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City View House - London 2013. Photography by Pete Landers.
14th June 2017

Building Momentum: Q&A with Russian For Fish’s Pereen d’Avoine

Russian For Fish wasn’t supposed to last 11 months, let alone 11 years. Founded in 2006 by third-generation architect Pereen d’Avoine, then a student at UCL, the firm came into being purely as a means of getting around an architecture competition’s stringent entrance rules. Her plan was to close it straight after, but with Pereen’s plan to transform some disused Bermondsey toilets into a subterranean hammam, Russian For Fish only went and won. 

A little over a decade later and Pereen’s pet project (literally – as its name was partly inspired by her lifelong love of goldfish) has grown to become one of the most exciting small architecture firms in London. From a studio in Bethnal Green, Pereen and her co-director Nilesh Mahendra Shah mastermind the transformation of buildings across London and the south-east, taking on renovations, extensions and new builds for clients both commercial and residential – and raking in an award or two in the process.

Their talent, knowledge and ingenuity is largely responsible for their reputation for working miracles in compact spaces, but it’s the fact they’re genuinely wonderful people to talk to that’s earned them such tight client relationships – and made the entire Zetteler office fall a little bit in love.

We got the low-down from Pereen about her accidental company, Russian For Fish’s plans for the future, their sideline in ironmongery, and where that name came from…

How did Russian For Fish get started?
There was an International Ideas Competition as part of the London Biennale 2006, run by Southwark Council. The call was for ideas for the redevelopment of two public toilets on Tower Bridge Road. One of the toilets happened to be the site of my final diploma project – I had designed an underground hammam:  The Bermondsey Tea Set. Students were not allowed to enter the competition; it was for qualified architects only. To get around this I set up Russian For Fish with a friend who was qualified. The project was awarded first place! Despite having thought RFF would be set up only for that competition, after winning. I decided to try to establish it properly on my own – that is, until Nilesh and I started  working together.

Tell us the story behind the name – who came up with it?
I have always had goldfish, ever since I was small.  The ideas competition was anonymous, you had to have a symbol/image on your board/submission sheets. I took a picture of my goldfish (a fantail) in plan and used that. When trying to decide on the name of the company, we found out the Russian word for fish was pronounced ‘Riba’, which is the acronym used by the Royal Institute of British Architects.  We also thought it sounded like a band…

How does your partnership dynamic work? Shared vision? Complementary skills? Productive disagreement?
Nilesh worked with my partner at an architecture practice in Spitalfields. When he left, he joined me part-time for about six months.  After that he left to work in a much larger practice, but we always talked about him coming back when RFF got a little bigger… and he did! We have a shared vision of the work we hope to produce, but definitely have different skillsets, which is great. I like the interface with the clients, working out what their brief is, how they want to live in their homes and what they want it to look like. Nilesh is amazing at making it all buildable and beautifully detailed. 

What’s your dream project?
I have always wanted to have a live/work home, whether through designing/building it myself or through a renovation. It’s a long way off for me, but at the moment I am living vicariously through a client, who owns an engineering workshop with planning permission for change of use to live/work. We have been working on the scheme for a couple of years now and it was nominated for a London Architecture Award in 2015 as an unbuilt project. We’re hoping it will be on site next year! I’d also really like to do a small retail space/possibly a gallery?

Farm Shop Model - East Sussex 2014. Photography by Pete Landers.
Do you ever look back on your past work and think, ‘There are things we could have done differently here’?
No project or building is exactly the same so we are always learning.  We enjoy being playful with materials and, thankfully, to date it had always paid off.  With each completed project, we learn more about the pitfalls of construction – it is usually there that we say, ‘Hmm… next time we’ll play that one differently’! It is good though, we can warn clients where difficulties are likely to crop up.

Why do you think people come to you?
I think we have built a reputation on creating space from tight footprints, playing with materials, being respectful of client’s budgets and of working hard to achieve their goals.  We form super-close relationships with our clients and it is not unusual to talk to them every day when the project is on site.  At the end of a project it feels strange not to speak to them so often… but no news is good news!  If they aren’t in touch, nothing has gone wrong!

Describe your studio space…
Our studio space is snug, but the perfect fit for us. It is part of the Winkley Estate, a series of four yards in Bethnal Green. Durham Yard is the only non-residential live/work one left. We are in a ground-floor unit, with a shopfront onto the street.  There are eight architectural practices – including my dad’s – in Durham Yard, so it definitely feels like a hub. We know everyone!  There is a great courtyard, which is a real sun trap and every year we hold an open studio out there for the London Festival of Architecture.

The studio has a central table that we all work around – perfect as we are a super-collaborative office; everyone knows what’s going on and has an opinion.  It is teeming with materials samples and models.  We work a lot with physical models, we find it really helps to bring a project to life.

What do you like about living/working in your corner of London?
Until very recently I lived six minutes from the studio, which I loved. Nilesh lives fairly locally too, in Manor House. Bethnal Green is a great place to work; it’s vibrant and fun… and changing. Over recent years we have seen the spread from Shoreditch east and there is a fantastic mix of old and new on the high street, and in terms of the housing stock. There are great places to eat, where they don’t mind you having a working lunch and spreading out drawings ready for marking up.

It’s also lovely having Jesus Green, Weavers Fields and London Fields close at hand. Our projects are all over London, and sometimes further afield, so Bethnal Green is perfect… really well connected.

Which other architects or designers have most influenced you?
My dad has been a big influence, I love Eladio Dieste (awesome bricks), Studio Mumbai, Tham and Videgård, David Chipperfield has some pretty beautiful concrete… and I’m excited to see the hexagonal housing blocks going up in Hoxton. The Modern House is brilliant for looking at beautiful properties –I would kill to live on the Golden Lane Estate.  I have travelled in India a lot too, so think that has also had a great influence. Collectively, we also love Duggan Morris, Tony Fretton, and Caruso St John.
HCA - Surrey 2016. Photography by Pete Landers.
You also design ironmongery products – how did that come about?
Nilesh and I designed some door handles for a project that we never took to site. Someone suggested we talk to a manufacturer to see if they would license them. They were interested, but a year down the line not much had happened. We thought we might as well try to manufacture and sell them ourselves – that way we’d have complete control over everything.  We foolishly thought it would be quicker than a traditional architectural project. Ha! Turns out manufacturing takes ages.

It is a real release sometimes to design something that fits in your hand, and where we are the client.

Where are your products made?
Everything is produced in the UK. Several of the handles are extrusions and were produced in the Midlands and Wales. They are then finished by Yardley Bespoke in Essex.  We have a close relationship with Yardley, who often fabricate bespoke pieces for us and are always our first port of call when we are mulling over a new piece of ironmongery. The project displays were made by another collaborator of ours Gavin Coyle.

Do you have any other products in the pipeline?
We have been working up a sliding door lock and a magnet catch. We would quite like to do a lever handle and some hooks. I also have aspirations to design a hanging planter. I love high level plants – green ceilings!

If you weren’t working in architecture, what would you be doing?
My grandfather was an architect; my father is one – I think architecture is in my blood, so can honestly not imagine doing anything else.  Perhaps I would be a marine biologist. I wouldn’t mind interacting with something other than a goldfish…

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the last 11 years?
Be true to yourself.  If you do everything with integrity, even if it doesn’t go to plan, you can respect your decisions. And be kind to people. It goes a long way.

Farm Shop - East Sussex 2014. Photography by Pete Landers.
Sliding handles.
NW3 - London 2016. Photography by Pete Landers.
NW3 - London 2013. Photography by Pete Landers.
HCA - Surrey 2016. Photography by Pete Landers.

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