From the architecture to the olfactory design, retail destination Coal Drops Yard isn’t just a feast for the eyes, says Katie Baron, it’s a smorgasbord of pleasures conceived to whet more immersive appetites.
Lush, fragrant, balmy, smooth, sheer, oscillating, searing, unctuous, hushed, aglow…
These are just some of the constituent parts of Coal Drops Yard, a destination that’s been carefully nurturing its considerable sensory charms to distinguish itself from the blinding lights of London’s more sanitised commercial throng. From strangely familiar nuggets of sonic branding and feats of olfactory engineering to optically illusory interiors, the emphasis on sensation is endemic. According to Craig White, senior retail project director for Coal Drops Yard, “the more curious you are the more rewarding the experience becomes.”
Visually, the grandest and most obvious experience is the spaceship-esque structure, belonging to tech giant Samsung, that swoops between the yard’s two long brick viaducts — perfectly preserved stretches of Victorian-era industrialism whose arches originally stored the coal that powered London and later became home to some of the capital’s most notorious rave clubs, Bagley’s and The Cross. Designed by starchitect Thomas Heatherwick who’s masterminded the overall spatial design, the cobbled streets of the pedestrianised lead-up evoke the feeling of ascending towards a cathedral — a conscious decision to cultivate a sense of elevation and even worship, echoing the dramatic flavours of buildings such as the elegant Gothic beauty of St. Pancras station next door. Notably, Heatherwick insisted that the outer layers of the original building should not be cleaned, allowing the patina of age to radiate through, compounding the grandeur of history that’s so hard to imitate.
In a nod to the bigger ambition of placemaking that underscores Coal Drops Yard, Heatherwick refers to the awe of such a view, as “the big reveal.” At night the copper edging surrounding the modernist wooden curves bounces off the slate roofing on the sides of the structure, creating a near-celestial glow that White describes as, “a tangible halo around a space that appears to pulsate as the wood ripples peel over,” and, more prosaically, “the real ‘F’ moment.”
But there’s also the impressive new concept store from Sweden’s dominant mainstream fashion minimalists, Cos. Flagging its allegiance to intellectual affluence, it’s a cavernous art-first brand space where consumption feels like a secondary business — prime real estate given over to creativity — something that simply couldn’t have happened on any traditional shopping street, including Regent Street where the brand’s mothership lives. The store sits where the locomotives would have glided into the yard to deliver their coal, boasting a huge gabled entrance in which collaborations with artists, not the clothes, will reside.
Subtler but equally as evocative is the space belonging to lingerie brand Beija London. Housed within one of the arches, its delicate under things will sit against the original inky backdrop of soot-stained, exposed brick walls while a sleek glass floor will hover above the original granite floors and well-worn grooves cast by the horses and carts as they shuttled consignments in and out. Sensorially speaking it’s a space that telegraphs, albeit in whispers, so much of the destination’s magnetism; Beija’s store is likely to become shorthand for the two centuries of Coal Drops Yard’s fabulously illustrious/nefarious past.
In visual terms, an elastic sense of play and even outright sensory trickery is a major thematic thread that connects Coal Drops Yard’s iconic brands to its newer artisanal blood. The flagship for British fashion designer Paul Smith, a.k.a. the godfather of British style and a brand which holds humour at the centre of its emotional heartland, boasts a playground ambience in parts — most notably via an Yves Klein blue tunnel with a rubberised floor, a transitional Willy Wonka-style diversion to retrain focus that despatches visitors into a lighter gallery space at the other end.
London-based menswear label Universal Works, whose brand is anchored in the spirit of Northern Soul music and utility clothing is reflecting its passion for rigorous construction with an unusual twist — an entire back wall made of mirror angled at forty-five degrees which creates a strange triangular artifice made odder still with the unnerving addition of secret doors. It’s been designed by London/Liverpool architects Studio Mutt which wryly bills itself as dealing in a joyful vernacular. Similarly, British eco-luxe accessories brand Lost Property of London’s store will feature a cork wall that sweeps only two thirds of the way up to the ceiling before curving up and over to grant a glimpse into the workshop behind the boutique, a place for special invitees only.
In fact, as seen in Universal Works, in many instances it’s often a coalescence of sensations and the thrill of contrasts (dark and light, concealing and revealing) that’s driving the intrigue. As White says, “once you start to grapple with it, it’s the sensory aspects that generate originality. In many ways, Coal Drops Yard is grounded in a collision of senses.”
Shifting beyond its comfort zone to take advantage of such complicity, quintessential British perfumer Miller Harris is magnifying its olfactory expertise with a sonic collaboration. For its King’s Cross opening it’s partnering with emerging British composers to create a song for each scent, forging a subtle but powerful connection between mind and body. It’s an idea with ancient roots, the solfeggio frequencies — an ancient six-tone scale of sonic points thought to have been used in sacred music including Gregorian chants — are said to have a profound effect on the body’s chakras, unleashing emotion. Pushing the project on further, Miller Harris has already mooted plans to sponsor fashion students from neighbouring university, Central Saint Martins; the students create the collections and they will deliver both scent and music.
Scent combined with taste, and often touch, has in fact always been a preferred point of coalescence for Coal Drops Yard. One of the requests from White’s team when dealing with the individual brands was to “bring their factories in,” an idea designed to deliver the double whammy of authenticity (“to show their core truth”) but also the irreplaceable emotional attachment that surfaces on seeing craft in action, when delivered with all its peripheral sensory sparks. It’s certainly true of heritage British footwear brand Cheaney (the archetypal brogue manufacturer) which will have a store echoing that of its first location in Covent Garden, featuring the wooden shoe lasts, leathers and polishes with smells as symbolic and evocative of its history as of its visual equity. Beauty brands Aesop and Malin+Goetz (Australian and American, respectively) will similarly trade on their respective versions of an apothecary meets workshop sensibility.
More fascinating still will be a first-of-its-kind chocolate café from Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse. The culinary legend has effectively replicated part of his chocolate factory currently situated in the Bastille area of Paris — the only factory of its kind in the city’s centre — in which the confection is made on vintage, circa 1940 machines and will display the produce within old bank teller boxes complete with glass doors. To simulate the allure in full, chocolate will be roasted on site (it’s a substance that doesn’t smell in its solid form), delivering full spectrum temptation. Capitalising on the concept, the adjacent unit has been ejected, allowing the sublime smells to waft out onto the canal beyond.
Even that has been subjected to sensorial consideration — Coal Drops Yard has its own hyper verdant version of New York’s elevated linear park, the High Line, while a bridge from the western corridor instantly spirits visitors away from the retail zone and into Camley Street Natural Park, King’s Cross’ urban nature reserve.
At its most basic level, there’s even a will to establish Coal Drops Yard as the purveyor of the taste sensations of the capital — owning the seemingly small things that underscore a much bigger pull. For instance, Morty & Bob’s café has already been deemed to have the best grilled cheese sandwich in the city, an accolade that’s courtesy of co-owner and former food TV producer Charlie Phillips, who uses the off-cuts from the cheese merchants in the famous Neal’s Yard market in Covent Garden to make its never-quite-the-same melanges. For those who appreciate micro details, even the lifts feature a sensorial uplift: a bespoke voiceover from one of CDY’s development team who is also a professional actor. Nothing is wasted, everything reinvents. It’s a world of craft as far as (and way below) what the eye can comfortably see.
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.