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Set Yourself Apart | An Interview with Tim Mutton

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Tim Mutton, CEO and founder of Blacksheep, found his true calling after being asked to leave school. He struggled academically and changed schools 10 different times in about 5 different countries. His interest for food & beverage design started when his uncle suggested him to work in a restaurant in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Working in a kitchen, as a dishwasher, Tim started living on his own. He was later promoted to work behind the bar, just before his 18th birthday. “I loved it! That was my theatre,” says Tim. Then, the season finished and he had to make a decision; it was time for Tim to go back to his education. He completed his degree in Interior Design at Middlesex University, for which he achieved a first honours.

“I always felt like a black sheep. It was too easy for people to put me down because I was different and I did not sit within the curriculum, within the box. I think a lot of people are black sheep and actually you need to celebrate who you are. It is about having courage, discovering and setting yourself apart.”

His first concept with design was formed when the teachers at the university put him aside and said, “You are playing the fool but if you focus, you could do quite well.” Having that encouragement, Tim never looked back. After graduation, he worked for big agencies in London and after a while, he established Blacksheep, an award-winning, international and independent design agency. He started his business in 2002, without a plan. MiND talked to Tim to learn more about his influences, insights and inspirations.

“I realized I was being taken advantage of and I think a lot of creative people are being taken advantage of. I decided that I can do things in a better way. I started running Blacksheep because I was frustrated and slightly angry.”

Thali Restaurants designed by Blacksheep

Photo by Mark Benham

What does Blacksheep stand for?

Blacksheep fundamentally stands for “transformational change”. I spent much of my early life trying to desperately fit in, thinking that to be popular, understood and to make everyone happy I had to be like everyone else. I eventually grasped that I was able to celebrate having a sense of self and being different was ok, so I then concentrated on honing these honest qualities and the world seemed a more exciting place.

As a creative design studio, Blacksheep takes this same approach. It is better that you understand your own values, qualities and assets as these are what will set you apart. Trying to copy the masses just maintains the status quo and who wants to live life like that!

Blacksheep’s purpose is to be modern day design disrupters that create the new normal. Our mantra is that sheep follow while Blacksheep leads.

Hyundai Card Cooking Library by Blacksheep

Photo by Kyungsub Shin

Delve, Dream, Draw, Deliver being your four-part working process. Can you tell us why these four stages are crucial to your studio?

Over fifteen years, Blacksheep have built on the four D’s process bringing surety and focus to both client partners and the studio. Blacksheep are a studio that takes you on a design journey— one of our key impressions is that we don’t have a house style or stylistic manifesto. Our philosophy is to really immerse ourselves in the brand and find the aspects that we can creatively enhance to communicate the brand’s message in a more powerful way.

Blacksheep uses design as a strategic tool to improve and enhance the whole guest experience. I’m a big believer in the good to great journey that the four D’s represent. We feel compelled to engage with people on an emotional level and we examine every aspect of the guest experience, which requires a diverse and multi-disciplinary set of designers from architecture, interiors, brand, digital and much more. Similarity is rejected as part of our process— we refuse to use the same design elements and look at taking a long-term sustainable approach which results in design schemes that wear in, not out.

Thali Restaurants designed by Blacksheep
Photo by Mark Benham

What is your vision for Blacksheep as its CEO and Leader?

Blacksheep is currently being restructured into a more agile studio to ensure greater collaboration, openness, curiosity and more positive contributions from the team.

My vision centres around three key objectives. The first and most immediate will be our studio moving into a new space in March next year. This new studio will allow us to enhance and develop our talent by having the key facilities and functions of a contemporary design studio including flexible working, improved design technology and a proper kitchen for us to entertain. I want the place to be really democratic so any traditional office elements such as a boardroom, fixed facilities or a library will be removed.

Once Blacksheep is settled in its new home, we plan to broaden our global design outreach as there are many global brands that we aspire to work with. Not only has Blacksheep developed a great skill in creating hospitality user experiences that harnesses the power of the brand, we have also understood how to help brands break into new markets and tailor their experiences to suit. I also like the idea of developing a greater cultural commercial understanding that can offer our team the ability to grow and take on new roles within the company in exciting new far flung places.

The third objective is the opportunity for Blacksheep to establish some B to C business opportunities with some product collaborations, so we can create, develop, own and run our own brand experiences and events. We have a never-ending list of ideas that we feel would work to challenge the current F&B/hospitality user-experience landscape.

Thali Restaurants designed by Blacksheep

Photo by Mark Benham

How do you think the interior design of a restaurant can influence the dining experience?

Blacksheep view the process of designing a restaurant with that akin to sending someone into space. It’s a highly engineered process that needs operational knowhow paired with a strong creative vision to ensure the experience is highly repeatable. It’s important that the interiors match the brand, locality, and reference sustainability and the overall business model.

"Lighting is also a critical element that can make or break the dining experience. Finally, it’s important to consider the menu as this can determine many factors including the size of the kitchen and number and configuration of the tables."

Which cities do you consider exceptional in terms of hospitality design?

I love London and consider myself fortunate to live and work in a city with such a wealth of international cuisines and outstanding designed spaces. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to some incredible places. Tbilisi in Georgia is a real gem of a city, somewhat unspoilt and with a very authentic feel. Beirut is where I had one of my all-time favourite restaurant experiences up in the mountains overlooking the city. In Seoul, I was introduced to Soju and Korean BBQ, an enjoyable and sociable experience. I enjoy NYC, but I’m also influenced by what happens on the West Coast due to its unique tech and entertainment work-play ecosystem. I would like to visit Iceland, Melbourne and Helsinki to experience their hospitality design scene.

Mökki Bakery designed by Blacksheep

Photo by Gareth Gardner

As a winner of the Wave of Future Award US 2012, which is considered a leading authority on the hospitality sector, how do you feel Blacksheep is responsible for the change in British hospitality design industry?

Back in 2012 we were creating bars and nightclubs and Inamo, the first interactive dining experience in London. We helped many UK restaurant brands kick-start the expansion of their casual dining F&B retail offers onto the British High Street and beyond. This began with our relationship with Jamie Oliver and the Jamie’s Italian brand. Blacksheep designed over 15 of their outlets and helped the brand evolve into Airports and international locations including Hong Kong, Dubai and Toronto.

I feel Blacksheep has developed a deeper understanding of venture capital-led restaurant investment. For Brasserie Blanc, Blacksheep designed the interiors, uniforms, menus, website and even food photography direction. Blacksheep then went on to working with Wagamama, where we applied the Kaizen innovation programme where we implemented a new working restaurant model then taking the brand to New York, ensuring that the brand could perform well in the US market. With Five Guys, we designed over 120 stores, from the UK to Europe and soon NYC. If you also include the work Blacksheep did with the Be at One and Brew Dog brands, I don’t think there is any other design studio that changed the F&B landscape that had such an impact on the British High Street as much as Blacksheep has.

Hyundai Card Cooking Library by Blacksheep
Photo by Kyungsub Shin

Everyone is talking about “the death of physical stores” with the major shift to online. How does it affect Blacksheep’s approach to store design?

I feel the death of the brick and mortar affects us however Blacksheep embraces the disruption that we see at the moment. From the number of physical stores disappearing we see many in the pure-retail sector which I have to be honest we may mourn the loss of but never found ourselves using. As in the UK and elsewhere the greatest reason we see the death of the department store and these other retail outlets is what we see as the Kodak phenomenon.

As a company, Kodak were unable to innovate while the answers presented themselves already. Kodak had developed digital photography but kept to its pre-disposed business model of selling film and photography paper. I feel that the eat and drink market is about to go through similar radical change as we see the rise of dark kitchens and direct to door delivery. Five years ago, I remember asking a leading restaurant CEO where he saw the greatest threat to restaurants came from. He said the greatest threat would be will be when people can cook better than us at home.

"At Blacksheep we are in the entertainment business so it’s down to us to create experiences where people are willing to leave their homes to feel connected and be entertained. The difference is that physical stores of the future will need to offer so much more, just as digital photography did from analogue film. As Elon Musk recently said the dinosaurs became extinct as they lacked a plausible exit plan."

Hyundai Card Cooking Library by Blacksheep

Photo by Kyungsub Shin

Is there a specific project that you are most proud of?

All the projects have different personalities so it’s hard to choose, but from the most recent projects, it would probably be Hyundai Cooking Library in Seoul. When I describe project personality it comes from the whole process of undertaking the commission. The aspect I really enjoyed and found most challenging of Hyundai Cooking Library was the business dynamic, which is nothing like we have in the West. It took us two years to create, curate and complete the project and I learnt an extraordinary amount working closely with Ted Chung (CEO Hyundai Card) and his team. Ted is an incredible leader and has an extraordinary eye for detail. I would have to say it was an all-time favourite lifetime affirmative moment as a designer and the founder of Blacksheep.

What piece of advice would you give to new generation of designers?

You must enjoy what you do and be a realistic optimist with true passion and ambition. I feel it’s important that designers immerse themselves in the commercial side of the practice to be good allrounders. Stay curious, be a positive team player, generous, open and entrepreneurial. Travel extensively, work for people you admire and that will mentor you. Don’t just portfolio-build or agency- collect as its not attractive. Have determination and personal resistance as projects don’t get realised in a month. Learn your craft, understand your strengths, work on your weaknesses every day, fail fast and learn to deal with criticism, as it’s the only way to grow and learn. Always network and make new friends. Read, watch and explore. Learn digital skills as buildings of the future will be constructed by robots so coding may be a mandatory design tool of the future. Don’t allow yourself to get stressed or over anxious as it kills creativity and your ability to see the world in a positive light.

"Stay open, invest in, love yourself and most importantly other people."

Quattropasi al Pescatore designed by Blacksheep

Photo by Kate Berry

What are the challenges of your work and how do you deal with them?

I always enjoy challenges. I do not think having an easy life is something I am particularly used to. Even since when I was a kid, I was also used to change, because we were always moving. I think there is something that is certainly within me that I always looking for a certain level of consistency but as a designer you always have to stay ahead. If you do not continue to innovate then you become tired and you become yesterday.

Today, everything is so face-paced. Just look how the product is being produced within technology. You just have to adapt. That does not come with comfort. Unfortunately life is not comfortable, if I wanted to be comfortable, I would be doing a different thing. I am quite connected to nature. I love climbing and being on the sea and I have that balance that is very important to me. We all need to be attributed to creating that dynamism. We are ahead of the curve, not behind the curve.

Loacker Cafe & Pastry shop designed by Blacksheep

Photo by Oli Douglas

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I walk across three things. My number one is people. I am always inspired by people being absolutely anyone. I am always inspired by just conversations and having the time for people to listening to their stories. I am absolutely and obbessively interested in people. I remember when I was a kid working behind the bar I used to watch people and it was better than visiting an art gallery for me. My number two and three are products and place. I love eating and drinking so the quality of taste experiences is very important to me. And sense of place! I love traveling. So I would say people, products and place!

Tell us about the projects that you are currently working on.

Blacksheep has a host of great projects including two destination boutique hotels. One is located in Krakow, Poland in an old hospital, which in turn became an old apartment building. The key feature of the space is a triple height dome in an old chapel, where we are locating the main bar and lounge. The second is a hotel and resort in the Kakheti region of Georgia linked to wine-making. Blacksheep will also launch the first Cinema boutique brand with the National Kuwait Cinema Company in April next year. This is a really exciting project as Blacksheep have developed the brand name, collateral, F&B strategy, screening rooms and a radical new restaurant experience for the Kuwaiti market.

Hyundai Card Cooking Library by Blacksheep
Photo by Kyungsub Shin

Blacksheep is also involved with an independent pizza brand in France, Peninsular Hotels in Tokyo and an exciting opportunity with Nobu Matsuhisa in the Cala Di Volpe Hotel and Resort in Sardinia, in the exact space that staged the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, a movie which transfixed me as a kid. It doesn’t get much better than that!

By Merve Durmus