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? 

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.”

Open Studios
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.”

01_Primary from the Park - 300
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


Makers in spaces: new urban manufacturing and its role in placemaking

by Francesca Perry


Whilst we all accept a shift in the urban economy from manufacturing to knowledge and communications, it would be foolish to say that manufacturing does not take place, matter or play a continuing role in urban centres. But this new post-industrial wave of urban manufacturing is independent, local and DIY; centred on the growth of tech innovation and entrepreneurialism rather than mass production. This is about citizen empowerment to make change through making itself.

So exactly what role can manufacturing play in place-making and community development? It can unite people in the process of making, as a form of socially productive production. It can also bring life to urban centres long starved of manufacturing activity. This is specific urban manufacturing that responds to new ways of working and doing, and in turn has the potential to make new places and community hubs. Whilst there have already been big steps forward, there is still a way to go to marry urban design and places with contemporary communities and activities. An example of this is the disjuncture between the much-lauded Tech City in London and its ugly pedestrian-unfriendly home, the Old Street roundabout. Spaces should reflect and nurture their communities, in relation to work as well as home.

NYC Resistor

After zoning and cars pushed manufacturing activities out of city centres and into what would often come to be termed as industrial wastelands, a certain diversity of urban life was lost. It also resulted, along with the evolution of services, in a number of vacant spaces in cities, emptied of their former industrial use. Warehouses, factories, mills and workshops stood unused. Though many of these faced a fate of luxurious conversion, the recent effects of the economic recession has only added empty retail units to the list.

So, what do you do with vacant urban spaces and a new movement of digital and entrepreneurial industry? The answer is makerspaces – or hackspaces: hubs where people come together to create, collaborate, make and share (see César Reyes Nájera’s great article). Now these activities are beginning to animate urban districts, supporting an enhanced diversity of use.

The digitisation of – well, everything – has led critics to believe that physical space and proximity is less important for successful business and industry. But this is far from the case. We live in cities in order that we might interact and share: computers will not change this. So of course the new ‘industrial revolution’, as Chris Anderson calls it, composed of start-ups and independent makers, requires new kinds of physical community and productive spaces.

Milwuakee Makerspace

Whether you call them co-working spaces, workshops, hubs, hackspaces or makerspaces, they are becoming vital to this new economy. Now, I’m not just talking about tech, as seductive as this would be, because physical manufacturing and crafts still take place – to an increasing degree in fact. In this post-industrial age, we have a heightened interest in the hyperlocal product – whether it be coffee, beer, clothing or furniture.

We need to embrace this movement in to the thriving network and places of urban activity. Many maker groups are indeed taking on new spaces in the city and transforming them; others are growing out of or tacking on to existing public spaces like libraries:

Recently many libraries have begun to develop spaces for design and activities that both teach and empower patrons. The learning in these spaces varies wildly–from home bicycle repair, to using 3D printers, to building model airplanes. Fittingly, they are called makerspaces.’

Library Makerspace

Over in the US, June’s National Day of Civic Hacking aims to bring together citizens and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions to challenges relevant to neighborhoods and cities. Initiatives like the maker education initiative are nurturing opportunities for young people to get involved in this maker movement, fostering creativity and learning. Of course, the rise of technology has made the process of making and manufacturing more accessible, with 3D printing breaking down the barrier between idea and creation. These are new ways of making for new ways of working. It’s only sensible that urban development supports and reflects this, as the physical reflects the social and must always learn from it.

It’s crucial for makerspaces themselves to interact with the wider urban area and community – there’s little point in making a great place which remains internal and exclusive. Some are heading in the right direction. On the tech front, London Hackspace, a ‘community-run workshop where people come to share tools and knowledge’ holds regular open evenings and public events.

London Hackspace

Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford has used an abandoned warehouse to be a community hub and productive workshop, to give the opportunity to the local community to get more actively and creatively engaged with both existing and future public spaces in the area.

A great model has been Assemble & Join, who run community micro-manufacturing workshops that re-imagine the role a high street can take within a community and in turn the role a community can play in the way an area develops over time. Through free site-specific workshops, the organisation offers shopkeepers, residents, traders and community groups the chance to collectively research, design and build changes to the public realm to better suit their needs. This includes everything from wayfinding schemes and flat-pack market stalls and seating systems. A&J are using manufacturing to help communities play a more active role in shaping where they live and work.


If A&J is anything to go by, this maker movement has the potential to form a core of urban regeneration, animating empty spaces and opening themselves up as productive interactive hubs, engaged in high street life, public places and community. In the longer term, they can lead to the creation of new jobs and encourage young people to feel empowered and inspired to make their own opportunities – and products.

So far, in general, the city has reflected this new start-up, entrepreneurial DIY movement in the ‘pop-up’ culture, but it’s time we support this new economic and social infrastructure and make places for new kinds of community and business interaction.

The old form of work and making has long been behind closed doors and on city outskirts. Now, more accessible and mixed in with all other urban activities, it stands to become more fully integrated in both the social and design aspects of the city. Reflecting the new entrepreneurial spirit, we should embrace making and makers in urban life and placemaking itself. It may sound as if I’m arguing for a Berlinification of cities – but I know many places which could benefit from such an approach!