Friedrich Ludewig of Acme wants a space where you can be immersed in materials


Located on Tabernacle Street in Shoreditch, just to the north of the City of London, Acme’s offices take up two floors at one end of a building that is largely devoted to storing decades-worth of unsold children’s clothes for a fashion retailer. The practice has been in the building for five years. There are some 65 staff here and another ten in the Berlin office.

You step from the street into the kitchen, a communal space where staff eat, a serving bar running along one side. It’s lit by scaled-down versions of the lighting developed for Victoria Gate in Leeds. A freestanding unit in the centre is stocked with recently published books and magazines, including art exhibition catalogues, its shelves replenished by director Friedrich Ludewig every few weeks.

There’s one corner upstairs which was meant to be the materials library but then it went out of control”

Full-length curtains elegantly part the floor into separate areas: meeting room, library and offices. Glass display cases of the kind once commonly found in haberdashers’ shops contain small protoypes and models. The main architects’ studio occupies the first floor, accessed by a specially-designed self-supporting stair. Also upstairs are areas of shelved materials, concealed behind further curtains.

Do you have a materials library as such?

There’s one corner upstairs which was meant to be the materials library but then it went out of control, so now it’s behind three separate areas; one is soft furnishings and interiors, another is concrete, stone and glass – hard architectural finishes.

We’ve done the minimum of fit-out because we’re used to squatting in slightly more temporary offices. The fit-out was inspired by that experience, of possibly having to move out in four weeks’ time, and that’s where the curtains come from because they’re a cost-efficient, fast way to make something look okay.

In this country magnolia is the cheapest colour in paint and in fabric, so you can buy it for only 50p a metre. We had to improve it for fire performance. It hides a lot of things and you can avoid co-ordinating.

Once we get a bit more space we want to do a room slightly smaller than this one, where you can stand between materials without moving a curtain. We did this previously for books, with two close rows of Billy bookcases, floor to ceiling, and put curtains around it. You could nose in books one way, and then the other way, so you had an intense book world.

In the new space we would do something similar but just with materials. At the moment where you have to move curtains, people just don’t do it. It’s too much effort to put your nose into the material library. And some of the materials are a bit ugly; it doesn’t look as amazing as one would like. The next plan is to have a world where you can immerse yourself in materials, and then step out of the curtains again.

you want someone who can say ‘that’s quite cool, and that’s not, that’s average’ – that sense of curation”

What do you mean when you say that the library went out of control?

There is a small team in charge of it, and they keep shouting at everyone, saying why did you just dump this big pile of glass or timber just on the floor. The problem is also weight, we need to find a way of storing glass and concrete samples where you can pull them out and look at them because they are a bit heavy and the corners are quite sharp… like you have in archive systems.

You get a lot of crap material, ideally you have somebody who cares about that. When you get a supplier who comes in and gives you all the materials they can offer, you want someone who can say ‘that’s quite cool, and that’s not, that’s average’ – that sense of curation. That’s why it’s a bit out of control, because the curation element is not as good as I’d like.


A smaller edition of the pendant light designed for Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds

Do the contents get reviewed every now and then?

Roughly every two years we ask ‘does anyone remember why we have this, does anyone really like this?’.

How do you research materials?

We probably start not in the office, but on the site. For example you go to Leeds and you realise that faience was a big thing. Burmantofts was a major faience manufacturer from the late-nineteenth century on and they made a product called Marmo which was to outcompete stone. Buildings such as the Trocadero, they look like stone, but they’re just off-cream Marmo faience from Leeds. There’s loads of it in Leeds, so you start thinking it would be interesting to do something that plays with that history of terracotta manufacturing.

We started off by visiting factories to see if they could do something interesting in terracotta, in the same way that Leeds was innovative in inventing stuff that didn’t necessarily look like terracotta. Out of that, over a period of two years, we developed our facade materials.

The terracotta samples which are now upstairs are more of a curiosity cabinet of stuff that we sweet-talked people into giving us. But they’re not necessarily of use for the next project. The materials library in that sense isn’t an easy research tool, because ideally you wouldn’t reuse something in a different city for a different project, you’d find your own new interpretation.

Might somebody be inspired by something they found in there, to take them down a different route to do with something else?

Yes, that’s why we never throw anything away if we think it’s beautiful and interesting, even if we don’t yet have a use for it. The only stuff we throw away is just boring, it doesn’t feel like anything.

Green precast concrete tiles for a chain of supermarkets

“This a hand-polished concrete, produced by the Chinese for a supermarket that has a green farm on top. We are working on the first of a new series of stores. We wanted to do something where 50 per cent is repeated all the time, on each store, but something is specific to each place. The first site was once that of an established precast concrete manufacturer, with a history of 100 years of production.”


Hexagonal tile with metallic glaze, for the facade of the John Lewis store in Leeds

“We made a piece of terracotta that can sit in those elements where they don’t want windows. If you design a hexagon and you follow a couple of simple rules: you do corners down, and mid-points up, you have something that you can rotate into one of six different positions and it will kind of look like something that is continuous. There are four different panels, one type for each façade: glazed,simple, hangable, fixable.

We spent three-and-a-half years trying to find someone who could produce a metallic-glazed terracotta that can be used outside, without oxidising. NBK had produced a gold-plated tile for a project in Russia…

Eventually NBK made the tiles, because they had enough capacity – the tiles had to be hand-pressed rather than extruded. We found TeamWork in Italy, who didn’t have the capacity to make the tiles, but do have a secret process for making the glaze. This one is a reject. It’s a little more gold than we desired but will probably dull a bit over time. ”

Trial samples developed for an anchor department store in Chester’s Northgate development

“Chester has a terracotta language, an interesting range of brick tones from very orange to red, and a lot of black and white architecture which is largely late Victorian and has no historic precedent there, but has become very much associated with the city. What is the way to do black and white that appeals to people in Chester without it being another neo-mock-Tudor?

We thought that it would be fun if you could work with concrete, in a way that gives you black and white in the same material. We had tested using Techrete in Leeds, how a different sand, a different cement and a different aggregate colour gives a certain complexity that isn’t associated with concrete.”

“We worked with a simple grey cement, a very fine black aggregate and a large black aggregate, so when you cast this it’s just grey, but as soon as you polish it you find black. Then we tried it with very fine black stone, but changed the bigger ones to white, to get a version that is black and white. Black cement and white aggregate. When you put it in a flat bed polisher and take off 3mm, you get a strong contrast. It’s quite an affordable process if you are only polishing one face.

Then the client thought it was too loud, so it was changed to a sandstone aggregate, taking the two colours of sandstone used for the Town Hall.”

Self-supporting staircase leading to the office’s first floor (ph: Ed Reeve)

The project was a way to understand better how CLT works and how it can be used in a sculptural manner. The mirrors, used to create a visual connection between upstairs and downstairs, were inspired by the mirrored stairway that links Coco Chanel’s salon and apartment at 31 rue Cambon in Paris.

Sample panel for exposed residential facades on Folkestone’s seafront

“Folkestone is a coastal town which has a Regency element and a lot of 1960s, 70s, 80s pebbledash, not particularly appreciated as a finish. We were keen to do a twenty-first century pebbledash and we thought of glass, which you find on the beach, and which ends up smoothed after a couple of years. You can buy recycled glass which is super cheap.

It’s slightly tumbled, to take away its sharpness. We’ve had to add some pebbles to ensure a proper adhesion with the cement bed. It’s still interesting in the sunshine. We built a one-to-one sample on site and let it weather over 18 months, to see if it actually does the job of looking a little bit magical on the beach.”

Keyed snap header developed with Ketley Brick for precast facade panels at Victoria Gate in Leeds

“This talks to a context of highly-crafted brick and terracotta while being on a budget. We thought it would be lovely if we could have 450mm of light and shadow in a brick façade, such as can be achieved by pushing a brick bond in and out. We talked to Thorp, the precast contractor, and to Ketley Brick. We needed a brick that could cope with having water on its upper surface, so you need a denser brick than usual, more like a paver.

Ketley suggested weakening the brick, not so much that it would disintegrate, but could be fired successfully and broken after firing. The extruded void produces a negative return that concrete can embed with on two sides. It makes three-dimensionality possible. There are four thickness of brick, modularised into a series of elements that can be repeated. The bricks were placed face down in a mould containing a negative of the facade pattern, and the concrete poured on top.”