Rachel Withey & Sarah Dodsworth of Ekho Studio on triumph in the face of adversity, the importance of accessible art and why they don't do gimmicks.

Rachel Withey (L) and Sarah Dodsworth (R) of Ekho Studio

Ekho is an independent creative studio, founded and led by Rachel Withey & Sarah Dodsworth, and providing specialist interior design services.

Working closely and creatively with a network of partners, the team promises to approach projects "all ears" and with an open mind, applying "listening intelligence".

The business was started up during the pandemic - arguably one of the toughest environments in which to thrive. But despite the challenging conditions, Ekho has gone from strength-to-strength. Inspired by this, and the simply stunning schemes Rachel, Sarah and the team conjure up, we were keen to chat in more detail about the business journey, its creative driving forces and their take on industry trends.

Firstly, please introduce us to Ekho Studio

"Ekho Studio was set up by two interior designers, Rachel Withey and Sarah Dodsworth, with a raft of deep and broad design experience across multiple sectors. We’re based in the North of England but are already active on projects from London to Glasgow, so we’re very much more focused on where our clients and projects are rather than where we’re based!

"Ekho Studio is now 15 months old and represents a fresh force in design, looking to shape how people live, work and play for the better, based on the belief that design can completely transform people’s lives and environments, as well as influencing productivity and wellbeing, through good practice, research and innovation.

"Our ethos is all about listening intelligently and ensuring that what the practice hears finds an echo in the completed design. The company not only listens to clients, industry partners and its talented internal team, but to what the planet is saying too, ensuring our designs are truly responsive. We’re all about old-school good manners and an old-school work ethic, whilst at the same time seeking out the most innovative materials and the newest and best ways to be sustainable, as well as looking to integrate local art and culture into the heart of each unique scheme."

You started the business during the pandemic – how did it have an impact?

"The pandemic was a very clarifying time in many ways. Yes, it was really hard for all of us, at home and at work, but at the same time it also gave us the space and time to plan out what we wanted to be and wanted to achieve, which might have been much more difficult – impossible even – if life was as busy as normal.

"A big takeaway from this setting-up period was not to rush things. This has so far proved to be invaluable in that we took the time to set things up properly. We are also quite strategic and like a challenge. In many cases, we had to invest the time to educate ourselves by doing lots of research and inevitably making a few mistakes along the way, all as part of the learning process.

"One impact you might imagine the pandemic having was a difficulty getting work, but in fact, the opposite has been the case and we are already busier than we ever imagined!"

A completed project Ekho Studio are now progressing to a second phase

A completed project Ekho Studio are now progressing to a second phase

Adding layering using glazing, voiles and textured walls

Adding layering using glazing, voiles and textured walls

Meeting Area, Clerkenwell Furniture Showroom

Meeting Area, Clerkenwell Furniture Showroom

Furniture Showroom, Clerkenwell

Furniture Showroom, Clerkenwell

Sustainability appears to play a major role in your projects – is this a core focus for the business?

"We pride ourselves on our holistic approach to sustainably-conscious design and in ideas that are grounded in rationale and reasoning. This aligns with our wider ethos at Ekho Studio about how, put simply, we are not consciously trend-led, we don’t do gimmicks and we design work that is made to last. Our finished products aim to be environmentally light touch, with the avoidance of waste at the heart of what we do. Our spaces create an imprint that delivers quality and longevity, and as such are inherently sustainable.

Put simply, we are not consciously trend-led, we don’t do gimmicks and we design work that is made to last.

"We are in the process of developing our own Ekho Studio manifesto, which collates our guiding principles and values on this increasingly important topic. It’s important to note that whilst this covers our approach to designing sustainably for our clients, it also addresses how we operate as a business on a wider scale. We are keen to look after our people, and ensure that their wellbeing is considered with the importance it deserves.

"We are also exploring opportunities for how we can give back to our communities - every little bit really does make a difference. Our first of these sessions will take place on Flamborough Beach next month, when our team is taking part in a beach cleaning session - followed, of course, by fish and chips!"

You visited Milan Design Week – do you think trade shows are still as relevant in a post-pandemic world?

"We’d definitely have to say yes. There was a recurrent theme of reconnection at this year’s show, which resonated with us as we felt connected in the spirit of the moment.

"We found lots of inspiration from Milan this year, from the macro aspect of the scale of the event (which was almost overwhelming) to the city, the pavilions, the design of the stands and of course the products themselves. What made the trip particularly worthwhile was the combination of these elements. The whole event was an immersive experience with myriad impressions of texture, colour, sights, smells and sounds. How can this not awaken the senses and provide some inspiration for any designer?!"

Where else do you seek your inspiration?

"Travel seems an obvious answer, but it’s hard to beat. It’s not just about having time away from the day-to-day - most importantly from our screens – but about the chance travel offers to absorb and reflect. The open mind you take with you on your travels is as important as what you see and experience when you get there.

"Referencing the Milan trip again, we took a huge amount from the creative use of fairly standard and cost-effective materials that were explored and used in interesting applications in the construction of the trade stands.

"Across our team, and beyond design and architecture, we also have keen interests in food and cooking, textiles, fashion and music. When you look at the range of fashion brands that we follow through our Ekho Studio Instagram, it’s clear that these wider creative forms of expression influence our ideas, sometimes subliminally and sometimes more obviously."

AstraZeneca UK - Lockers and collaboration zone beyond, Level 9

AstraZeneca UK - Lockers and collaboration zone beyond, Level 9

AstraZeneca UK - View back towards restaurant counter from terrace

AstraZeneca UK - View back towards restaurant counter from terrace

AstraZeneca UK - Transitional 'plug and play' area, Level 9

AstraZeneca UK - Transitional 'plug and play' area, Level 9

Does Ekho have a signature style?

"Not consciously so. Our style of design is naturally influenced by our ethos and mission and around our approach to sustainability, materiality, art and wellbeing, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a particular style or look. Our work doesn’t need to shout, and we prefer that it’s hard to label or put into a box."

Have you seen a blurring of boundaries in the way commercial spaces are used?

"Yes, absolutely. This has been bubbling away for some time. We happen to thrive off this as we can tap into our team’s varied sector experiences and weave those elements together to make for rich and layered spaces.

"For our recently completed scheme for AstraZeneca, for example, our client had a vision for a ‘third space’ which, as they conceptualised it, was an environment sitting between a typical corporate office space and a boutique hotel. Our design scheme reflects the best learnings from each end of the spectrum, and the bespoke elements of the design (ceilings, joinery and furniture) really speak to that aspiration. The Standard Hotel over the road was a constant reference point too, sparking off conversations about possibilities and the desired style, vibe and atmosphere of the new workspace."

Any other industry trends you’re seeing?

"The ever-developing interest in artwork within interiors. We feel this is growing to incorporate more local artists across various scales and applications. We would say there's been an increase in appreciation for art and perhaps the meaning behind it, its cultural and social references, as well as its proven impact on wellbeing. We think this is a wider societal trend, which makes the use of art more accessible and experiential within our day-to-day spaces. Creative programmes in mainstream media also contribute to this, from Grayson Perry’s Art Club to The Great Pottery Throw Down."

What materials or products are you particularly excited about at the moment?

"One product that is coming to an Ekho Studio scheme near you soon is the Ketley Bricks range by Solus. We’re not sure this is entirely a new product, but it’s new to us and happens to link back to one of our designers’ (Kath’s) heritage link to the Potteries, being a Stoke girl. We also appreciate a truly timeless product which has great functionality - in this instance through its slip resistance, making it suitable for both indoor/outdoor use - and the natural playfulness of how you can affect the final colour just through the firing process.

"Another one on our hit list is Honext - we like its ability to be finished however you'd like, but there's something really satisfying about its raw finish too.

"We’re also enjoying exploring the possibilities of the Clayworks renders, another natural and UK sourced product, and have recently seen one of these being installed in our scheme at Globe Point.

"These finishes really sum up what we’re about at Ekho Studio, with our appreciation for craft and tradition, whilst innovating wherever we can, and with as light a touch on the environment as possible."

What are you working on right now?

"This summer, over the past couple of weeks, we’ve just started work on two large scale workplace schemes. They each involve a mix of traditional, serviced and co-working offices with fantastic building amenity offers. These are both sizable projects which are technically challenging and see us working within multidisciplinary teams. This calibre of project will not only keep us busy for the foreseeable future, but will allow opportunities for our team to grow again. We are also looking at a couple of BTR opportunities, a hotel project, several PBSA schemes and even some retail."

And what’s next?

"We don’t yet know for sure – and what’s more exciting than that?!"