Laura Houseley is lit up by the promise of the London Design Festival in King’s Cross
The London Design Festival drew approximately 588,000 visitors from over 75 countries to the capital in 2018. This year marks its 17th annual iteration. Our charmingly sprawling metropolis, daunting as it is to navigate even for those of us who live here, is divided into areas of concentrated activity for the ease of festival visitors. Traditional creative centres such as Brompton, Central and Shoreditch are long-established, so it is no small feat that King’s Cross, with Coal Drops Yard as its hub, has earned the status as a London Design Festival Design District for the first time in 2019. How has such a vibrant and active design culture been so quickly established here? And how can it be maintained and nourished for the benefit of the public and London’s creative community?
From the off, contemporary design has been a USP for the area, which, arguably, became established the day the decision to hire Thomas Heatherwick Studio to design the renovation of the Victorian Coal Drops Yard was made.
The resulting buildings are difficult to experience or describe without some contemplation of the role of contemporary design versus the history and tradition of industrial design. So clear and provocative (and pleasing) is the relationship between Heatherwick’s scheme and the stoic, anonymous Victorian architecture it inhabits that it immediately sets a tone (or rather, a landscape) within which contemporary design can exist.
Tom Dixon moved in back in 2017, a long time before the hoarding was ever peeled back to reveal the area’s architectural bones. From the Coal Office he runs a multi-faceted design business that, interestingly, is a microcosm of the wider remit of the area: retail, dining, offices, and workshop and exhibition spaces (as well as a random disco) exist within the beautifully austere walls of his impressive headquarters. For Dixon, these facets exist together naturally: a shop selling the studio’s latest designs gives way to a temporary exhibition that leads into a restaurant concept, which spills out on to the street.
Does he see that synchronicity between the design products, spaces and experiences being a key element of the King’s Cross area? “Coal Drops Yard finds itself a rapidly growing epicentre for creative businesses. Hemmed in by institutions like the British Library and Central Saint Martins; sandwiched between Universal Music and DeepMind; in close proximity to the studios of Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick and John Pawson; adjacent to the Skip Garden and Spiritland–we feel like we have an opportunity to collaborate, to create and to broadcast a broader series of innovations than ever before due to the natural cross-pollination that happens in a complex King’s Cross Soap ever richer in a broad and unexpected mix of innovation.” For London Design Festival, Dixon is showing TouchySmellyFeelyTastyNoisy, an exhibition that is suitably expansive; it covers the swathe of sensory experiences available through his products and projects, notably a new textile produced in collaboration with Bute Fabrics, and a series of collaborative projects covering everything from farming practices to fragrances.
In order to earn its design credentials, of course, the selection of retail residents at Coal Drops Yard has been carefully managed. Nowhere is this more visible than on Lower Stable Street, an area reserved for small independent stores and food stops, and–disclaimer–it’s where my own small contemporary design gallery existed for six months. Lower Stable Street is curated by James Bowthorpe, who is charged with maintaining the design-led content. “For me, good design feels natural and intuitive. Hopefully Lower Stable Street has this feeling to it, too. It’s flexible and always-changing nature brings a sense of excitement to the wider design culture of King’s Cross. For LDF, we are excited to present a new banner installation, this time from Tottenham Textiles, and we will be celebrating the arrival of Granby Workshop for a five-day pop-up. We are trying something new this year with Can Con from House of Cans, a canned-drinks-only festival championing everything in aluminium cans. I’m personally looking forward to the LDF sandwich from Bodega Rita’s, which sounds like an instant design classic to me.”
Anchoring Lower Stable Street firmly in the design firmament is STORE Store, perhaps the most unexpected (and welcome) addition to the area’s design culture. It is the retail face of Store Projects, a community-oriented design school and retail space where local young people attend workshops with practising designers and architects, all with the aim of widening the pool of talent and giving opportunities to students who might not be able to access the arts. Store Projects’ Kevin Smeeing says: “Since the opening of Coal Drops Yard, we have been very active, hosting regular art and design workshops in and around our space. These workshops explore new materials and processes and have attracted diverse audiences withan interest in art and design.
From kids on half-term break, young state-school pupils in the After School Clubs, university students, young professionals or older members of the public in our workshops. With everything we do, we hope to inspire and share the creative energy among all ages.” We live in an era when contemporary design and those within it are awake to the impact the discipline can have on all manner of social, environmental and political issues. Although community-focused collectives like Store Projects are at the vanguard, they are becoming increasingly popular and successful. During LDF, a new collection of products made by the After School Clubs’ young amateur designers will be launched. “It is super exciting that the young designers who joined our clubs can be part of this event and have a platform like LDF for their work to be seen and appreciated by the public,” says Smeeing. “And we are also presenting a series of public weekday After Work Club workshops during LDF, hosted by leading UK artists and designers.”
In Coal Drops Yard, the festival’s landmark project is a large installation by Martino Gamper titled Disco Carbonara (see p.20). The purpose of the commission, alongside demonstrating a London designer’s skill to the festival’s attendees, is to draw the general public into the new and expansive space that is Coal Drops Yard, and to enthral and entertain them while there. The practice of holding large-scale, bold, temporary exhibitions and installations–all with a strong design agenda–within this space has quickly become a tradition, despite Coal Drops Yard being less than a year old. It has hosted the festive light installation by Eindhoven-based designers Studio Mieke Meijer, a horticultural display by landscape designer Dan Pearson, a graphic exposition by It’s Nice That, and the Wooden Parliament building by Spanish designers Cristina Díaz Moreno and Efrén Ga Grinda during the London Festival of Architecture, to name just a few. So, Disco Carbonara will be a fitting addition to the rolling boil of design exploration found here.
The design-led future of King’s Cross looks bright. For many design watchers, myself included, we can look forward to seeing how these many explorations will become distilled and begin to be added to part of the permanent fabric of the area; its architecture, materiality, thinking and ways of functioning. Indeed, in a neighbourhood whose very existence is a testament to the enduring functionality and beauty of architecture and engineering innovation from a distant generation, the important role design plays in our urban environment is written large for all to see.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 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.