Cut adrift from university, graphic art and design graduates Rebekah Whitney and Amy Lord were temping and trying to keep their spirits up while hunting for a dream job. The search turned out to be pointless as the job they wanted didn’t exist, which is how the imaginative pair came to create a new profession and are now fully-fledged Connoisseurs of Make Believe and joint founders of one of Britain’s most exciting creative agencies.
Their Leeds-based business, Lord Whitney, is renowned for its originality and has created sets, costumes and storylines for everything from music videos, ad campaigns and fashion magazines to festivals and pop-up events. They’ve worked with Rankin, M&C Saatchi, Vogue, Cartier Missoni, Corinne Bailey Rae and Nicki Minaj.
The wonderful Wood Beneath the World in Leeds Town Hall crypt was their idea. It was they who built a fake forest, a lunar room with a moon and stars and a hidden log cabin. Most recently, they did the interior design for The Turk’s Head bar at Whitelock’s in Leeds city centre. The cosy, dimly-lit space features cabinets filled with old apothecary bottles and if you look closely, you’ll see one labelled “Lord & Whitney’s Ethanol Gargle”.
Some of the decorative accessories in the bar are from their vast prop store, which is hidden away in the bowels of an old leather mill on Meanwood Road. The mill has been Lord Whitney HQ since 2010, four years after Amy and Rebekah met.
They were students at Leeds Metropolitan University but didn’t know each other until a tutor suggested they collaborate on a project in the final term.
“We just clicked. We were both influenced by nostalgia and we both loved The Mighty Boosh. Within an hour we came up with the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and we started building sets in an abandoned room at uni,” says Amy.
After graduating, they both felt “lost” and didn’t know which creative field they wanted to work in. So, along with temping and work experience, they formed an art collective with friends.
They got to the finals of an e-campaign competition run by E4 after spending a week making themselves into a fried breakfast.
“I was a sausage and Amy took the photos. We had so much fun,” says Rebekah.
Other members of the collective drifted away or got “proper jobs” but Amy and Rebekah clung to the idea of doing something together.
“We’d meet up after our shifts in bars and offices and we’d come up with ideas. We used the basement of my shared house for what we called ‘playing’. My friends would come down to put the washing on and find that we’d turned it into Narnia using old bed sheets, table tops and anything we could get our hands on for free,” says Rebekah, who agrees when Amy adds: “There are people who enjoy being creative and people who need to be creative and that was us.”
They networked at as many events as possible, from gallery openings to album launches.
“The first jobs we got were illustration, so we’d build mini-sets in our bedrooms and photograph them, dress as canaries, anything to be as original as possible,” says Rebekah.
Volunteering at music festivals brought them work with The House of Fairy Tales, a children’s art charity run by artist Gavin Turk, one of the original YBAs (Young British Artists).
“We did all sorts. I was an extra in a period drama and Rebekah was in a zombie video. We made signs, props, themed areas at festivals, we dressed shop windows and we even made a cardboard city for kittens dressed in capes. If we ran short of money we did a bit of temping,” says Amy.
They often give talks to art and design students and describe this four-year post-graduation period as “The Adventure of LordWhitney”.
Their advice to those trying to find a creative career is to “Try things and meet people. It doesn’t matter what you end up doing, it’s all valuable.”
Their big break came in 2010 when they won a big commission to make a themed family area for a music festival. Realising they couldn’t build it in their rented house, they heard of a derelict space on the top floor of the mill.
Although they had no idea how they were going to pay the first month’s rent, they set to with a lot of elbow grease, gallons of recycled paint, free off-cuts of wood to mend the floorboards and a desk and two chairs from Freecycle.
Commissions flowed in and they have now taken over the whole three floors of the mill and employ a small team of like-minded people.
The enormous studio, which they also hire out for photo shoots and events, is styled with vintage finds, a fruit machine, houseplants and a blow-up dinosaur.
A bright pink cabinet hold some of their weird and wonderful treasures, including a tentacle from a giant sea monster they made.
There’s also a mezzanine tree house, an office, a painting room, a costume cupboard and their latest addition: an indoor glass house made from upcycled old windows. The plan is to hire it out for meetings.
One of their favourite projects was with helping singer Corinne Bailey Rae with her music video. They came up with the idea of her playing multiple characters in a circus. They built a giant knife-throwing wheel, which Corinne gamely spun round on.
Everything is made in the Lord Whitney workshops, apart from the vintage pieces, and creating order from chaos in the prop store is now top of their “to do” list.
Plastic hands, a giant pair of fly’s wings, a huge golden gnome and a yellow shopping trolley are among the items fighting for space.
• For more details of their work go to lordwhitney.co.uk