Amazing Spaces architectural designer William Hardie explains to Rebecca Pitcairn why nature, play and the Sussex landscape form such an important part of his builds
William Hardie is a man of many talents. Before making a name for himself as George Clarke’s sidekick on Channel 4’s Amazing Spaces, the Lewes architectural designer had a varied career journey, which has seen him study spiritual psychology in California and bookbinding in Barcelona.
However, the 44-year-old father-of-two is a Sussex boy through and through. Growing up in Westbourne, on the outskirts of Chichester, when he wasn’t exploring the surrounding countryside, he was busy making things from an early age. “I was obsessed with making plastic kit models. I’d sit at my desk for hours and hours but, quite quickly, evolved into wanting to build these dioramas,” he remembers.
Being creative came naturally to William, who studied art, design and theatre at A-level (he attended the prestigious Bedales School across the border in Petersfield, where his mum was a house mistress), followed by an art foundation in Wimbledon. However, an ‘existential crisis’ in his early 20s led him to America to study spiritual psychology.
“I wanted to change the world through psychology and ecology and start revolutions,” explains William, adding that the need to make and create three-dimensional things wouldn’t leave him. “I needed to reconnect with designing so ended up in Barcelona studying bookbinding. I think books are really precious, they’re almost spiritual, and I was interested in the engineering of them.”
It was here that he met his wife, Miriam, whom he has now been married to for 20 years, and lured her back to Sussex, where he began work as an assistant to celebrated Trotton wood sculptor and furniture maker, Alison Crowther. “I have Alison to thank for my introduction to green oak,” says William who went on to become an oak timber framer and got his ‘big break’ working alongside Somerset-based Arne Maynard Garden Design, creating a bespoke garden playground for the royal family of Jordan.
“It was a fusion between art, design, sculpture, engineering, fun, playfulness, exploration and a little bit of history,” he says of the ground-breaking 2004 project. “It was where I forged my work in practice and drew together all these disparate parts. Up until then I was walking a narrative that didn’t make all that sense, but that’s when it started to all come together.”
It was after William had set up his own design practice in Lewes, now called Studio Hardie, that a chance meeting and recommendation from a local business led him to make his TV presenting debut on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces.
“The idea for Amazing Spaces was influenced by a book called My Cool Treehouse – somebody high up at Channel 4 received the book for Christmas and thought going around looking at interesting micro-builds would make an incredible series,” William explains. “They happened to be in Lewes, in The Vintage Shirt Company [now Darcy Clothing], when the new show came up in conversation and they asked, with Lewes being full of eccentric, creative people, if the owner knew of anyone who made weird, off-beat unique structures and she told them to come and speak to me. They came and filmed me, did some test runs to check I could just about string together a sentence on camera, and then they commissioned me to get involved.”
Amazing Spaces, which started in 2012 and is now in its 11th series, explores the extraordinary world of small builds, where people turn tiny spaces into the most incredible places to live, work and play, and William was drafted in to create a project to break up the show. And while he and George hadn’t previously met, they instantly hit it off.
“The first time I met George was on set for that first show, in Maidenhead, just before the camera rolled. George game me a few tips and off we went,” explains William, who has delivered a number of Sussex-based projects for the programme including The Treehouse at Blackberry Wood near Ditchling, Cabin in the Woods at Dernwood Farm in Heathfield and the famous ARH Mk1 rotating home, which was built in Lewes before being transported to Pinewood Studios for its unveiling in 2016.
Since then the pair have become the best of friends and, from The Alps to Texas and from Iceland to Italy, have travelled the globe together in search of some of the quirkiest architectural spaces.
“Gradually what we realised was that we had this sort of magic. Most of the time we’re just creased over in hysterics,” says William. “The director and production team are often left twiddling their thumbs waiting for us to stop laughing. George and I are unbelievably different, but we’re great friends.”
It’s a partnership that has seen them work on other projects together including George Clarke’s Alaskan Adventure, broadcast at the end of 2022, and Shed of the Year. “Shed of the Year was so bonkers. It was quite a low budget programme, but gained this cult following,” William recalls. “What people created in their back gardens was just astonishing – you might find the entire interior of the Titanic in someone’s garage or a ski chalet on a council estate in Bolton. It just celebrated that incredible British eccentricity and ingenuity. It was really fun to film because you’d just meet such wonderful characters.
“Both Amazing Spaces and Shed of the Year are about people doing the most wonderful creative and inventive projects on really low budgets – it’s blood, sweat, tears and passion and that’s why I think it captures the hearts of people,” adds William, who for the first time in its 11-year history bowed out of this year’s series of Amazing Spaces to focus on delivering work for Studio Hardie.
Over the years that work has included designing playgrounds for trust and heritage sites across the country, including Arundel Wild Wetland and Battle Abbey in Sussex. “Play has always been our mainstay. It’s usually for the heritage sector and they have a duty to tell a story and have really strict planning consideration, it has to add and not take away from the sites, so it gives you the opportunity to go a bit deeper and get philosophical about the play,” says William, who is father to two boys, Pau, 13 and Sergi, 11, and believes all children should get the freedom he did as a child to explore their creativity.
“I grew up in an age where you did woodwork at school and were given access to tools from quite an early age, but now the budgets and emphasis and time given to art, design and creative arts has been greatly reduced,” he laments. “One of my big passions is learning through application – I think it’s utterly essential. I think, particularly in this day and age, that there is nothing more rewarding than sitting back and saying, I made that. There was nothing and now there’s a something.”
While play and exploration are of huge influence to the ‘wacky and adventurous’ projects William likes to get involved with, the craftsman, who sits on the South Downs Design View panel, says the surrounding landscape is also a constant source of inspiration.
“Nature knows how to do beauty really well. Even if it’s not obvious, it’s the source that I go to,” he explains. “If I’m trying to find the right shape or form for something, the inspiration will always come from a leaf or a snail shell or something from nature.
“And what’s so special about our landscape here in East Sussex is that it’s so micro – you can go 200 metres in one direction and you’re in a completely different environment. You’re incredibly well connected here, yet there are still secrets, you still feel you can hide away from the traffic and get lost – sometimes it’s nice to just get lost.”
THREE OF THE BEST… William Hardie on his favourite Sussex spots
- We’re so blessed living in Lewes, I can see the Downs from our house and we’re not far from the sea either. There’s a plethora of different journeys we can go on just by stepping out the door.
- I sail a lot, either at Seaford or at Piddinghoe Lake. I enjoy getting out in the dinghy in high winds, it really clears my head. I also like kayaking on the River Ouse and camping with the kids around Barcombe.
- Where I grew up, around Stoughton and the Mardens, South Harting and Compton, is somewhere that I love. My whole childhood was spent being dragged on walks around there and it paid off.