MDM Props: How Greenwich’s secret art factory is getting through the pandemic

Monster Chetwynd’s giant slugs were brought to life at MDM Props

You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but stunning art installations and huge props for stage shows start life in a warehouse by the Blackwall Tunnel. NIKKI SPENCER got a rare peek behind the scenes at MDM Props at Morden Wharf, Greenwich – and found out how it’s coped with a pandemic that has badly hit London’s creative industries.

“We are the world leaders in fiddling about making things in sheds,” jokes the MDM Props managing director John Morris. After studying ceramics at Camberwell College of Arts, he started out by making bit and pieces for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s TV show Shooting Stars at the bottom of his garden in Balham in the early 90s. “It all just snowballed from there.”

Now MDM Props, which John runs with brothers Russell and Nigel Scoffield, has about 20 full-time staff, as well as dozens of specialist freelancers, and gets commissions from all around the globe.

“Our clients are musicians, artists, retailers, theatre, film, events, anywhere where people need something physical,” adds the production manager Hal Fraser, as the pair show me around their 54,000-square foot industrial space on the banks of the Thames.

After over 20 years in Brixton, MDM Props moved to Greenwich five years ago. The company had been looking for new premises for a while, but all the alternatives were on the outskirts of the capital. “Being in London is hugely important, both for our workforce, as so much of the skilled labour is here, but also for our clients. They don’t want to be travelling out to the middle of nowhere. Here we are so close to City Airport, so some people just fly in to see us and then fly out again”, says John.

He admits that he initially had doubts about the site. “When I first saw it, I thought it was too big and we’d be crazy to take it, plus it was pretty derelict. But our landlords, U+I, have been hugely supportive,” he says.

Monster Chetwynd's giant slug being created
MDM’s team are sworn to secrecy about the projects they are working on

MDM has just signed a new lease to stay indefinitely, and this summer U+I submitted its plans to redevelop much of the surrounding land at Morden Wharf, with the addition of a new warehouse and smaller creative workspace units. “Greenwich Council is keen to keep this area as a creative hub, which is great”, says John.

The company recently opened Sugar Studios, a selection of specially-designed large spaces which are hired out out for rehearsals and photography shoots. “We get all sorts of bookings from theatre and ballet companies to performers at the O2 and final year students from Ravensbourne University,” explains John.

Like so many companies working in the arts and entertainment industries, MDM has been badly affected by Covid-19, but things have begun to pick up again.

“Long term projects have been our saviour,” says John. “Theatre, events and festivals were hit straight away and 100 per cent of our turnover just vanished completely in April.”

Receiving a grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund “was an absolute lifeline” and enabled the company to stay afloat, he adds.

Although MDM is only trading at 50 per cent of where it was before the pandemic, its space is a hive of activity, with scenic construction artists and model makers busy on an amazing array of projects. This includes creating giant Ho Chi Minh masks for Cameron Mackintosh’s touring show of Miss Saigon, and a massive light made up of 24-carat gold covered flower petals for a new cruise liner.

Monster Chetwynd's giant slug being loaded onto a truck
How do you get a giant slug from the Blackwall Tunnel to Millbank?

“We do a lot of installations for cruise ships as they like to fill them with interesting things to look at,” explains Hal. “A few years back we created a giant panda and a cub for Royal Caribbean International which spanned two decks and had to be very robust as they go through all sorts of weather conditions.”

In one area of the warehouse is an army of forty 2.1 m sculptures by the British-Trinidian artist Zak Ové. They were originally made in 2017 for display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and are back to be refurbished before their next exhibition. MDM Props is also working on another huge colourful artwork for Ové, although like a lot of what the company creates, it is quite literally under wraps.

“Nearly everything has a non-disclosure agreement, so what we do is a big, big secret,” explains Hal. “It means you have to kind of forget what you are working on the moment you leave for the day.”

It is often only after something has been put on display that the team can talk openly about it. Recently-finished projects include huge Murano glass chandeliers for the Christmas windows of Fendi stores worldwide. “Each one was made to fit the windows so the biggest was in New York where they were four metres high”, explains Hal, who adds that the team are experts not just at making things, but at packing and shipping too.

“We create all our own crates on site and because we have built the things, we know how to handle them and wrap them and transport them safely.” Although he says there are still a few anxious moments waiting to hear that something has arrived.

Monster Chetwynd's giant slugs
The giant slugs in place at Millbank

Back in 2017 MDM created a giant bird for the opening ceremony of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Azerbaijan.

“It had to be able to fly into the stadium, land and pick up an 11-year-old gymnast, and then flap its wings and fly off again, which all went to plan. But I do recall waving that lorry off thinking it had quite a journey ahead,” says Hal, adding that it never ceases to amaze him what people will ask them to do next.

One recent project was building huge slugs for the artist Monster Chetwynd, which were placed outside the Tate Britain gallery on Millbank.

“I remember when we got the call from Chetwynd for the Tate commission in 2018. As it’s an open plan office you can’t help but listen in as someone is saying, ‘So you want two giant slugs?’”

“It was an interesting project as she wanted them all made from sustainable materials and we are getting more of desire for that from clients”, he adds.

The brief can be anything “from a fully-formed maquette [a preliminary sculpture], to a scribble on the back of a fag packet”, says John.

Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle by Yinka Shonibare appeared on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in 2010 and is now at the National Maritime Museum

For Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle the team were given a small replica, which is still on a shelf in a model-making room.

“The huge glass bottle had to be specially-made in Italy, which is the only place in the world that could do it, and then we made and installed the ship at our workshop in Brixton,” explains John.

“Underneath we had to put in an air-conditioning unit as otherwise it would have steamed up.”

“It’s lovely that it has a permanent home outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and that we are here just down the river,” he smiles.

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people and organisations in SE London have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.

NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.

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