The lovely people at HereEast recently did an interview with the founder of Bellerby & Co, Peter Bellerby.
Q: Your journey from idea to business seems to have been incredibly organic, how did you transition from making a globe in your home to running a studio?
A: I think to think big you need to be in the right environment and my living room was not the place, it also was really annoying my girlfriend as we were creating quite a lot of plaster dust. We physically needed more space and once we were ready to start doing the woodwork for the bases, working from home became impossible. I found a really well priced shop front off the main road in Stoke Newington and hired a woodturner and an artist to start illustrating the celestial globe. We moved from that shopfront to the warehouse we’re in now when we were commissioned to make a 127cm globe and the sphere would not fit through the doorway… so yes it was very organic and unplanned.
Q: What challenges have you faced?
A: In the beginning, the entire process was done using trial and error. I suppose what is most important is there were four or five eureka moments where things happened that were neither planned or expected and they allowed me to take great leaps forward in understanding and working out the process. Had they not happened I might not be making globes today.
Q: What’s the hardest part in the process?
A: Applying the map to the sphere. In effect, we wet paper and then stretch it, basically fighting the tendency of it to degrade, tear or turn to mush (papiermache). This took me eighteen months to work out and even now with training takes a new globe maker up to a year to learn the smallest globe, much longer for the larger ones.
Q: Before working on globes, you were running a bowling alley – how much knowledge or expertise did you have in this space before embarking on this journey? What made you think you could do it?
A: I’ve always been stubborn and liked to change jobs every few years. I’m a believer that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I don’t think you need formal training in many professions if you have a good head on your shoulders. Perhaps I was always just trying to find something that felt right.
I got involved in the Bowling Alley, which was really more of a nightclub, bar, restaurant, music venue than an actual Bowling Alley, because a very good friend of mine passed away, it was her idea and dream so I helped her partner set it up and get it running. It was never a plan or long-term career and the closest I had got to it previously was working the bar (a little worse for wear!) at my sister’s wedding. We had a lot of major bands hanging around doing intimate gigs at the time so it really was fun, but not my passion in life.
Q: Some of the best businesses start from a personal need that happens to tap into a wider one, this seems to be true in your case. What do you think it is about the handcrafted globe that appeals to so many of us?
A: Yes, it very much was a hobby that turned into a business. I think we unintentionally made (helped make) globes relevant again and in general artisan crafts have been gaining in popularity around the world. After years of people buying cheap throw-away items, they are now turning back to wanting something unique and well made by passionate people earning a living wage. Investing in a few really special items for their home that mean something to them rather than buying a lot of poorly made tat. I think a lot of people like to daydream about exploring the world and a globe is a constant reminder of where they are and where they want to be and what they are hoping to achieve in life.
Q: It’s such a specialist area you’re working in, how did you go about building the right team to support you?
A: Again it all grew organically and there was a bit of luck involved. No one has the perfect background for becoming a globe-maker so we had to find passionate, open-minded, stubborn and confident people that would start as apprentices and work until they had mastered the skills necessary.
Q: The focus of your work is the handmade and hand painted attention to detail and craft. But, technology must play a role – how do you work with technology to create your globes?
A: Technology comes to play with every map we make, most globes have customised cartography so I am constantly on my computer. I had to have a program made for me to morph the map into accurate gores and we mock up some of our base design / ideas on the computer as well. Besides that it is pretty much all about using your hands.
Q: What materials do you use to make your globes? How does that differ from traditional globe making materials?
A: Some of our materials don’t differ very much from traditional globe-makers, they were printing gores since the 15th century with a printing press, so the difference is using plates to print vs. printers, and the type of paper as they often used handmade paper which is more malleable. However, we have started to use more modern materials in order to give our globes greater durability and longevity.
Q: On the subject of durability, you’ve said your driver is that so many globes made in the past have fallen apart beyond repair due to the complicated nature of making globes, but you want yours to be around for centuries. Could you describe what makes the difference between your globes and others?
A: We build our globes incredibly robustly and use the finest materials available. If you look closely at other globes on the market, you will see overlapping gores (knocking out city names, making for messy coastlines), the lines won’t quite match up, there will be bubbles in the paper, rips and tears, because it is hard to do. You have to really understand the mathematics of globe making and how to manipulate wet paper to get things perfect. We also take our time and always seek to improve all aspects of our craft. Modern globes on the market also often come in flimsy bases which not only mean you can’t give the globe a proper spin but its axis won’t allow for it, that’s losing half the magic. For the older globes, it is simply that there wasn’t a realisation that the natural tannins and acids in natural products would in effect degrade the globe. Never forgetting that a globe might look simple, it’s a very complicated piece and so if things aren’t quite right then problems will occur.
Q: You began in 2008, when things like Google Earth were already established, but we’ve seen massive adoption and advances in digital mapping over the last few years. Have you adapted your techniques due to these advances?
A: We definitely use Google maps as one of several resources. For instance the Aral Sea has diminished rapidly, and this can be seen on GE. We were also lucky that a pilot customer sent an image so we were able to see it totally up to date. So yes, it’s definitely useful, but we’re creating a historical record and a snapshot in time, which is as important I think as constantly updating. I know GE have introduced a recent function allowing you to go back in time, and I think this was exactly for the reason that they were never putting down anchors or creating records.
Q: What are your thoughts on digital mapping vs handcrafted globes?
A: I use google maps every day, i don’t think one really relates to the other. You would never use a globe for directions and you’ll never use google earth to get the same feeling as holding a 3D globe in your hands and really understanding where you are in relation to the rest of the world. There’s no romance in digital mapping, I think a beautiful globe hits a person in their head and heart in a completely different place.
Q: There are obvious risks to this, but do you think you’ll ever have an open part to your workshop so members of the public can come and engage with the globes?
A: In our first studio, anyone could stop by anytime or watch us through the windows, that was fun but realistically we’re too busy now. With 94,000 followers on Instagram alone, we get asked daily and we just don’t have time to be good hosts. We’re a working studio, a busy working studio and we need to be able to move freely and interact with each other and fully concentrate in a serene environment to properly make things. For anyone, especially artists, having people constantly watching you work is never the ideal scenario, which I think most people understand.
We have open-house days and Instameets, on a Saturday when we don’t need to focus on the weekday priorities. Eventually, we’ll have a showroom or something separate from the working studio as we understand the importance of interacting with the globes, also I think they are much more beautiful in person than in photos. Currently, we have our desk globes atHarrods, which perhaps is not everyone’s ideal place to interact with our products but at least an option for someone in town who is planning a trip to the area anyway.
Q: What’s next for Bellerby & Co?
A: We have a very exciting collaboration with a wonderful Museum that we’ll be announcing soon, it will take up a fair bit of our extra time in 2016. We’re also liaising with a very famous fashion house to create some unique globes, as well as introducing several new designs. We want to be experimenting more but we are currently booked for the first half of 2016 for our larger globes, so we need to focus on fulfilling our orders while training our two apprentices so the team can grow and allow the more senior members like Jon the extra time to develop and expand our product range.
Q: Finally, a question for all our Maker Monday interviewees, what’s your favourite hack at the moment?
A: Festool equipment. It might sound a bit lame, but buying good tools saves so much time it almost feels like you are cheating!
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