a 3m x 3m screen in gold and semi-precious stones, which has involved producing half-sized design drawings in my workshop. I have found the sheer scale of this piece physically difficult!

Where do you find inspiration?

I am lucky to have been able to travel widely and can draw inspiration from the wide range of countries I visit, their traditions, their histories, colours and natural landscapes. I also draw inspiration from other artists such as Lalique and the flamboyant, colourful Gauguin.

What do you do to relax?

I love doing embroidery, as well as canoeing and white water-rafting -   I do everything dangerous now. I have been so timid all my life, not doing things - what's the point of holding back now?
I live in SW France for half of the year, where we have renovated an ancient 17th Century tower; I have become very good at plastering walls!

What are you plans for the future?

While I am still called on to design, I shall continue to follow my career. I enjoy my work and am lucky enough to be able to produce my designs from anywhere in the world.

Design for the year of the Chinese Ox stand and lampshade. The stand is approx 3’ high and is designed with 18 carat gold, diamonds, mother of pearl and obsidian. It supports a plique azure enamel, diamond and mother of pearl shade. Gouache on drafting film.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring designer?

Do not expect to achieve anything at the beginning. I have been fortunate to have a successful and long career doing what I love, but that has taken years……..
Have a long term goal, but be prepared to take a 'dog-leg' path to get there, slowly. Get as much practical experience as possible, although this may mean doing things that you are not too happy with.

Another important issue is client discretion, in order to cultivate one’s reputation and trust. It is so important in this trade, as you often cannot talk about the work you have done – and for whom – so you rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from other respected people in the trade.

Where can we see more 'Susan McMeekin' designs?

Most of my work is held in private collections and is not on public view. There was an exhibition held last year in Buckingham Palace which included one of my pieces and the V&A exhibits one of my rings which was bequeathed from a client. If you would like a visible example, I designed several items featured in the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’.

With thanks to Susan McMeekin

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