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Based Upon – the luxury London art and design firm with legacy at its heart

Ian Abell, co-founder of the ground-breaking design firm Based Upon, reveals the philosophy and values that lie behind their globally sought-after creations

Twelve years ago, I was making a film and writing about the feted New York-based interior designer Jamie Drake. In a nod to British design at that year’s Masterpiece, Drake’s stand included a Fragmented Crack coffee table by Based Upon, proving that, as ever, he was ahead of the game when it came to discovering exciting designers of the future. 

I clearly remember that gigantic slab of a table with its great gold gash, but it took me until this year to find myself at Based Upon’s headquarters near Greenwich to meet Ian Abell, one of three founding partners, with his twin brother Richard and Alex Welch.

Based Upon’s cavernous riverside workshop is like a world inhabited by giants. The scale of some of the pieces is initially overwhelming, but each one, whether a huge wall panel or piece of jewellery, has been crafted with attention to minute detail displaying dazzling workmanship and skill.

Based Upon came precipitously to people’s notice in 2004 when it exhibited some pieces at 100% Design. “We were rethinking and reskinning existing objects,” explains Ian, “and the most iconic piece we created then was probably a rusty version of the Favela Chair by the São Paolo-based Campana Brothers. We actually flew to Brazil with that chair to seek the Brothers’ approval. Luckily, they loved it and we ended up having a wonderful few days with them.”

The Fragmented Crack coffee table by Based Upon in Effect Magazine
The Fragmented Crack Coffee Table by Based Upon

Ian describes how all three founders saw their path very differently but none of them knew the rules: “I certainly didn’t understand why the art world decreed that for something to be defined as art it shouldn’t have a function. Just because you can set a mug down on it, does the object stop being art and become a purely functional table?”

Ian is also fascinated by the complex notion of ownership: “We spend our lives trying to acquire and amass stuff, which feels like an important achievement early in our lives, but we reach a point where it all feels a bit of a burden.” This led to Based Upon buying up some old wooden school desks with flip-up lids and inkwells and repurposing them. “Children take ownership of their desks, keep their books in them and carve their names onto them. Then the bell rings and another child comes and sits there or you change classroom. In reality, you never own that desk.” Four desks went on sale in Dover Street Market and were snapped by jewellers and people from the fashion world.

"We Are Here" from the Breath Series by Based Upon - Effect Magazine
“We Are Here” from the Breath Series by Based Upon

All the while, Based Upon was developing distinctive resurfacing techniques, such as Liquid Metal and a proprietary material called Tramazite. Designer Mary Fox Linton then asked them to apply those techniques to the walls of Gordon Campbell Gray’s Beirut hotel. Cladding the walls in London’s Nobu Barclay restaurant followed. “We were totally naïve and literally knew nothing,” laughs Ian, “but we were meeting lots of supportive people and the next thing we knew we were at Nobu’s opening with Robert de Niro thinking, this is kind of working out for us.”

The next thing we knew, we were at Nobu’s opening with Robert de Niro thinking, this is kind of working out for us.

Ian Abell, co-founder of Based Upon

Today, Based Upon is sought out by ultra-wealthy collectors with large enough properties to commission enormous pieces such as its Ribbon series of bars and reception desks, banqueting tables and wall installations. Most are under strict NDAs, destined as they are for royal palaces and private yachts. “We’re grateful to our clients who can afford to commission big stuff,” explains Ian. “Sometimes our clients wonder if it’s reasonable to put all that investment and work into something solely for their residence. But that piece might end up in a museum one day, just as so many things made for royal patrons did in the past. It goes back to the school desk that never really belongs to anyone. Patrons of the big stuff are making an important contribution to the future architectural landscape.”

Much of Based Upon’s work seeks to explore preciousness and true value, with clients commissioning deeply personal works that communicate stories, philosophies, and sacred ideas. For one client, the experience of working with Based Upon on a highly personalised dining table was so rich, the family went on to commission a commemorative work that chronicles the life of their late father across a vast, intricately engraved 13-foot (four-metre) artwork.

Not all of Based Upon’s works are in private collections. In Hong Kong, HSBC’s 150th anniversary is publicly marked by a monumental 32-foot-high (ten-metre) cast bronze sculpture of a symbolic grain of rice. London’s Lancer Square in Kensington is home to a series of Based Upon sculptures called Wonder. In Mumbai, The Lost Fragment, a monolithic work of five tonnes of granite and bronze, is a mediation on loss and restoration, while New York’s luxury Equinox Hotel, priding itself on being an urban oasis, offering a superb night’s sleep, is graced by Based Upon’s sculpture, Rest.

Based Upon also creates minute, exquisitely beautiful objects, like the Möbius Loop, its first piece of wearable jewellery presented on a black leather string and inscribed with the words, “Touching my heart she said one day we will all be on the same side”.

This June at Chelsea Barracks’ Garrison Chapel, it is exhibiting new pieces at Eye of the Collector, the fair and art platform founded by Nazy Vassegh, who used to run Masterpiece. On display will be a piano called Twist/D, representing an exploration of the synthesis of form, function and experience, and an experimental collection of four talismanic bronzes on a smaller scale called Glyphs. The exhibits, like all of Based Upon’s work, are informed by its philosophical exploration and deeply-held values. Before I leave, Ian invites me into a quiet, dark space where I sit on a bench and focus on Amma – a piece of moving wall sculpture from their Breath series. It appears to breathe and reshape itself almost imperceptibly into a soothing, accompanying natural soundscape.

Just five minutes later I emerge calm and refreshed. It comes as no surprise that Based Upon has come up with an entirely original piece of artwork that also functions as an emotionally and spiritually restful device, a hybrid of sound, topographical landscape and sculpture that is impossible to describe. But then, Based Upon’s work defies description generally because its pieces emerge from a powerful fusion of dazzling beauty, artistic virtuosity, scientific experimentation and innovation, worthy of a contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s no wonder global collectors are excited.

Read more: Design | Furniture | Interiors | Makers | Design Fairs | London