The Original Stormtrooper Story

by Thumbs Up on May 03, 2019
This May the 4th we'll be celebrating one of the largest movie franchises all time, but most importantly, we'll be celebrating one of the most iconic, cult film characters that came to life through the hands of industrial designer, Andrew Ainsworth.


To mark the non-official holiday, we thought we'd delve into the history of the famous Original Stormtrooper armour and ask the man behind the phenomenon to share stories about his journey to and beyond the eponymous legacy.



Andrew left school early, with an A level in Art which allowed him to go straight onto a Diploma course in Engineering at Kingston Polytechnic. In 1968, after 3 years at Kingston and developing a yearning for a more unique academic experience, Andrew decided to go to Ealing Art School, which is where ended up joining the Industrial Design course. In addition to wanting a more innovative focus, the quality of educational mentors and the example they were setting is what drew him to the field.

"In the 70s there was a lot of movement into expanding schools, it was Harold Wilson and his lot that put money into sport in schools and Trevor Baylis OBE, who was local to me (known for his wind up radio invention) had a company called Shotline Swimming Pools that used to install swimming pools in schools and he came round one day and asked if I could make all the equipment that he’d been importing from the US."

This allowed the business Andrew had been building using "college’s machinery, raw materials and student labour", to grow, which ultimately lead to his realisation that he'd struck gold, “business is so easy, I’m not getting a ‘proper’ job, I can’t afford it!”.

Prior to designing the Stormtrooper armour, had you ever considered exploring design projects outside of the industrial work?

When I came out of college, I went straight into manufacturing my own motor cars, as well as all the business I’d already got running and in 1972 I formed Shepperton Design Studios. In 1974 we moved to our current premises on Twickenham which used to be a sweet shop. We had car production at the back and I designed a range of domestic products for trade which were displayed at the front of the shop. I used to design and make things for Rymans, Conran and Habitat at the time when plastics were the latest thing for small furniture, knick-knacks and desk stationery.

Kayaking had become popular by then and there was a real market there with the main kayak companies being just down the road in Twickenham by the river. They were making them in fabric and fold up PVC, with wooden frames and fibre glass and it would take 2-3 days to make one, so I would go there and say “I can make them faster than that in plastic”! I made the first plastic kayaks in the world and ended up building a 15ft machine in the shop which could make vacuum formed kayaks in 26 minutes, as well as car parts like dashboards. The business grew pretty fast on the back of the kayak business and that machine is ultimately why I was able to produce vacuum formed plastic props for Star Wars.



Can you tell us a little about how you got involved with designing the original Stormtrooper armour?

Twickenham was an arty area, with cheap premises to live and work in at the time. Our next door neighbour was a scenic artist called Nick Pemberton, who was already established in the scenic supply business, he had a union ticket and was regularly approached by film companies as a supplier of parts. Studios didn’t have in-house facilities at the time, they would hire people as and when a film came in. Nick got the Star Wars job from the George Lucas’ buyer. Nick had already seen what I was doing with all the vacuum forming and could see the potential in moulding things quickly and the quality of finish. We could make moulds that would stand up long enough to reproduce how ever many items you needed for the film, it wasn’t real production or industry, it was more on the hoof than that. I knocked a prototype up for Nick, he took it to Lucas, Lucas said ‘great, give me fifty of those’!

Were you provided with any concepts or guidance when it came to designing the props that were initially requested (Stormtrooper helmet, Jawa mask etc), or did you have complete autonomy?

I was given a sketch by Ralph McQuarrie that had Nick passed on, that was the only information we ever had from Star Wars. Everything else I just made from my interpretation of what John Mollo suggested he wanted and it was all accepted. I’d just have a phone call from John Mollo, who was responsible for getting all the costumes together and he would literally say ‘get me 3 white ones and 2 black ones’ and I’d make them, there weren’t any technical drawings at all, until after I’d supplied the props.

You brought to life one of the most iconic characters in the history of film & pop-culture. Does the impact your designs have had, ever phase you in any way?

Not really, I’m just surprised and fascinated at how it seems to be important and iconic to other people!

I remember how it worked then, now you would need a team of people, computers, CAD data etc.., the times of individuals just knocking something up with their own talent seem to have gone and it’s a bit sad really. The freedom of creation that we had in the 70’s is gone, it seems much harder now to create things from scratch, perhaps easier in the electronics field, but I made cars straight out of art school without a business case in sight. I couldn’t afford a Ferrari, so I had to make one so to speak…I ended up making 52 cars, which is quite a lot for a one man band!

What have you enjoyed the most about being the designer behind such a phenomenon?

I think was the solving of the little things that were tricky to do before computers were widespread, not only on Star Wars, but on all the films we’ve been involved in. I made Superman fly on the big screen, by suspending him in the air on a wire in front of a projection screen and using lightweight fans to create the background wind and movement of the cape. They were going to use a dummy, instead of a human before we solved that one.

In addition to working with us here at Thumbs Up, Shepperton Design Studios collaborates with different brands and partners globally to continue their Original Stormtrooper legacy, in many ways. Andrew notes that licensed reproduction of the Original Stormtrooper armour, is not something that happened intentionally. However, when asked to choose his favourite piece from Original Stormtrooper range, he answered "it has to be the Mini Bluetooth speaker, because it is an actual three dimensional accurate image of the original Stormtrooper, that gives out real sound."

What can we expect from yourself and Shepperton Design Studios in the near future?

We’re still designing things, not for films any more though. Right now we’re designing modern transport modes, beautiful composite electric bicycles made from carbon fibre. They push boundaries of strength and weight and all modern modes of energy - everything forward, nothing backwards.

Shop the full Original Stormtrooper Collection here.

Images & answers courtesy of Shepperton Design Studios.