Keeping makers in cities: how do we safeguard urban studios?

As cities like London become ever-more unaffordable, studio space for makers and crafters gets harder to protect amid the sprawl of luxury development. But, asks Debika Ray, are we finally reaching a turning point? 

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The Weave Studio at Primary in Nottingham. Photo: Jonny Guardiani

Leather Lane, Shoe Lane, Threadneedle Street, and the Worshipful Companies of Drapers, Goldsmiths and Carpenters – a history of craft is stitched into the very fabric of London. It has been a long time, though, since the capital has been a natural home for makers, as rents have escalated and studio space has vanished. Last year, City Hall released figures that showed that 17% of studios were at risk of closing over the next five years even though 95% of spaces were occupied. While the problem in London is particularly acute, sustaining creative practice in any major UK city is difficult – particularly for craftspeople, whose activities continue to require lots of space in an era when the spatial requirements for much other work has shrunk to the size of a laptop.

For furniture maker Yinka Ilori, this is a familiar problem: he moved to a studio in Harrow, north-west London, after it become far too expensive to stay in the rapidly gentrifying east of the city. “Landlords are becoming very greedy and it’s artists who suffer,” he says. “To grow my practice, I had to move.” His current set-up is run by the charity Acava and not only offers him more space for his money, but also free use of its gallery to exhibit his work. In some respects, he says, creative people being forced to spread out more is a good thing as it creates opportunities where there previously weren’t any. “This space has put Harrow on the map in terms of art, design and creativity, which gives young people a space to express themselves, show work or meet like-minded people.”

Yinka Ilori in his studio

But even with charities such as Acava operating, help for young creative practitioners in the capital remains few and far between – and Ilori sees an urgent need for the government and mayor to act. “Creativity is part of London and there’s so much hunger from young children for art, design and fashion. We need to tap into that at a young age by giving people platforms to show work, perhaps offering things like free studio space, funding and access to mentoring.”

Annie Warburton, chief executive of “creative business incubator” Cockpit Arts, which provides studio space in Deptford and Holborn for around 170 craft-based businesses, agrees on the urgency of the situation. “What we’ve seen is real attrition in terms of studio space for makers in London. To me, it’s really vital that we don’t see this hollowing out of the the city and that we keep making right at the centre of the capital.” In an effort to smooth the path for craftspeople, Cockpit Arts offers professional support, showcases its occupants’ work and helps establish apprenticeships and relationships.

The collective weight of Cockpit’s makers, she says, makes a formidable case for why policymakers should pay attention to creative businesses. “Together they have a turnover of £7m. That agglomeration of small and micro businesses is creating as much value as a big business, but in different way – they have value economically, socially, culturally and they enrich the texture of the city.”

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Open Studios at Cockpit Arts. Photo: Jamie Trounce

The fact that it owns its building in Deptford has given Cockpit Arts relative stability. Even so, it has had “developers knocking on the door every few months”, comments Warburton. Against that backdrop, she says, the London mayor’s proposals for the Creative Land Trust, a soon-to-be launched initiative that will fund the purchase of permanent buildings by affordable workspace providers, is a welcome move. “If you have a long lease, you’re able to plan and invest.”

In the absence of a similar scheme in Nottingham, the team behind Primary, a gallery and artists’ studio provider that contains a weaving studio, sought to secure its own long term future. “Existing studio provision in the city was highly precarious – studio spaces came and went quickly, which led to them being of relatively poor quality, because there was no security of tenure and therefore little investment,” says director Niki Russell. “Many artists were responding to losing their studio space by leaving the city.”

When taking over the former school building in which is operates, Nottingham Studios signed a 30-year lease. “It’s significantly more stable than other things that were around, so artists can think about locating themselves in Nottingham as a long term option, but we’re still interested in changing that from a lease relationship to an ownership model.”

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Primary occupies an old school building in Nottingham

Russell believes more work needs to be done to create public awareness of the value of these types of initiatives. “We’re looking after the building and we’re in a residential area where there isn’t really a great deal of public facility. This is probably going to allow us to make the case for the value of us being involved and generate a citywide conversation.”

Warburton sees opportunities in the growing public interest around making and the story behind objects, as property developers are more conscious of integrating creative meanwhile elements into their spaces. Initiatives like Appear Here, a platform that links startups with temporarily unused space for relatively low rates to use for pop-ups, is filling that gap by connecting makers to affordable space in central urban locations. But she is wary that a lot these offerings tend to be temporary: “The danger is to rely on that too much, because it’s not a long-term solution.”

Hopefully, however, public bodies are catching up, realising the need to support such spaces. In 2013, with help from Mayor of London funding, architecture collective Assemble converted a former warehouse into Blackhorse Workshop – a public, affordable workshop for local makers and craftspeople – in Walthamstow, east London.

Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, east London

The relationship with the public also lies in nurturing the market for craft. This is a central part of the work of Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, according to director Celia Joicey: “We provide not only studio space for tapestry weaving, but we also create tapestry commissions and speculative tapestries and pay the weavers a salary to work on these.”

In London this is a vital ingredient in helping makers become sellers, given its abundance of wealthy potential buyers. London Craft Week is striving to build links between the worlds of craft and luxury retail in an effort to create a platform for craftspeople to sell work. “We try to facilitate relationships to give artist-makers a platform that they might not otherwise have,” says Nina Timms, programme manager of London Craft Week. “After all, the audiences for these luxury brands – people who have the means to buy and invest and collect commissioning these works – are also the audiences of these independent makers.”

Thinking City is hosting an event on 10 May, in collaboration with architecture collective Assemble, as part of London Craft Week. Find out more details here