Zean Mair-Macfarlane

Illustrations // Drawings // Diagrams // Idioms


Based in London, Zean Mair-Macfarlane, is both an architectural designer and artist: creating delicate and calculated drawings to inspire us all.  Regardless of their content, his drawings always seem to evoke a strong sense of motion, geometry and beauty. As well as illustrations, Macfarlane has created a range of ebooks called “100 Tips for Architecture Students”.

Scroll down to read our interview with him…

Spatial Awareness // Calculated Clarity // Diagramming the Dynamic


Q // Where did the idea of creating “100 Tips for Architecture Students” begin?

A // After I finished my Masters in Architecture I was exhausted. But I felt like some of the tips I learnt along the way should be shared. So I created the ebook to basically help other students who found the course challenging. On my first year of releasing the ebook I gave it away for free, so my original followers out there saved themselves a breath taking £1.99. But all jokes a side, it’s a tough course, essentially I just wanted to give the students a product that helped to keep them motivated.

Q // If you could turn back time to the beginning of your career, what would you tell your past self to do differently?

A // Not much to be honest. Not because I don’t have any regrets, it’s just that every mistake I’ve made so far has carried a great lesson. It would probably be something along the lines of. Everyone has an opinion, but not every opinion matters.


Q // Who/what do you take inspiration from?

A // Books, documentaries, spirituality, people… art. The list is endless.

Q // Speak materials to us… What material combinations do you like to see in architecture?

A // I’m personally a fan of concrete and wood. There’s something about that combination that I love. But I’m pretty open minded, I like to see innovative combinations in general. Anything that challenges the norm I have an appreciation for.


Q // Where do you get your textures from for your drawings?

A // There’s not one answer for that question I’m afraid! Sometimes I take my own photos for textures, but then other times I use effects found on softwares like sketchup. Other times it’s a texture that I’ve created by hand or by scanning something in, it really depends on the piece!

Q // What is your approach on decoration/ ornamentation within architecture? Is simplistic best ?

A // During university I was a bit of a minimalist. But as time has progressed I’ve realised that designing isn’t about pushing your ideas onto a client. It’s more about taking their ideas and making them better. So if a client likes lots of decoration for example then as an architect/designer it’s our responsibility to make the space as pleasant as we can for the people who use it.


Q // Corbusier or Niemeyer?

A // Corbusier, Niemeyer is a close second though.

Q // Mies Van der Rohe or Rem Koolhaas?

A // Mies


Q // At the minute who is your favourite working architecture practice and why?

A // I think it’s out of Heatherwick and Assemble. I like Assemble because I think they are very current. To me they represent our time, the now, and I like that.  

Q // Which architect do you despise or don’t agree with?

A // None. Architecture is similar to art in a way. You can find yourself contradicting yourself. Tastes and perspectives are always prone to change. 


Q // Tell us a little about your experience in Shanghai?

A // I worked for urban developers for half a year. The experience was great. It was a life experience as well as a work experience. A culture shock would be an understatement. Working for urban developers is also interesting because you are often surrounded by in house professionals besides the usual architects, such as landscape designers, engineers, masterplan specialists etc.

Q // Do you prefer working on interiors or architecture in practice?

A // Probably architecture. It’s hard to think of a practice I’ve worked in where both skills weren’t needed though.


Q // Top tip for axonometric drawing?

A // It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Q // Do you create these drawings/illustrations in relation to university work or things that just catch your eye?

A // I started to do the conceptual drawings after university. They are inspired by projects I’ve worked on or ideas I would like to produce one day. Essentially they are like a collection of napkin sketches that I can hopefully come back to one day and re-master. I.e develop the illustrations into something more feasible and realistic construction wise. As for now I simply hope they inspire others.

Q // Do any of your drawings have stories behind them?

A //  The common thread that connects all my work is a theme I call “the fragmented movement”. For me, I think of it as part of our historic timeline. Just like how we have the modern movement or the art deco movement I believe we are in something of a fragmented movement. Funnily enough it was a theme I was playing with before Brexit and Trump, but I do believe this theme reflects our current politics, the arts, and communities etc. It’s also not necessarily a negative theme either. I think we can all agree that great innovations are born when things are broken or fragmented. 


Q // Talk to us about your creative process… ? i.e Do you start off by drawing a composition you like first by hand or let the image evolve by itself on screen.

A // That’s a tricky question! In short it varies. Sometimes by hand and sometimes by using computer software. I don’t usually let a piece “evolve by itself” though. It normally evolves as my ideas develop. I also have a vision of what I’m drawing before I draw it most of the time. How it turns out on the other hand is another story! There was one occasion this year where I did a piece based truly on intuition which I named “Echo”. But even that drawing became something where I later began to make practical sense of it. It basically evolved from random lines into the very early stages of a floor plan. A key to my creative process is also found in the title of my work. The title is basically one of many trigger words that inspired the piece.

Q // Do you prefer working by hand or with computer softwares?

A // I like both, I also like to merge both together. “Mixed mediums” I think they call it.

Q // Do you think university courses should be more artistic (i.e creating stunning drawings) or more practice orientated (detailing and understanding the ways in which you would work in an office)?

A // It depends what university you go to I guess. Some universities get the balance quite well. Both aspects you mentioned are very important. Although I don’t think it’s necessarily about being more “artistic”. It’s about being “creative”. Art isn’t the only subject that allows you to be creative in architecture. Students should harness their creativity and then combine that with their technical or practice based experience/skill sets. The key is finding your creative advantage, sometimes that’s nothing to do with creating a pretty picture.

Q // Where would you like to be in 20 years time?

A // On a beach. 

Q // How do you see the world of architecture progressing in the next 30 years?

A // Everyone will be trying it.


Vertical Gardens

Zean Mair-Macfarlane

If you are interested in Macfarlane’s ebooks.. you can check them out here.

Previous Experience:

Architectural Assistant Part II // Foster + Partners

Architectural Assistant Part II // Horden Cherry Lee Architects

Architecture Teaching Assistant // IBEX

Architectural Assistant Part I // été lee et associés Architectes urbanistes

Architectural Internship // David Collins Studio

Follow Macfarlane here…





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