Shape shifters: the dramatic barn that’s a live-work space for two sculptors

The Matt Black Barn is a “forklift-friendly” live-work space belonging to the renowned British sculptors, Laura Ford and Andrew Sabin. It sits between the villages of Emsworth and Bosham, just north of Chichester harbour. “To the south are trees, a field or two and then the sea,” explains Sabin. “To the north, some fields and then the South Downs.” It is a world apart from their previous live-work space – a converted pianola factory in Kentish Town, London.

Before the Matt Black Barn, there was (and still is) the Brown Barn – a beaten-up, 6,000sqft industrial barn that the couple bought in 2014. It served as a vast storage space for their collected works and was conveniently located between their London home and their family-owned holiday home in Selsey. “We just really started to enjoy working there,” recalls Ford. “We worked there more and more in the summer months, and found that it gave us a lot more freedom. We also just enjoyed the bits between work – having a cup of tea outside and looking at the birds. It was this completely different atmosphere.”

A year later, the freeholder decided to sell the two adjoining mechanics’ workshops, giving Ford and Sabin the opportunity to permanently relocate. After a lengthy planning battle, the couple sold their London property, razed the two workshops and began work on a new live-work space with the local architect, Roger Lilley. As they were doing so, the remainder of the site – a historic lake and 14 acres of land – came on to the market. “We are accidental estate owners now,” says Sabin.

The foundations had just been freshly laid when the pandemic struck. “We were about to put up the steel frame when the site effectively closed,” recalls Sabin. An experienced metalworker, he had constructed the frame with a friend in the Brown Barn. With a crane and a forklift truck, he decided to carry on alone. “It was beautiful weather,” he recalls, “and strangely quite serene.” For Sabin, the conditions were ideal: “No one was watching.”

The Matt Black Barn is a minimal two-storey building on an industrial scale. On the ground floor is a gallery space with views out across the beginnings of an informal sculpture garden. (The couple plan to open the gallery for occasional educational visits, open days and events.) Behind this is their “messy studio” – a hangar-like place for work in progress and archival material. The studio is lit by high clerestory windows. Ford explains their significance: “When Andrew and I met many, many years ago, we were both on an MA at the Chelsea College of Arts. We were based in a building on Manresa Road that was designed especially for sculptors. It had these high windows that gave you natural light without taking up too much wall space.” The old college building has since been demolished and Sabin has created a memorial sculpture in its place.

At the side of the barn, a flight of steel steps ascends to the first-floor living space. While industrial in scale, there is a softness to the space, which has been organised by the thoughtful placement of bespoke joinery made by the furniture and kitchen designers Uncommon Projects. A free-standing, oak-veneered cabinet creates a screen between the front door and the living area, making the space feel more enclosed and intimate. The double-sided shelves have been designed specifically to display the couple’s smaller sculptures, while black sliding doors allow them to change the display and conceal the television.

Sabin also worked with Uncommon Projects to create the 5m kitchen island, designing and welding the red steel frame before craning it into position during the build. It was then fitted with a concrete worktop and drawers. Behind, bespoke cabinetry conceals kitchen appliances while also acting as another display shelf for the couples’ smaller artworks.

“When you’re making work in the studio, it’s good to bring it up and live with it for a while,” explains Ford. “Then you can slowly get to know what’s right or wrong about it.”

A glazed courtyard garden featuring one of Sabin’s sculptures encourages light into the centre of the upper floor. It also separates the living area from Ford’s open-plan yoga studio and the bedrooms beyond.

In the master bedroom, a luxurious ensuite bathroom is arranged behind a half-wall and a bold, geometric tiled floor unifies the space. “We visited India years ago and loved seeing everybody washing out their houses with a hose pipe,” Ford recalls. “I kind of wanted a bit of that here. Besides, these are the kind of shoes we have to deal with here…” We peer down at Sabin’s dust-coated, steel-toe-cap boots.

Beyond the yoga studio is Ford’s first-floor drawing studio. The plywood ceiling that demarcates the domestic space is stripped back to reveal industrial corrugated steel. To the left is a huge floor-to-ceiling window that was designed to enable a forklift truck to manoeuvre awkward objects from the outside world in, and vice versa. Ford describes the space as “a whole other world” – albeit one she can still enter in her slippers and pyjamas at the end of the day.

The Brown Barn, “messy studio” and drawing studio are all places in which this tirelessly creative couple can make and store their work. But there is, Sabin explains, a fourth workspace: the paved area between the barns, where concrete is mixed and sculptures are rotated, examined, washed or ground down. Here, Sabin is experimenting with a new series of water sculptures that make use of the rain runoff stored in the drainage swales beneath the car park.

The location and building are inspiring and facilitating new work. “I would love to replace everything we made in the past with things we’ve made here,” says Sabin. “That would be very exciting.”