When you walk through the doors of The Designers’ Studio, which sits at the end of the lush Courtyard in Al Quoz, it’s like walking into an urban oasis. From modern warehouse ceilings and the replica of the studio’s logo used for door handles to the monochrome color palette that enables the artwork of the students to stand out, The Designers’ Studio feels like the work-from-home office we wish we had.
After exploring The Designer’s Studio, we sast down with Clarke to talk about her passion: women. While she is a talented designer, incredible teacher, and an exceptionally good business woman, she has dedicated her career to creating a place where women can go to learn the tools of the trade, enter into a new career, and pursue their passions.
The studio is a haven for women, but more than that, it is a place where women are offered a second chance. Often, when a woman returns to the workforce after taking time off (to have children, let’s say), she is met with a frustrating, uphill climb no matter how talented she may be. Employers will not voice these opinions out loud. That would be sexist. Nevertheless, they are there – the pink elephant in the room when you turn up to an interview. “She will never be able to give 100%.” “She may get pregnant.” “She won’t be able to work late.” “Her job will never be a priority.” “She won’t work as hard as a man.”
These unspoken misconceptions may cause women give up. Clarke argues, you don’t have to. “You just need to be able to hold a pen and love design. That’s it. That’s literally it.” She gives her students the practical tools and education they need, and she does it with a time table that works for every need. When they walk into her studio, they find a community where they are welcomed, accepted – kids and all – and given the tools and education to leave as a marketable designer.
After we spoke with Clarke, we left inspired to take a course, learn something new, and most of all, we left believing we could do anything.
What does The Designers’ Studio offer?
Basically, we are an interior design and programming studio. We specialize in anything related to interior design. We recently started a new portfolio of courses, which have arts like resin painting, etc., but our main focus is on interior design.
What makes The Designers’ Studio special?
What’s special about us is that we offer short, flexible courses that work around people’s lives and schedules. I generally believe that the education system is for the young. As you get older and you have a life, kids, a job, or whatever it may be, there’s not much help out there to help you rescale that will fit around people’s lifestyles. This is where our core values lie. We believe that anyone should be able to learn at any age, and that shouldn’t be overly difficult. That’s why our courses are one morning a week over four weeks. You can come in and design your own house, or take up a hobby. You can do a couple courses, or you can take the full seven to complete the diploma which we do offer as well. Normally people that take the diploma do want to pursue a career.
The biggest thing about us and why people love coming back to us is that we have this whole community feel. That’s why the tutors mix around, the schedule changes every month. It’s not just set because again, everyone gets to know each other. Pre-COVID we used to have these big workshops and events for the students once a month. They could come in, we have a guest speaker, or someone from the industry, and they can all communicate and have a good time, and this is all free.
We also have an apprenticeship program where students can shadow and work with the tutors on real projects. I do ensure that all our tutors do work, because with this kind of industry, you can’t be stagnant. If you don’t do the apprenticeship program, at the end of each of our courses, you get to go offsite and into a showroom or workshop or interior design studio, and you talk to real people, talk about projects, ask questions. We have guest speakers within the courses as well, and we’re paired up with multiple companies.
What is the main goal of your studio?
My whole thing is that, if you want to get back into work, I want to help you get back into work. Unfortunately, with the way things are, as soon as you say, ‘I’ve had a break’ or ‘I’ve done a different career’ in front of an interviewer, you can immediately tell that look of, ‘Oh… ‘
It’s just biased. A lot of these people are women. It’s just really, really biased against women. I mean, my own sister, she’s 11 years older than me, and she’s a brilliant, brilliant woman. She used to work in banking. When she went back into banking, she basically had to start from the ground up again. Even just getting into the industry itself. I remember she was sending out CVs for about two years, but she was brilliant before she left to have kids and that’s the whole thing: getting back into it. I want to support these women because going out alone is much harder.
Would you say that the majority of your students are mothers who are trying to go back to school?
A lot of them are, yeah, and a lot of the people who come have no confidence at all. A lot of them are like, ‘Well, I haven’t worked and I’ll just kind of do this as a side thing.’ And so many people will convert to the diploma midway through after doing a couple of courses because they are like, ‘Wow, I can do this.’
I learned programming from an old architect man filled with engineers and it was awful. I genuinely used to go home and cry every day, so we make it a nurturing environment as well. The class sizes, even before COVID, were small and that’s just so we can keep an eye on you and watch you. And we actually know everyone by name. We have over 250 students per term, but everyone knows everyone. It’s a nurturing environment. We want to see you progress well.
If someone wanted to start taking classes would they have to have any prior experience?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A lot of people are afraid of that and that question comes up a lot. You just need to be able to hold a pen and love design. That’s it. That’s literally it.
If they want to complete the diploma and go into the workforce? How long would that take?
The shortest period of time we have seen is around five to six months. Otherwise, probably an academic year. I mean, a lot of people offer diplomas. They can come in for one week and then you go home and study for 36 weeks just to get the time written down. Then they get a diploma, but they don’t learn anything. That’s the whole difference. I’ll be giving you career-focused, real-world education. That’s why it’s different to any other studio. We have people coming in from universities coming to us being like, ‘I’ve got my degree, but I don’t know how to draw.’
I’ve had a poor girl actually break down in front of me. And she was like, ‘I didn’t learn anything. I don’t know what to do.’ We went through the basics of what she does know and I’d say, it wouldn’t even equate to a level one course. I don’t know what they learn. It was too much theory. It’s not a practicality. I do believe that theory is important, but you have to actually get out there, you know? You can’t theoretically do anything. You really have to have hands-on experience. And that’s why we add it in every year.
Tell me a bit about your background
My degree is in mathematics and management. I went to Nottingham University and did maths. I was dying to do arts or something in the arts. I think my dream was to go Central St. Martin’s to do literally anything. I used to paint in my spare time as a child. It’s a very strange childhood: go to the V&A, sit down, and sketch. I had thousands of sketchbooks. My mother actually was an interior designer, and my grandfather was an interior designer and an architect, so it’s third generation.
I grew up with that, but my dad, my sister, and my brother, they’re all very corporate. And I just… I cannot. Don’t get me wrong, they work very hard, but I hate that kind of environment. I just love [being] creative. This is why the community thing is really big for me. I love having people around and everyone supporting each other.
Then why did you choose to go into math?
I didn’t. My parents were like, ‘you know, you need something a bit more stable. Later on, maybe you can do something else. You you can always fall back on maths.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m very good at maths. Like weirdly, strangely, and I enjoy maths. But, it’s not the same as doing what I love. Anyway, I worked in a bank for a year or two, hated it, and one day I was just like, I’m done. I’m just completely done.
Then I decided to join design school. Obviously I didn’t have the prerequisites. I had to do this whole big summer thing to prove myself, sketchbooks, and god knows what else, and buff up on interior design a bit.
I did my Masters there and started working with David Linley in Chelsea for a bit. I always wanted to come out to Dubai, because my parents were in Dubai, and this is where my mom was working. I moved out here and worked within my mother’s company for a few years. We still have a factory and interior design company. I’m the director of that. We have the training center as well, so I decided to start training.
I was approached by a woman seven or eight years ago who asked, ‘Would you be interested in teaching?’ I said, ‘yeah, why not?’ To be honest, I was dealing with so many clients at that point, and I was heading up a massive team. We were growing a lot. I was tired. I felt like I was aging before my time.
So I was like, it’d be nice to teach part-time, work part-time, and do projects part time. And I fell in love with teaching because I love people. I created the courses myself, and they’re made user-friendly and easy. We have lots of videos to help people. I created my first course, and we just kind of went from there really. I created The Designers’ Studio two years ago.
250 students for a program at a studio that started two years ago is amazing!
Thank you! Yeah, I think because we genuinely care. That’s the biggest thing. All of the tutors I hire are the best people. We each have eight years experience in interior design and architecture. A lot of them are architects, and a lot of them are moms. I’m passionate about hiring women. I don’t care if you haven’t worked. I just care about what you can do.