Michelle Nicholls, principal at Jump Studios, on her career and influences
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Michelle Nicholls is a principal at architecture and design practice Jump Studios, having worked there since moving to London a decade ago. Yet Nicholls has hardly stood still despite this relatively long stint in one place; her work is never dull, she explains, with constant switches of scale, speed and budget to keep her on her toes. She might go from designing a closet for Nike – ‘but a very cool closet’, she says – straight to the concept behind the hospitality spaces for the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, an enormous project that included creating Europe’s longest bar, an extensive ‘Market Place’ of food and drink outlets, three ‘pubs’ and a microbrewery for local company Beavertown.
Jump Studios was acquired by Populous in 2015, with the stadium as the first project they worked on together. Yet while some things have changed – such as the scale of the projects – Nicholls explains that the mix of work has remained, allowing Jump to keep its identity while becoming a Populous company. She describes the last five years as a ‘constant learning experience… a constant challenge really’, but enjoys the ever-changing nature of the job.
She explains she likes retail for the pace, and hospitality for ‘the ability to show off a little bit’, while also relishing the challenge of translating a company’s identity into a workspace – for example, in one of Jump’s projects for Google. ‘It’s about identifying what makes them unique… how can you relay the mood of who they are and what’s important to them, with subtle moves or,’ she laughs, ‘sometimes bold moves, depending on who it is.’
A recent retail project of which Nicholls is proud is a staff restaurant for Fortnum & Mason. As she explains, ‘It was an amazing project because the before and after was quite impressive. It was a staff campaign; what they had before was quite sad and drab, and they wanted us to create a space that offered their employees a similar experience as what they were asking their employees to offer their guests and their customers.’ While providing a space for informal dining, relaxing, meeting and working, visually it took its cues from the signature ‘Eau-de-Nil’ colour of the brand, using durable materials including wood, metal, leather and porcelain tiles, with hand-painted finishes that can easily be repaired on-site.
London’s Ministry of Sound club was completely redesigned by Nicholls and her team. Image Credit: GARETH GARDNER
Growing up in Texas, Nicholls’s introduction to creative pursuits was fairly normal: her father was a DIY enthusiast and her mother had an aptitude for craft. She admits the constant desire to rearrange her room – complete with meticulous to-scale floor plans and furniture measured out on graph paper – might have been a giveaway as to her future career. Yet Nicholls feels she has benefitted from opting for a more open arts education and not settling in too early. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Houston, where the curriculum included pottery, graphic design and much more, with architecture as her minor.
After graduating, Nicholls worked in interior design for a while at HOK in Houston, before deciding to study architecture further. Again, she went for the more open choice, picking Pratt Institute in New York over the Illinois Institute of Technology – the latter being more ‘architecture, architecture’, Nicholls explains.
The people she finds inspirational include Dieter Rams, Patricia Urquiola, David Byrne, Donald Judd, James Turrell and Phillip Glass. Speaking of Glass, she describes his work scoring the Qatsi trilogy of films by Godfrey Reggio as ‘such a perfect pairing between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing. It’s like he’s taking music to a new level.’ She also lists the Obamas: ‘I think that they are such a power couple and an inspiration to people globally, they make such a big difference it’s really just their values that… matter, and just seep out from them. It’s necessary in today’s American climate at least.’
Nicholls believes that growing as an individual means ‘exposing oneself to new and different experiences and cultures’, and was the reason for the initial move to New York to study, away from her native Texas. Some of Nicholls’s lasting cultural influences were the product of her environment: she describes a period after grad school when she was more influenced by digital technology and from moving to England where ‘being exposed to British culture and traditions and heritage has influenced the way that I might approach a design, or detail a piece of joinery for example.’
Reflecting on her career to date, Nicholls says, ‘It’s never linear you know, I’m just sort of jumping around,’ though she adds, laughing, ‘when I worked in Houston I worked at HOK, which used to be the owner of Populous, so it’s almost like I came full circle.’
Google’s campus in Madrid, renovated from a 19th century battery factory by Jump Studios. Image Credit: GARETH GARDNER
Although the company has grown, Jump still has the chance to collaborate with connections from its earlier days, while – coming full circle again – an upcoming project for a street food market in Manchester’s Barbirolli Square is linked to the client for the project Nicholls was initially hired for at Jump.
The next roster of projects is still confidential at the time of writing, but luckily for Nicholls, there will continue to be the mix of scale, typology and location that keep her and her Jump team motivated and challenged to produce the innovative work they are known for.