When the Design Can campaign launched last year, backed by Yinka Ilori, it brought to the fore urgent issues of privilege and misplaced power in the creative industries, and asked a simple question: how can design unleash untapped and undervalued talent? Here, we hail the social enterprises using their skills to positive ends – and with powerful results.
The moniker of this west London design studio and community-oriented business is not an homage to the James Bond baddie, but a reverential nod to modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger, who was a much maligned neighbour of Ian Fleming’s. Housed at the foot of the architect’s imposing Trellick Tower, its workshop, showroom and community café are a rather more benevolent presence in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. ‘This area has a lot of chronic social problems,’ explains co-founder and CEO Marie Cudennec, ‘yet it’s a stone’s throw from the wealthiest pocket of the UK. That can be a source of friction and alienation.’
Disillusioned by the ‘resource intensiveness’ of the corporate luxury world, Cudennec, along with social entrepreneur Oliver Waddington-Ball, envisaged an integrated furniture studio, training platform and community hub, underlined by an aspiration to minimise waste and maximise social impact. During its seven years, makers have been converging in its basement workshop to teach, craft and upcycle. The result is bespoke furniture such as the ‘Peshawar’ table, which is topped with inlaid marble by Afghan artisans and carved from maple flooring reclaimed from London’s Design Museum. ‘Waste doesn’t exist in nature – it’s a completely circular concept,’ explains Cudennec. ‘It goes into the soil and comes back as something else.’ This sustainable quest sees wood salvaged from local tree surgeons, and offcuts hewn into chopping boards and coasters. Profits are pumped back into the apprenticeship scheme and new community woodworking programme Soulcraft, which looks to help those who have slipped through the cracks of education and employment.
Goldfinger’s network of big-name backers and collaborators, such as John Lewis and Tom Dixon, has been recently bolstered by a series of high-profile hospitality commissions, including co-living space Mason & Fifth and the inaugural Inhabit hotel. According to Cudennec, the model works – and this could be just the start. ‘There are issues of unemployment and waste everywhere,’ she says. ‘The more scale you have, the more impact you have.’ goldfingerfactory.com
THE MAKE BANK
As a former art teacher, Kirsty Thomas had a front-row seat from which to witness the hurdles for lower-income pupils in pursuing careers in art and design. After founding lauded design studio Tom Pigeon with husband Pete in 2014, tentative research sparked a simple concept to help children overcome those obstacles to creativity. ‘I was finding all these statistics about the knock-on effects of child poverty,’ she recalls. ‘When I was at school you could borrow a pack of pencils to take home, but the continuous cuts in arts education mean that teachers are finding it hard to support pupils who don’t have basic materials.’ A steering committee of current art teachers was consulted and a series of neat kits devised, including the ceramics set (above), which can be donated directly or funded via the sale of custom prints.
One year on, Make Bank is working with 50 schools, battling the inevitable inertia that results from a narrow industry intake. ‘It ends up solely white and middle class, stifling creativity and problem solving – how do we design for our wider society?’ The long-term plan is a mentoring programme that would bring creatives into schools but, for now, Thomas wants those in the industry to share their creative journeys on Make Bank’s online platform. ‘I want to show these kids that there are tons of us out here – this is a real job.’ themakebank.org.uk
FINE CELL WORK
The late Lady Anne Tree was a pioneering force for change within Britain’s prison system, tirelessly campaigning for prisoners to be paid for needlework. After three decades she succeeded, founding Fine Cell Work in 1997, and calling upon her illustrious interior design connections (her mother-in-law owned Colefax & Fowler) in the process. While executive director Victoria Gillies says the charity no longer has a need to lobby, Tree’s quietly radical premise persists. Names such as Neisha Crosland, Kit Kemp and soon Sophie Ashby, donate designs that are then entrusted to a network of some 600 prison stitchers.
To Gillies, keeping minds busy is as vital as keeping hands occupied. ‘It’s very therapeutic – you can’t stitch when you’re angry,’ she explains. ‘And the fact that this work is going on to be sold in the outside world makes the activity itself purposeful.’ A clever system allows Fine Cell Work to pass on customer ‘thank yous’, and a Battersea training workshop, launched in 2017, has opened doors for those now outside the system. A Sotheby’s exhibition earlier this year showcased eight exquisite works designed by contemporary stars, including Ai Weiwei, embroidered by the network, and Gillies hopes such skilful displays go some way to dismantling the prejudice surrounding prisoners, who are equally feared and forgotten. ‘Maybe that’s our quiet lobby,’ she adds. finecellwork.co.uk
As east London geared up for the 2012 Olympics, Create London founder Hadrian Garrard was keenly aware of a local disconnect: in what is one of the biggest cultural quarters in Europe, a chasm had emerged between the artists and their neighbours. ‘Back in 2009, there were around 13,000 artists living and working in the area, but with very low levels of engagement in the surrounding communities,’ he explains. ‘You were less likely to walk into an art gallery if you lived in the East End than almost anywhere else in the UK.’
Launching an arts production platform that could set up self-sustaining enterprises would provide this missing local link, creating jobs and cementing the artists’ status as a useful, deserving presence. ‘If an artist isn’t seen as embedded in the community, their place becomes more precarious,’ says Garrard. Commissions include Walthamstow’s Blackhorse Workshop, a public-access wood and metalwork space launched in 2014 with Turner-prize-winning multidisciplinary collective Assemble, and new project Hoxton Gardenware, which sees artist Aaron Angell teaching young people how to make terracotta pots from his studio, Troy Town. An ambitious new Barking community arts space, backed by Grayson Perry, is set to open in 2021.
‘We’re making a strong argument for why it’s good to have artists in the city,’ says Garrard, who adds that expansion is nigh. ‘We need to reintegrate art into society. It should be part of everyday life.’ createlondon.org
DESIGNS IN MIND
Though Shropshire studio Designs in Mind began life as a day centre service within the NHS, today it stands firmly on its own two feet. Based in Oswestry, it produces artworks, homeware and gifts made by those experiencing mental health challenges. A commercial recalibration led to the opening of shop Jolt in the town centre two years ago, although the store is soon to be separated from the Designs in Mind brand to strengthen its commitment to stocking fare from other social enterprises.
Members, who tend to be referred by GPs and community teams, attend a new referrals session, before signing up to a 10-week programme that prepares them for production duties. ‘A lot of people have never done any kind of artwork since school,’ says design lead Elin Humphreys. ‘We start with drawing techniques like “continual line”, which help them make the first mark.’ Sessions are fluid and flexible, and on any one day might involve up to 20 simultaneous projects, such as crafting pinch pots for e-tailer Aerende, which sells design-led products by those facing social challenges.
The studio’s keenest success stories return to run the new referrals sessions, says Humphreys proudly, noting that some members hadn’t been able to open their curtains before coming to Designs in Mind. Next for the platform is a series of projects with Brit designer Theo Williams– who has previously helmed design teams at Habitat and John Lewis Home – to bring a powerful voice behind the vision and catalyse plans to connect with retailers. designsinmind.co.uk
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2020
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